What does strength look like?
Too often, women stay silent in the midst of great pain. We do it in an effort to be strong. We so badly want to be strong. We stay silent to protect the feelings or reputation of someone who caused us pain. We bottle up the wrongdoings of others and deposit them inside of ourselves, housing burdens that aren’t ours to carry. Maybe we want to protect ourselves from being reprimanded for speaking up. Maybe we fear looking self-indulgent or unappreciative.
But there is strength in speaking up.
There are many types of pain that we bury: sexual abuse, unfair treatment from a friend, condescension at work. The list is nearly endless. In May 2015, I buried the pain of my labour. Once I uncovered it, it forced me to simultaneously unpack a lot of other transgressions that I hadn't defended myself against.
I had no idea how much labour and becoming a mother would change me; how much inner strength it would free from within me.
Labour started at 10:30 PM. I told Brett to get some sleep (it didn’t take much convincing). I knew I would need him when things got more intense and I wanted him to be rested. I got onto my exercise ball and watched Good Wife while eating snacks and ice cubes (it was my weird pregnancy thing). The pain was there, but it was tolerable. I was relieved to discover I could manage the contractions. It was my hope to go through everything without an epidural or intervention. I stayed on my ball in front of the TV until 8 AM the next morning.
By 3 PM the following afternoon, we were in the hospital. Everything was going smoothly, except the baby’s heart rate. Thankfully, I never heard the doctor's conversations about this. I was somewhere else, concentrating deep within my mind. I shut my eyes. I didn’t talk. I drowned out the physical world, including my own pain. It was what I needed to do to get through the ebb and flow of labour pangs.
After 24 hours of labour, I needed help. I needed Brett. I needed my doula. I wouldn’t let either of them stop doing hip compressions on me. They took turns alternating, pushing their hands onto my hips every time a contraction started. The pressure countered the pain; made it almost bearable.
As things continued to progress, the staff kindly offered me laughing gas. It doesn’t affect the baby or the functions of my body, and it stayed in line with my wishes. I felt grateful that they trusted me and honoured my wish of not taking an epidural.
And wow. It. Was. The. Best.
It didn’t take the pain away, but it did make reality feel fuzzy. Time seemed to move really fast. I rocked on an exercise ball (at this point, sitting still made the contractions excruciating) and with every contraction lifted the mask to my face. Contraction. Gas. Contraction. Gas. When Brett or my doula saw me lifting the mask, they would begin hip compressions.
Contraction. Gas. Hips. Contraction. Gas. Hips.
On top of the dreaminess of the laughing gas, I felt like I was having a supernatural experience. I was living my dream labour out. I could handle the pain. I was doing it. I felt like a goddess perched on that ball breathing in each contraction like it had only come to strengthen me. I have never felt stronger than I did in the middle of my second night of labour.
Brett and my doula were still giving me hip compressions and I even started to encourage them.
“You guys, I know you’re tired but you can do it,” I chanted.
As the animalistic side of labour took over, I started rocking to the rhythm of the heart rate monitor. I didn’t know I was doing this as I was still instinctively blocking out all unnecessary and stressful information happening around me. I think it’s absolutely incredible that the body can take over and find this sort of rhythm when we are in survival mode.
I could feel Brett swaying behind me as he pressed his hands on my hips.
“We’re dancing, Brett,” I said to him, the laughing gas mask in my hand.
Reflecting on how in sync Brett and I were in that moment is deeply empowering to me. It was raw. Magical. That sort of deep connection and inner strength makes me want to birth another baby. It made me feel otherworldly. Strong. Feminine. That moment was a great gift to me. To this day, I walk with my head held a little higher because of the power I found within myself that night.
But around 4 AM, my dream labour took a turn. There was still no baby and I was exhausted. I was too tired to continue. I wanted to keep going. I thought I could endure the pain, but... I needed to sleep. I laid on the bed with tears of exhaustion streaming down my face. I felt like I was giving up.
I know we all have birth plans and these optimistic dreams of how our labour will go. And, I thought for a moment I was going to be lucky. But, things don’t always go the way we hope. The medical teams who do this miraculous thing of delivering babies are there to help when we can’t do it on our own. I can't imagine how hard their job must be.
So, I accepted the offer of an epidural.
The anesthesiologist came relatively quickly. He got me to sit on the bed and bend over as far as I could. I curled up with my face as close to my knees as my swollen belly would allow. Brett stood beside me holding my hand. I felt a contraction starting.
“I’m having a contraction," I quickly said while hunched over, "Can you wait for it to finish?”
“No. Hold still.”
Panic struck. I needed to move through the contractions to lessen the pain. I was in survival mode. I couldn’t move? We couldn’t just wait?
“Please," I begged, "Can I just finish this one?” I felt desperate. On top of that, the pain was intolerable being bent in half. He said he had to do it right then, so as the contraction pain peaked, he pressed the needle into my spine.
For the first time in my labour, I started screaming. Brett began crying. Thankfully, the epidural took effect quickly and I passed out from exhaustion.
By 9 AM I was fully dilated. Finally. I pushed for a couple hours, got nowhere, and ultimately used up all the energy my medicated nap had given me. I didn’t know how or where I would find the strength to push the baby out when it finally was time. In between every contraction, I passed out.
The doctor knew we needed to do something. The baby’s heart rate was starting to fluctuate and she could see that I was tired. So, she came to us with an idea. She offered to use the vacuum while I tried to push.
“This is taking a very long time," she said to me. "We don’t like the baby’s heart rate. We’re going to help you. We’ll just pull a little while you push.”
It was the first time I'd consciously heard about the worries about the baby’s heart rate. I quickly agreed. I couldn't put my baby at risk. The doctor's explanation didn’t include any side effects on me or the baby, so my tired, desperate mind made the assumption that it would be gentle. Safe. After all, I had to trust them.
I left my peaceful, lavender-scented room for the OR. If the vacuum didn’t help, they would do an emergency C-section immediately. This baby couldn’t wait any longer and neither could I.
I just wanted the baby to be safe. Healthy.
I was wheeled into an operating room, ignited in harsh, fluorescent lighting. Several people were frantically preparing themselves, washing their hands, tying on masks, and pulling on gloves. It was madness. They moved me to a hard table in the centre of the room and, for the first time... I was scared.
I was no longer in control of the situation.
We’d left the realm of what I imagined my dream labour would be, and we entered what I feared it would be. They strapped my feet into tight boots that seemed to be suspended from the ceiling. My legs were yanked open.
Only hours earlier, I had felt the strongest I had ever felt.
Now, I felt the weakest.
What was about to happen? Why were there so many people in the room? Why wasn't anyone explaining things to me?
I can’t imagine what the medical staff must have been feeling - scurrying about with the responsibility of the lives of a mother and baby pressing down onto their shoulders. Their work had to be precise. Quick. Smart. They had to remain calm and professional even if the woman on the table wasn’t.
My anxiety climbed as everyone prepared to do their job. I caught the attention of a nurse.
“Maybe a C-section would be better? I don’t know… I don’t know if I can do this...” I stammered.
The nurse answered in a sweet, Southern voice, “You can do this. I know you can. Just try. If it doesn’t work, they’ll help you.”
I passed out while I waited for them. I woke for each contraction and breathed through each one. Sleep. Contraction. Breathe. Sleep. Contraction. Breathe.
What was happening to me?
A circle of masked faces looked down at me as smock-covered bodies quickly gathered. Brett's strong presence was at my side. I felt claustrophobic. A long, plunger-like object was quickly thrust inside me. Every part of me tightened. I clenched my teeth. I stopped breathing. My knuckles turned white.
“Next contraction, you push as hard as you can,” the doctor instructed.
How? I thought. Every muscle I possessed had just been turned to stone. How was the baby supposed to exit my constricted body? What was that thing inside me? I shut my eyes. I tried to relax. I put all my attention on relaxing my muscles, willing them one by one to let go.
“She’s having a contraction!” someone yelled.
Everyone began to shout. In that vulnerable moment, it felt like they had no other tasks, except to shout at me.
“Go! Go! Push! Come on!”
I tried to shut it out. I felt disoriented. It felt impossible to focus with so many people shouting at me, but I tried. I tried. It turns out “a little pull while you push” meant attaching a special piece that affixes to the baby’s head. It is attached to a rope that the physician pulls on when you push.
The doctor began to pull on the rope.
“God.” I thought to myself. God, God, God.
This went on for a series of contractions. On about the fifth or sixth one, I heard myself crow an unfamiliar noise. I was screaming. The doctor had done an episiotomy, without warning and against my wishes to tear instead of being cut. I'd asked for warning if a cut had to be made in case of emergency, but I was not granted that. Why didn’t she ask? Had she ignored my wishes? Or, was this such a huge emergency that she had no other option? What was happening? Was my baby okay?
The shock of it was just as horrifying as the pain.
I kept screaming.
“Cover her mouth!” the doctor yelled to Brett. Brett was bawling, tears streaming down his face. His hand stayed locked in my grasp. Unsure.
The doctor pulled again on the vacuum attached to the baby's head.
I began to bleed. A lot. In those last few minutes of labour, I lost almost half the blood in my body. I was too distraught to realize what was happening. There was too much pain. Too much confusion. I can’t imagine what the scene must have looked like.
“Cover her mouth!" the doctor shouted, "She can’t waste her energy on that!”
Brett saw the pooling blood coming from my body, and feared for my death.
He let go of my hand, and covered my mouth.
“Push. Push. Push! Push more! Come on!” they continued to yell around me. There were no hands over their mouths. They could yell.
In the next instant, I felt dead. My body was no longer my own. I was just a machine performing a task. The doctor's needed my body to be more efficient. The knife the doctor held sliced through the skin between my legs, hooking right.
I pushed some more. I screamed, muffled behind a hand. Push. Muffled scream. Push. Muffled scream.
And suddenly, there was a baby. I heard it crying. Its crying replaced my screaming. My crying.
The baby’s mouth was not covered. I was glad it was allowed to scream. To cry. To feel.
Then they showed me my baby, bloody, red, and swollen. Beautiful.
“Dad? Gender?” the doctor asked.
Brett was crying. He was in shock. What was he feeling through all this? What was it like to be him in this moment? My love, my family. Finally, he found the words.
“A girl!” I cried. “Emelyn! I knew you were a girl. Hi, Emelyn!”
The pain dissolved. I felt nothing except the deepest joy and relief I have ever felt and may ever feel. It was over. My body was empty. I was empty. I was covered in blood. Ruined. Mangled. I felt hollow; like an empty shell on that table. But the delight of meeting my child for the first time made me feel more alive than ever before. I looked at Brett. His face was red and swollen, just like our baby’s.
“It’s a girl.” I beamed at him. “And she looks exactly like you.” I giggled to myself, then cried. Brett let out another cry, then smiled and nodded.
Someone in the corner of the room called him over, “Come on, Dad. Let’s get your baby cleaned up.”
Once back in a private room, the doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to keep me comfortable. Getting blood transfusions for all the blood I lost turned out to be very difficult. It took a few days before I was able to get one, so I had to stay in the hospital. But I was glad to be there. I couldn’t move on my own and I needed the help. They walked me to the bathroom and back to bed. They filled me with liquid iron and accommodated our heaps of family by pulling curtains around me whenever they needed to check me, or assist me with nursing Emelyn.
I was so excited when they let me go home after two uncomfortable transfusions that included some obvious breaches of protocol. But I was also nervous to function without the assistance of staff. I couldn’t walk, and I had a new baby. The wound from the episiotomy and vacuum was very severe and it hurt immensely unless I was laying in a very specific way. Plus, I didn’t have the strength. Simple steps made me light-headed. It didn’t help that I was nursing my baby every hour. And, as much as I was celebrating the birth of my daughter, I was also grieving something I had a hard time explaining.
Would my body recover? When would I be able to sit up without assistance? Why did I bleed so much? Did they know why? Does everyone else feel this destroyed after giving birth? Was I allowed to ask that? Am I allowed to wonder any of this?
And why had they covered my mouth?
The pain of my labour, the trauma of the unexpected, disappointment in my own body, and the confusion of all the events that took place felt... heavy. But, I dismissed it. I went back to work. I carried on as though my body didn't scream with pain whenever I used it. I didn’t tell anyone about what happened. After all, I had always stayed silent about things that felt this way. What made this any different?
"It's amazing what your body is capable of," I would exclaim to anyone who asked. It was a cover up for my pain. It was my way of dodging how I was feeling inside.
When people came to see me, they were overwhelmed with joy as they held my daughter. It overshadowed my suffering. I was grateful for a healthy baby and no one explained or apologized for anything that had happened. I assumed this must happen to everyone and I had nothing to complain about. No one else seemed angry, so I determined that I shouldn’t be either.
I should stay silent. Strong.
Months later, I still wasn't myself and the burden had only grown to be heavier. I'd begun to feel angry about smiling through the recovery process. I wanted my body to feel the way I pretended it did. It was over for everyone but me and I wanted closure. One night, the story spilled out of me in the presence of my aunts, cousins, and grandma. This was the first part of the healing. I said it out loud. I expressed that it had hurt. I expressed that I wished it had gone differently. Better. I was sad my body couldn't do it. Sad, that the scar still burned every time I moved.
With tears in their eyes, they heard me out. They assured me that parts of it were unfortunate and that I shouldn't be going through this alone. They also let me know there were parts of my story that weren't okay. My family showed me strength. They validated my pain and told me I should take time and space to recover, from work or personal duties. They encouraged me to talk to the hospital so they could correct the parts that shouldn't have happened.
When I began to prepare myself to speak to the hospital, I realized that I had a long track record of letting little and big things slide without saying a word. It seemed that I had put a hand over my own mouth in an effort to always be kind, always think of others, and not upset anyone. My own hand was stifling my screams no matter how much the world cut into me. It kept me from wasting my energy letting others know I was hurt. I'd conformed to not infringe on anyone's else's space by staying silent.
I knew I needed to finally speak up. I needed to speak up about a lot of things in my life, and my labour was the place to start. It was my fire.
Initially, the thought made me feel guilty. Selfish. Awkward. It didn't make me feel strong at all. It made me feel bare and vulnerable.
And sharing that makes me feel bare and vulnerable all over again.
Why do we applaud perseverance? Why don't we applaud vulnerability? Is being vulnerable not an act of strength? Is it not strong to say, I'm hurting? It's definitely difficult to do. How should strength look?
I didn't go back to the hospital with guns blazing. I calmly gathered myself, and for once, stood up for myself. I listed the obvious breaches of protocol and I chose to leave out my own preferences and discomforts along the way. I wanted to keep my feelings out of it because I wanted to be taken seriously. Thankfully, the medical staff heard me with empathy and warmth. They didn't minimize anything. They answered the questions that had been tormenting me and apologized for obvious mistakes during labour and postpartum care. Understanding the situation better, I was able to feel empathetic towards the doctor. My situation was difficult, she didn’t have many options, and, because of her, my baby and I are healthy. Alive.
If I ever see her again, I will only have gratitude to express.
Telling my family what happened and how it still affected me was a huge release. It was the first step in my transformation. The hospital also hearing me took the rest of burden away, and thankfully they learned from it, too. Just as I had learned from it by speaking up.
I wouldn't take back what happened. Without it, I would have never discovered a deep, inner strength coursing within me. I would have never found such a deep connection with Brett, my love.
And I would have never found such a deep connection to my voice.
Meghan Zahari is a donut shop owner by day and a writer by night. In between, she does photography and social media accounts for other businesses. Motherhood and emotions are a 24/7 gig. She lives with her husband, Brett, daughter, Emelyn, and cousin, Laura. (Plus, a pug and a puggle.) It’s a full life with a full house, so her introverted soul seeks refuge by hiding away with a book or watching Buffy or Grey’s.