Valuing My Birth Story
by Whitney Swance Starczewski
I pulled up my jeans as I sat down so that the top rested just below my bellybutton. My abdomen was still aching from the C-section I had undergone a month beforehand. It was noon on Friday, which meant that my husband and I would steal an hour away from Noah’s bedside to eat and talk with the other parents of our Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU)’s weekly support group. I looked around the circle that had formed in the NICU lobby, mechanically exchanging smiles with each of the five moms and two facilitators, between generous bites of lasagna. Not many families this week; I wondered why. One woman caught my eye. She wore the typical new NICU mom outfit - yoga pants, oversized t-shirt, flip flops and compression socks. Her dark brown, shoulder-length hair was pulled back and the shadows under her glassy eyes were set against clean, pale skin. I didn’t know her, but I could tell at a glance that we had shared similar experiences and that unlike me, whose newborn son had already been in the hospital for 33 days, she was at the beginning of her NICU journey.
“Today, we will be sharing our birth stories,” announced one of the facilitators with a smile. I almost choked. My chest tightened, as a dull sense of fear overwhelmed me. It’s hard to clarify exactly why, but in that very moment, the thought of sharing our birth story spelled dread. Thinking back, I know this apprehension stemmed, in part, from a fear that I wouldn’t be able to articulate the facts and feelings of an intensely private experience. Even more so, however, I believed that my preeclampsia diagnosis wasn’t that dire, that my birth wasn’t that traumatic, that our story wasn’t that extraordinary. Did these women really want to hear what we had been through? Would I be able to share with them how and why Noah was born 12 weeks early without boring them to death and sounding like a complete fool?
After the other four brave moms shared their nothing less than harrowing birth stories, the facilitator looked to me. I hadn’t volunteered to talk and had it not been for the small group of us, I probably wouldn’t have, but I reluctantly agreed. I spoke. As I began, I remember feeling as though the words I was using were materializing out of thin air. They just flowed. I told the group about how I had, on a whim, Googled “preeclampsia symptoms” and how we had gone to Target to buy a blood pressure cuff after my husband said I looked “puffier” than normal. I told them how unlike most pregnant women suffering from preeclampsia, my blood pressure was never very high, that instead, my kidneys had stopped working. Consequently, my body wasn’t ridding itself of any fluid and I had gained 25 lbs. of water weight in less than a week’s time. I told them how I had undergone a CAT scan on my brain, X-rays of my chest, an EKG of my heart and even an ultrasound on my left arm, that my team of doctors wasn’t sure if my atypical symptoms were related to the pregnancy or possibly “something else.” As I spoke, I looked around at the small group of us. They shared their genuine surprise and concern, but more importantly, they empathized. They knew what it was like.
I told them how I only became scared when I started having difficulty breathing due to the fluid pooling in my lungs. I described how I prayed for the anesthesiologist not to “miss” when I began to vomit during the spinal injection. We collectively cursed the magnesium sulfate drip for that! It turns out that vomiting during our C-sections was something we all had in common. I shared that I had experienced a placental abruption; my placenta had become detached from my uterus and had come out with Noah. When Dr. Stewart, one of my perinatologists, informed me of this, I remember not understanding the significance. Only later, after some research, did I find out that this could have resulted in a hemorrhage. I then found myself telling the group how very lucky I was. Unlike a few of the women, I had been able to see Noah right after he was born. I heard him cry right away and when I saw him for the first time, I remember his little eyes being open and his brow furrowed; he wanted to get a good look at me before being whisked away!
By the time Noah arrived in my birth story, every sensation of fear had dissipated. I felt lighter. I also felt validated. I was proud of myself, and for the others, for being brave enough to share what is often much easier to bottle up, to repress, to pack away for processing, at a later date and time. I realized that our story had value, that it deserved to be told. I was also grateful that our NICU had organized a group that would foster such connections and provide a space for personal comfort and growth. No, my story may not have been as “traumatic” or as “extraordinary” as others, but it was mine, ours, and that’s what it made it special.
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