My first pregnancy brought me the most heartache. My husband and I had just moved into a new apartment, my mother and I were planning my baby shower, and life was slowly, beautifully falling into place. Until the day I began to bleed. I rushed to the hospital and was told all was fine—but something didn’t feel right. I returned later that week, and was reassured we were okay. But the following day, I went into labor. At just 22 weeks gestation, Margaret Hope Blossom was born, just shy of a pound. A few hours later, she was gone.
Trauma like that comes at you in waves. I knew right away that the grief would cause some serious depression. What I didn’t know was that the entire experience would also leave me with PTSD.
At least 4% of mothers go on to develop postpartum PTSD, according to a 2018 study (though other research finds it could be as much as 16%), which can last for years. I can't help but think how those numbers might change after the age of COVID-19, when pregnant women around the world are facing nightmarish scenarios. There are also studies showing that early pregnancy loss can also result in PTSD symptoms. This doesn’t even include all those who don’t recognize their symptoms, or who never seek treatment.
The problem was I, like many loss moms, didn’t actually realize what was going on with me. “I did not realize that I was living with PTSD for several years,” says Stacey Skrysak, a 39-year-old mom and television anchor in Springfield, Illinois. She lost two of her triplets (one after two hours of life, the other at about two months old). While she went through grief counseling after her losses, she found her PTSD magnified when she became pregnant with her rainbow baby (a pregnancy that occurs after a loss) in 2019. “The fear of pregnancy after loss was extremely difficult,” she says. “I was reliving so many memories that triggered the heartache, anxiety, and grief.”
As with Skrysek, my PTSD only got worse when I got pregnant with my rainbow baby. I’d avoided hospitals and doctors offices (and any place with pregnant women) for months, but when I became pregnant, it became impossible. I lived in constant fear of another loss. “Traumatic birth can range from anything, from losing a baby, to the near death of the infant or mother, to tearing, to forced cervical checks, to a woman not feeling heard,” says Amy Jackson, a licensed professional counselor who treats patients experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety, as well as loss and infertility. Between feeling as though the first hospital didn’t take my concerns seriously enough, to the actual trauma surrounding my preterm labor, to holding my dead infant in my arms, trauma was written all over me.
After I passed 22 weeks, I felt more confident this baby would stay put until his or her due date. But as I approached the finish line, I became distressed at every possible issue that might happen at the birth. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for what would happen next.
My son was born two days past his due date, but he aspirated meconium (which is when a newborn breathes in a mixture of stool and amniotic fluid during delivery) and was immediately taken to a different hospital with a high-level NICU. Just minutes after meeting my baby, he was taken away. I wouldn’t see him again for another two days. To make matters worse, I was dealing with my own physical trauma from delivery. I’d suffered fourth-degree tearing and was in extreme pain.
Once I was released from my own hospital stay, I rushed to the NICU. Despite the suggestion by nurses and doctors that I go home and rest, my trauma refused to let me go. We spent the next two months watching my son grow stronger and healthier in the hospital.
But when we finally came home, I found PTSD hit me in new ways. The beeping noise from a machine at a restaurant drive-through window dragged me back through memories of being surrounded by beeping NICU monitors. The smell of hospital soap in a public restroom put me right back in the NICU’s handwashing stations. Every time I felt paralyzed. Panicked.
My baby was now home and growing stronger, but the fear that he would suddenly die wouldn’t go away. In fact, it was getting stronger too. Without the constant monitoring of his vitals, I spent every anxious moment making sure he was still breathing. The stream of intrusive thoughts telling me I was a bad mother, or that my son would die from a million and one different causes, was relentless. When he began eating solid foods, I held my breath with each bite, believing he would inevitably choke to death. When he began walking, I followed him as closely as possible to ensure he wouldn’t get hurt from a fall. Beautiful moments were tarnished with the residue of trauma.
It took me two years before I finally sought help in managing my PTSD. “It can take people a long time to come in for help,” says Heidi McBain, a perinatal mental health certified counselor in Flower Mound, Texas. “They often wait until the fog starts to lift for them, but this can mean many months have gone by.”
For Nikki, a mother of three based in Clermont, Florida, it took even longer. She experienced two traumatic C-sections, which she describes as feeling “violent.” “I could feel my insides being shoved back in me, and the nurses and doctors spoke to each other as if I wasn't there,” Nikki says. “It made me feel like a slab of meat.” She also feels she lacked support after her traumatic experiences: “No one asked about my actual birth experience,” she says of her first two births. After her third, she received a mental health diagnostic test at her midwife’s office. But despite scoring low, no one followed up.
Nikki is pregnant again, and this time she’s being proactive about receiving help by way of therapy. “I feel like the quality of mothering my children were getting was slipping, and that was my real motivation for getting help,” she says.
When women do get support though these traumatic experiences, it’s powerful. “My O.B. is a godsend,” says 34-year-old photographer Alexandria Mooney, whose stillborn son Clark had to be delivered via C-section just shy of 22 weeks. “She referred me to a therapist who specializes in loss—it was just the person I needed to listen to me.” The mother of five sometimes visits the hospital where she birthed Clark in order to photograph clients, and says she still feels transported to the day she lost her son whenever she enters her former O.R. and recovery room. “Grief will stay with you forever, but I am determined to not let it consume me,” she says. “I try and turn it into something good.”
It’s now been seven years since I lost my daughter, and six since my son was born. PTSD continues to exist in some form or other inside me, but these days I have tools that help me deal. Jackson says many individuals with this type of trauma respond amazingly to EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy, and I am definitely one of them. General talk therapy and finding community with other loss moms are other things that have also helped me.
Infant loss and traumatic births happen more often than we realize, and the scars they leave are huge and can last a lifetime. But like Mooney, I refuse to let them beat me. PTSD is my diagnosis, but resilient is who I am despite it.
Priscilla Blossom is a freelance journalist specializing in arts and culture, parenting, travel, and health and wellness.
Originally Appeared on Glamour