The following collection of photographs and story are vastly different from my usual work. I feel compelled to provide a Trigger Warning for birth trauma, postpartum depression, and PTSD.
You are about to read and view a story about overcoming birth trauma. The story belongs to a fellow birth worker named Elizabeth. I met Elizabeth several years ago as we trained together to become birth doulas. During that long weekend, all the participants shared their experiences with birth. While I don't remember what the other trainees said, I remember watching Elizabeth become emotional as she bravely spoke about the trauma that was inflicted upon her during the birth of her son. A survivor of obstetric violence, Elizabeth spent the next five years battling postpartum depression and PTSD. She even took part in the project Exposing the Silence, sharing a glimpse of her story with the world.
After the doula training, Elizabeth and I became "Facebook friends," and I periodically served as her back-up doula for Charlottesville births. Last year, Elizabeth became pregnant with her second child. We reconnected in-person earlier this year when I was invited to photograph a healing ritual that was to prepare Elizabeth and her husband, Elisha, for labor and the arrival of their baby daughter, Avalee Flora.
With honor and solemn admiration, I share Elizabeth's story written in her own words.
I was four weeks postpartum when the specialist I was seeing for my complicated healing process looked me in the eye and said, “You probably almost died.” I had suspected that maybe it had been that bad, and to this day I don’t really know for sure if that’s what happened, but it was bad. I still have never gotten a copy of my medical records because I don’t know what memories I’ll have to face by walking back in that hospital. But maybe it doesn't matter anymore now. Now that we are on the other side of it all, and oh sister, let me tell you how the sun shines brighter here! There are some things I do know for sure, though:
I know the system failed me. I know there’s a hundred things that could have been done differently that might have changed the outcome of my son’s birth for me. I’m familiar with the absolute indifference the mind assumes when it takes the place of casual observer as hospital staff lift you on to a stretcher and throw warm blankets over your shaking body while it goes into shock. I’m intimately acquainted with the depths of a dark depression that clung to me and sucked the life out of the pieces of me that were left over, but hey, at least I had a healthy baby. That’s what they all told me. It’s what I told myself when my speech slurred and my brain went into chaos at the mere mention of birth- anyone’s birth. I know how hard it is to afford the help you need, how it’s even harder to identify when you need help, and I know what it is like to be in a place where the people who are supposed to be helping you are doing the opposite.
I’ve known the fear and sorrow of breaking my husband’s heart when I told him that I didn’t think I wanted any more children. Because I wasn’t sure I would be there to be their mother if birth didn’t turn out okay, and I couldn’t bear the thought of taking my son’s mother away from him in order to have one more. I’ve met the soul-wrecking ache of being too terrified to conceive another child. One that was already loved and already named and already tied to my spirit in ways that are too difficult to explain. I’ve felt what it’s like to have your innocence, dignity, and power stolen from you, and what it’s like to watch the light of youth fade from your husband’s eyes before the age of 25, only to look in the mirror and find that it’s gone from your eyes already, too. I know what it’s like to give birth and raise a child without ever feeling “fully mother.” And I know the euphoric, surreal rebirth of self and family that comes from working your ass off every day for years on end to find healing, and finally, finally experiencing it in completion. I know all of these things, intimately, as I lock eyes with my 3 week old daughter and marvel at the fact that she’s real, because, for the longest time, I never believed she would exist. But she does exist, and thankfully I still do, too!
It’s been a long and hellish journey, full of highs and lows, to get to where I am today. It’s been half a decade of daily battles with depression, anxiety, and PTSD as a result of birth trauma. So, I’m still trying to grasp the fullness of my current reality, the reality that knows all the answers to all of the “what if’s” I’ve asked for the last 5 1/2 years; the reality that my body and mind are whole and unhindered by birth. In the second trimester of my recent pregnancy, I first heard the song “White Flag,” by Joseph. The hook line of the song became my mantra through a pregnancy that was far from ideal: burn the white flag. “Don’t surrender. Don’t give up. You’re stronger than this. Just take it one day at a time,” I would tell myself. Sometimes I succeeded in making it to the end of the day on a more or less positive note, and other times I gave myself permission to let all the emotions wash over me. Tidal waves of grief would come simultaneously with a surge of joy as I felt my daughter move in my belly. Fear would catch me off guard in the same moments that hope would sprout up. It felt messy, raw, and unstable, and yet, looking back, the only thing I see is how real it all was. It is not failure to hold space for your emotions, it’s simply being honest with yourself. The trick is learning how to acknowledge them and let them pass without making a place for them to rule you, though sometimes that’s easier said than done.
In the final weeks before my daughter’s birth, both my therapist and my midwife were encouraging my husband and I to come up with some sort of ceremonial/ritualistic way of creating a sense of closure about the past and setting our intentions for a positive, healing birth experience in the near future. My therapist had had me use art as a form of therapy to continue processing the traumatic event that was my son’s birth. “Draw a picture of the moment your son was born,” she asked. “Draw a picture of the moment you woke up from anesthesia after the repair surgery that happened immediately postpartum.” Did you know that creating art in order to process an event uses a different part of the brain than writing about that same event does? My heart bled over those moments of my life as I drew them. Making those drawings was absolutely brutal. Burying those drawings was the first step in a powerful reclamation of my identity as mother.
We are farmers. We grow beautiful things that nourish our family from soil that is alive because other things died. I found closure in the shallow grave I buried those drawings in, allowing them to compost and turn into something beneficial. I built a fire over top of those buried drawings next. My husband, Elisha, continued throwing fuel on that fire, and then stood by my side as I burned a giant, white flag upon which I had written everything that I had fought and overcome in order to get to where I was that day. I was almost 35 weeks pregnant and knowingly taking a risk to be so. Everything about that ceremony was pregnant with symbolism, and Elisha and I were able to look forward to whatever we knew we might face in the near future with peace and humble anticipation. I took my power back that day, not knowing at all that in less than two weeks I would bring our daughter earth-side.
I had difficulty bonding with my daughter during pregnancy. In all honesty, pregnancy wasn't a happy time for my family. It was always one thing after another the entire time, starting with 3 months in bed due to severe morning sickness. Everyone told me, "It will all be worth it!" I never doubted that, and it's not that I was ungrateful, but that pregnancy was one of the most difficult seasons of our lives, and the disconnect that I felt between my heart and the life growing inside me gnawed at my bones, questioning incessantly. "Will I have difficulty bonding with her like I did with our son? Or will I be able to fall in love with her from the start? Am I strong enough to endure all that I'm about to experience? Am I enough for her?
On March 12, 2018, after 19 hours of strong labor, Avalee Flora arrived safely into our arms, bright-eyed and pink. I had sobbed in the middle of those long hours, realizing the full weight of what was happening. The laboring was hard, and I reached a point of suffering before the end of it. But her birth was the epitome of gentleness. It was slow. It was euphoric. It was fun, somehow. I felt her feet kicking in my womb still as her body slid from mine, and my heart exploded with unhindered love for this tiny person the instant I first saw her face! I reached for her, slippery yet solid, still journeying between two worlds. My hands entwined with Elisha's as she was fully born, and together we lifted her up onto my belly.
I sobbed in violent bursts of tears as those moments turned into minutes and it became obvious that we had made it through birth completely unscathed!
My daughter’s birth could have been another horrific experience for my family. Elisha and I are so deeply humbled by such a victorious end to an “unknown” that had eclipsed our lives for so long. We are so relieved, and so grateful for our incredible birth team, the therapists, midwives, nurses, and our doula, who worked hard with us, advocated for us, and ultimately empowered us to have the peaceful, healing birth experience that we so desperately needed and desired. They say it "takes a village," and it sounds so cliche! It's harder to find your village than it sounds like it is sometimes, but it's the village surrounding the mother that helps her learn her strength and find her power again when hope has been shattered. This story could have turned out so very different, if not for the team of therapists and birth workers that we gathered to us throughout pregnancy and birth.
I know that some might read this and find themselves breaking with longing for peace, for freedom from the daily battles with their mind or maybe their body, or maybe their arms aching for another babe.