At 35 weeks pregnant, my husband and I sat in a stuffy basement room with nine other pregnant couples listening to the prenatal instructor discuss birth interventions. Everybody cringed when she mentioned episiotomies, forceps, and fourth degree tears but, in a room full of first time mothers, it’s the kind of thing you assume won’t happen to you. By the time we left later that day, my biggest takeaway was, if you want the epidural – which I most certainly did – ask for it early. I assumed I’d be sore after birth and that I might even require a few stitches, like many women do, but the possibility of severe tearing due to birth interventions was all but forgotten.
Then, at 40 weeks and 2 days, my son made his dramatic entrance into the world. My water broke at midnight and we were off to the hospital. The contractions were intense, with no break between them. He was coming fast and furiously. Thankfully, I was able to have an epidural administered in the eleventh hour, right before it was time to push.
That’s when we hit a roadblock, as the obstetrician realized my son was in the posterior position. While most babies are born with their heads down, looking towards the floor, my baby was facing up, looking towards the ceiling. The medical team tried to flip him, but with no luck. Because of his position, he receded repeatedly and his heart rate would drop. They needed to get him out fast. I’ll spare you the details, but the use of both the vacuum and forceps resulted in an episiotomy and a third degree tear. Then, unfortunately, at one week postpartum, my stitches came apart, causing me to undergo a surgery to have the incision corrected.
During the birthing process my only concern was that my son was safe. Once he was born, I immediately felt an overwhelming urge to take care of him, but the ordeal set us off to a rocky start. For the first eight weeks, I was in a considerable amount of pain and my mobility was limited. As a result, for several weeks postpartum, I couldn’t get up to change my son’s diapers, bathe him, or easily tend to him when he cried. Nursing was painful because, of course, I had to sit directly on the stitches. My son ate frequently, as newborns do, and I felt resentful each time he needed to nurse because it caused me so much discomfort. Rather than enjoying the experience, I willed him to hurry up.
Thankfully, I have a wonderful husband, parents, and in-laws who helped immensely, but I was left feeling robbed, as though my slow physical recovery was preventing me from bonding with my son and enjoying the newborn stage like I was supposed to.
To make matters worse, my son developed severe reflux around four weeks of age, which gave him ongoing gas and tummy pain. He wasn’t colicky, but in the first few months of his life there were more days than not that he fussed all day long, which was incredibly draining. The only thing that soothed him was pacing the house, sometimes for hours, which aggravated my injury further.
I was discouraged and anxious because my recovery was progressing so slowly. I felt so detached from the old Brittany, who, pre-baby, used to run marathons, lift weights, and go on daily walks with the dog. Even if I did feel well enough to get us out of the house, I tended not to, for fear my fussy baby would have a meltdown in a public place.
I hadn’t realized it yet, but I was suffering from Postpartum Anxiety (PPA). I was caring for a newborn, so I expected to be stressed and tired, which made it difficult to recognize the signs.
I was attentive to my baby. I didn’t feel hopeless or depressed. In other aspects of my life (my marriage for example) I felt content – happy even. But struggling with a difficult physical postpartum recovery and caring for a 3 month old baby who never seemed happy put me constantly on edge. I cried often, wondering when things would get better. It’s only now that the fog has lifted that I realize I’d been struggling with PPA.
Looking back, I wish I had reached out for help but I simply took one day at a time. Having a strong support system in my husband, family, and friends was important, as was my sympathetic OB who was always willing to see me to reassure me that even though I felt uncomfortable, I was healing just fine. I also continue to attend pelvic floor physiotherapy, which is helping to re-strengthen my pelvic floor.
My advice for women struggling with a difficult postpartum recovery, a fussy baby, postpartum anxiety (or all three!) is to talk to someone you trust. Seek out other women who have dealt with similar experiences and read about or talk to them about their stories. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t wait – ask for help. Most of all, even though it doesn’t feel like it, it will get better. This challenging chapter in life won’t last forever.
In those first few difficult weeks, I would joke that I’d never be able to wear jeans again, but here we are. I’m sitting on the floor in a pair of skinny jeans playing with my now 8-month-old son as he smiles up at me. He’s outgrown his reflux and he’s blossomed into a happy and inquisitive baby. Sure, we still have difficult days here and there; as a new mother, they’re to be expected. However, I now look forward to the moment when he wakes up in the morning, to greeting him and starting our day together. My recovery has progressed to the point I can walk with a spring in my step. I’ve yet to ride bike postpartum, but we’ll get there.
Brittany Van Den Brink is a PhD Candidate and freelance writer living in Ontario, Canada with her husband, baby son, and their Golden Retriever, Chevy. You can read more from Brittany at Motherhood Her Way, which she founded as a platform to collaborate with other moms as they go through the ups and downs of motherhood. Say hi on Instagram @brittanyvandenbrink.