One year later: How I turned pain into purpose after a traumatic birth experience

Evie's birthday

AUSTIN, Texas —

“I MADE her.”

I say this to myself regularly — usually in disbelief at the enormity of my feelings for my daughter. Sure, her daddy gave me the ingredients, but my body actually baked our little sugar cookie. That fact alone still blows my mind on the regular.

“I love you so much,” I whisper in her ear as my lungs fill with her unmistakable baby smell. “How could I have ever not known you?”

Growing Eva June was sublime. The pregnancy was surprisingly uncomplicated for a woman of “advanced maternal age.” I relished in the divine feminine ability to simultaneously grow a new organ (the placenta!) and knit a tiny human together. I enjoyed carrying our girl so much, in fact, that I happily went along with my daughter’s timetable when she continued baking 9 days past her due date.

My mellow vibe might seem contrary to popular lore. Over the years, dozens of women had told me how miserable they were during their pregnancies. How sick or uncomfortable or self-conscious they felt. How ready they were to “evict” their babies by month 7 or 8.  To date, exactly three women have told me they loved being pregnant. Three. In my lifetime. So it definitely came as a surprise to me when I found myself enjoying the process as much as I did. In fact, when my doctor suggested an induction, I was legitimately sad to say goodbye to my pregnant self.

Unfortunately for me, that’s where the ideal experience ended. Labor and delivery were traumatic, starting with a failed epidural and ending in an unplanned C-section followed by a week in the hospital.

For many months post-partum, I experienced typical PTSD symptoms, like hyper-vigilance, intrusive memories, flashbacks, emotional distress and nightmares. I also presumed my labor gone awry was my penance for the uncomplicated pregnancy.

The pregnancy went so well, so maybe a traumatic birth was inevitable?

That was the lie I told myself at first.

See, I didn’t have preeclampsia or HELLP syndrome. I didn’t hemorrhage. My baby didn’t end up in the NICU. She survived. Some don’t. She’s healthy. Some aren’t. I thought the absence of these circumstances disqualified me from claiming trauma.

I had definitely feared all of those scenarios. I worried my body would fail me. I thought about the nightmare of losing a child. But that’s not what happened at all. My body did everything it was supposed to, carrying my baby and me to the finish line with grit and grace.

The “experts” were the ones who failed me.

Before I could cross that finish line, my epidural catheter slipped out unbeknownst to my doctors and nurses — and I went from about 14 hours of coping well to intense suffering.  From comfortably numb to agonizing distress.

I can still picture myself in those hours of anguish floating above my own body and watching my pregnant self below writhing on that hospital bed. Arms flailing. Head shaking. Knees knocking. I remember how the sterile room narrowed when I heard my husband’s voice:

“Focus on your sign.”

My eyes fixated on the black metal sign I’d asked him to hang in the delivery room after we checked in. He’d gotten it for me for my birthday six months prior on a visit to Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas.

“YOU WERE BUILT FOR THIS.”

Every time I was wracked with another Pitocin-fueled contraction, I stared at the words, tracing the outline of each letter with my eyes. I willed myself to focus on my husband’s voice, coaching me through each breath.

I remember the doctor’s eyes over her mask watching me, expressionless. We’d met only hours prior — after my OB went off shift. Labor can be unpredictably long, so I knew there was a possibility that I’d end up doing this with a stranger. I was disappointed nonetheless. 

“You should feel pressure, not pain,” she told me.

“I feel both,” I said. She told me to put my oxygen mask on and I did as I was told. “She’s the doctor, after all,” I thought. “This must be how this is supposed to feel. It is called labor after all.” 

At some point, the nurse looked at my back where the epidural should have been intact. If he had checked the tape that covered the site where the epidural slipped out, he may have discovered the error. But he didn’t. And no further action was taken.

I was like a frog in a kettle — the contractions like a tiny fire turning up gradually as the meds wore off from the faulty epidural. I never suspected what I was about to endure.

Then at 17 hours in, including three hours of mostly unmedicated pushing in the final stage of labor, my daughter wasn’t descending. With the “failure to progress,” the OB suggested a C-section. I said yes without hesitation. The grueling marathon of labor had taken its toll.

Soon after my decision to move forward with the surgery, we learned that there were two other C-sections in line for the operating room. Both were considered emergencies. Mine was not.

Although attempts were made to manage my pain during the 90-minute wait for the OR, none were successful. The contractions continued their barrage as I waited in terrified awe of my body’s valiant attempt to dislodge my baby every 45 seconds on cue.

When the on-call anesthesiologist finally appeared, the reason for my suffering was finally discovered. I’ll never forget his words as he nudged my shoulder forward to take a look at my back.

“Uh, yeah, that’s not even close,” he said flatly, referring to the distance the epidural had shifted from its intended target. Of his colleague who’d administered it, he said nothing. Naturally.

Once in the operating room, I was given a spinal block — a different type of anesthetic that’s injected once vs. continuous anesthesia from the epidural that failed me. When the needle from the spinal block exited my body, (it’s administered sitting up) I collapsed forward into the nurse’s arms. Relief had finally taken over.

In a medicated haze, I remember hearing voices floating around the OR. Chuckles filled the room as my limp body was hoisted onto the operating table. Were they laughing at me? Uncontrollable shivering took over, followed by relentless itching — two common side effects of the anesthesia. I willed myself to keep my eyes open. I wanted to see my baby, hold her, smell her. I knew she was coming soon, and by then, I’d lost track of time.

We checked in at 5:30 am that morning and my abdomen was sliced open just after midnight.

“Cristina, did you know you have endometriosis?” I heard the doctor ask on the other side of the curtain.

“No.”

Her timing was impeccable.

Our Evie made her entrance at 12:55 a.m. on a Wednesday morning — 55 minutes short of the date we chose so she could share a birthday with her maternal great-grandmother, Virginia de Leon Reyna and her paternal great-grandfather, Bobby Hiawatha Chance. The wait for the operating room had pushed her arrival past midnight.

Many women point to unmet expectations when processing a traumatic birth, as in my case. Instead of having my pain managed with an epidural as planned, it wasn’t. Instead of enjoying the anticipation and excitement in the moments leading up to meeting my daughter, I received a startling diagnosis. Instead of snuggling a gooey baby on my chest as I’d imagined, a nurse held my daughter out to the side of my head so I could get a quick look at her while my insides were put back into place.

The way I had pictured the moment of my baby’s arrival was not at all what I expected. And yet our daughter was safe and sound. For that, we are grateful. She was the medal at the end of the marathon.

But when I started telling people what happened, they nearly all said the same thing:
“But you have a healthy baby. And that’s what matters.”

Sure, it matters. But that’s not all that matters. And we have to stop telling mothers this. We have to stop suggesting that mothers’ experiences are secondary. My baby’s health and safety AND my birth experience are important. The poor standard of care I received in a hospital in this first world country matters, too.

It’s unacceptable.

Looking back on your child-birthing experience should not make you feel a sense of dread.

Six weeks after my daughter was born, I spoke to my doctor at my post-partum checkup. She was visibly dismayed when I relayed what happened that night after she went off shift. She told me pain should be treated as a vital sign, and that the clinicians should have followed up to identify the source. She promised she’d have a talk with the colleague who had taken over for her that night.

Grateful but unsatisfied, I summoned my hospital records, scouring the doctor’s notes for a timeline, trying in vain to pinpoint where things went wrong. I looked for some acknowledgment of error, determined to fill in the gaps. Make sense of what happened. There was only one reference:

“A C-section was decided upon after the epidural was found to be inadequate.”

“Inadequate” doesn’t even begin to describe the anguish, nor does it excuse the negligence. The long labor, unplanned C-section and overall trauma of the event delayed my milk supply. Consequentially, my baby’s weight dropped below the hospital requirement for discharge, so we spent 6 days in the hospital trying to get her weight up. My husband documented every milliliter of precious colostrum and supplemental formula for the nurses’ approval, one of whom threatened the NICU was our next stop. Thanks, sis. It wasn’t.

I’ve since spoken with hospital administration: the nurse supervisor and nurse director, the risk manager and others. Called. Emailed. Had bills waived. Demanded recourse. Two new policies would be implemented, they assured me.

  • With every shift change, the patient’s nurse will check the epidural thoroughly for placement — to make sure it’s still intact.
  • When there is a delay in admission to an operating room due to a backup (as in my case), the patient’s nurse will consult with the charge nurse to determine the best course for pain management during the wait.

Apparently, neither of these procedures were already in place. But hey, I transformed pain into purpose. And that’s shifting out of victimhood and reclaiming empowerment. And I want every mother to know what I naively hadn’t fathomed: THE EXPERTS CAN FAIL YOU.

Trust your instincts. You’ve heard it before for a reason. If something isn’t right, say something. And then keep saying it until someone listens to you. You and your baby deserve better.

Also, check on your mom friends. Motherhood catapults us into this new emotional territory where everything is felt more deeply.

Trauma is an unwelcome teacher. I stomped around in puddles of grief for months after Evie was born, writing the first 18 drafts of this essay. It’s a slow drip, the anger. Sometimes it breaks the surface in absurd ways, like the time I wrote “FUCK YOU,” in Sharpie above the words “St. David’s Women’s Center” on the plastic tumbler they gave me at the hospital to track my water intake. The one with the blue lid and bendy straw. I’d brought it home with me after the whole ordeal without realizing such a thing could be a trigger.

In hindsight, it was a very normal response to trauma — and a very real part of trauma recovery.

The thing about healing is that’s it’s not linear. And that’s OK. As my daughter’s first birthday approaches, I’m challenging myself to experience the whole spectrum of emotions that will inevitably show up. And the reassuring truth is that there have been far more moments on this journey of motherhood that take my breath away with gratitude and joy than anything else.

What I choose to focus on now when I think of that day and the months immediately following is the outpouring of support from my husband, my mother, my therapist and a small group of incredible women in my life who showed up in a big way.

With essentials left on my doorstep. With middle-of-the-night texts, saying, “I’m up if you’re up.” With food deliveries. With a bottle of wine and some jokes. With welcome hand-me-downs. With lactation cookies. With validation, empathy, and grace.

Because that’s where God lives after a painful event. Not in the event itself, but in the response to that event. And with that response, God also opened my eyes to my greatest spiritual teacher yet:

Ms. Eva June Neel

And I am filled to the brim with the privilege and honor it is to be her mother.

A gesture worth a thousand words

Three generations

A friend recently told me that a note I sent her reflected the way I was raised. When I confirmed that hand-written cards and letters started at a very young age in my house, she suggested it told a larger story about the role my mother has played in my life.

That theory made me think back to a few years ago, before my mom’s 60th birthday. I had reached out to family and friends in an attempt to gather 60 messages. I asked each person to share a favorite memory, inside joke, funny story or something they admired about her. My goal was to present my mom with a stack of 60 red envelopes, each containing a special birthday note from her nearest and dearest.

As the messages trickled in, I noticed a pattern. The same words kept appearing. Strong. Elegant. Positive. They talked about her sense of humor. Many included a nod to loyalty and faith. They said she was inspirational and intelligent and encouraging. It turned out to be a truly amazing gift.

With gratitude, I realized what my friend was talking about. The very characteristics these people had used to describe my mother had become the bones of my spine. 

There are a lot of memories I could add to that original stack of messages describing my mom. But one gesture rises to the top.

Last February, I woke up alone in a sterile hospital recovery room after a traumatic birth experience. Mr. Wonderful was with our new daughter in the nursery, where she was being monitored.

At some point, I looked up groggily and saw my mother standing there with her hand over her mouth. I had asked her not to come to the hospital when I gave birth for a couple of reasons: I had a feeling my labor would be an all-day affair so I thought I’d save her from endless hours in a waiting room. But I also wanted to give my growing family an opportunity to bond privately and ease into our new normal for a few days on our own.

We promised to update her via text on the big day — and we did — but when Mr. Wonderful told her I was being prepped for a C-section after 17 hours of labor, she knew something was wrong.

Driving at night is one of this woman’s least favorite things, but she got in her car after 11 p.m. and made the 45-minute trip to the hospital, stopping only briefly to peek in at our little girl in the nursery on her way to find me. When I saw her standing at the foot of my bed post-surgery, it was almost 2 a.m.

Seeing her face was a pleasant surprise after the comedy of errors that led up to this moment.

“Hi. Did you see her yet?” I asked, wondering if she’d met her granddaughter.

“I came to see YOU.”

“Don’t you want to know her name?” I questioned.

“I came to see YOU,” she repeated. “To make sure YOU are OK.”

I don’t remember what I said next, but Mom left immediately after that conversation, making the same drive a second time in the middle of the night. She saw me for less than 5 minutes.

I’ve replayed that conversation in my mind often since, and I can’t think of a more fitting example of a mother’s love — a proper welcome to motherhood — especially inside the holy mess of a birth story gone awry. 

It’s a gesture that lines up beautifully with every message inside those red envelopes. And it’s one that I will never forget.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom. It was from you that I learned to be me. Te quiero mucho.

Love is a four-legged word.

I had to say goodbye to my beloved Lucy Lou after 14 years of her steadfast presence. Today, I honor her here — the only way I know how.

It was near the end of 2004 when my dad told me his dachshund, Sissy, had had puppies.

“When are you gonna come take one?” he’d ask me about once a week until I relented. I figured at age 24 that I was pretty much an adult and that it was about time I had a wiener dog of my own. I never even considered another breed. I’d grown up with wiener dogs, as had he. So on my visit home that Christmas, when the puppies were 8 weeks old, I chose the little girl with the white star on her chest — the only female in the litter — and a pink nose to boot.

She was named “Lucy” for my favorite Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and I promptly introduced her to the namesake track on my CD player as we drove home to my small apartment in McAllen, Texas — just this tiny puppy and I — not knowing how much we needed each other.

There, she’d spend the first year of her life nibbling my toes, shredding my shoes and following me from room to room, offering a wet nose and a warm snuggle during a particularly isolating bout of depression. I had no idea then how many more times she’d see me through a fog.

img_4733It wasn’t long before we moved to New York City and Lucy adapted quickly to the concrete jungle, winter snows and subway rides.

She was my solace during countless life transitions, and that cross-country move was no exception, throwing me curveballs in the form of big-city culture shock, financial stress, unexpected homesickness and a painful break-up.

We returned eventually to Texas together, where she’d spend the next 11 years seeing me through life in Austin, starting with a major career change, a couple of questionable relationships, layoffs and a death in the family. My 13-pound pup may as well have been a hundred-year oak, always holding ground for the both of us, and forever revealing her eccentricities.

img_4734Lucy was the only dog I know who adored baths, oddly eager to be doused with water. It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk into the bathroom, turn on the light, and find her sitting patiently on the bathmat, forgetting that I’d said the word “bath” aloud 20 minutes earlier and triggering this very move. I can still see her long wiener-dog body in the tub, nose to the sky and eyes closed, letting the water wash over her face like rain.

Lucy was known to sunbathe by the window, seeking out warm patches of light for midday naps. Her favorite snack was a crunchy carrot. She loved pulling the fuzz off of tennis balls and would often look up at me with a lime green beard, cocking her head in confusion at my laughter.  She enjoyed scrambled eggs on Saturday mornings. And she was laser-focused on decimating any toy with a squeaker, leaving a trail of stuffing in the aftermath of her joy.

My girl knew how to enjoy her own company.  And aimg_0032-1side from one preferential Pomeranian named Sophie, Lucy was not a fan of other dogs — or other people for that matter. When I attempted to socialize her, she chose instead to run a perimeter around me to make sure other dogs and their humans knew I was hers.

Friends who dog-sat her in their own homes knew my well-meaning, but poorly mannered pup would act like she owned the place within minutes of drop-off, trotting around like a queen, taking over beds that didn’t belong to her and stockpiling toys that weren’t her own. I think she took pleasure in embarrassing her mama as punishment for leaving her behind to travel. But whether I was gone for four days or four hours, Lucy always welcomed me home with the enthusiasm of an over-caffeinated army of soccer moms. She was an unabashed licker and she loved me as much as I loved her.

img_0360By the time we met and married Mr. Wonderful, Lucy started to slow down, as though she knew her tour of duty was coming to an end. She served me loyally for over a decade before her body started to give out.

My sweet girl defied multiple spinal injuries before succumbing to partial paralyzation, but we opted to extend the quality of her life for a few years with a pair of spiffy new wheels I often referred to as her chariot.

Yet as handi-capable as she was, I could see that Lucy eventually became stuck in a cycle of re-injury, pain, and anxiety that just wouldn’t resolve. I hated keeping her hopped up on meds every day knowing her quality of life wasn’t going to improve any further, so I made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye to her after 14 years of the good life.

img_9184My heart never felt more exposed than it did when I stroked her head on her last day as she took her last breath. Mr. Wonderful and I stayed with her for a long time — in disbelief at the loss of this little dog that took up so much space in our hearts.

Having a soft heart in a cruel world is courage, not weakness, I’m told. But grief can be suffocating when my mind recalls the image of her tiny eyebrows rising every time I walked in the door. And sorrow surfaces in the absence of her presence. When the clicking of her nails can no longer be heard on the hardwood floors.  When I wake up on auto-pilot, ready to fill the food bowl that’s no longer there. And every time I walk by the nook where her bed used to lie.

If vulnerability is the birthplace of change, then Lucy’s last gift to me is an appropriate dress rehearsal for motherhood as I anticipate the arrival of my daughter in a couple of short months — a terrifying and beautiful transformation that I know will crack me open even wider still. It’s the first life-changing transition I’ll weather without my wiener dog-shaped sails.

Goodbye, Lucy Lou. You will always be my sunshine.

 

The one about impersonating an officer

bffIt’s been 25 years since my first concert with this lady. We were 12 years old when my dad took my best friend and me to see Dwight Yoakam in San Benito, Texas. We stood behind a group of rowdy teenage boys who were drinking Miller Lite and swearing like sailors when my dad stepped in and posed as a TABC agent. That’s the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and I wouldn’t learn until a few years later that the acronym alone struck fear into the hearts of beer-drinking high-schoolers where I grew up. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for those boys to act right. We got to see Mr. Yoakam again recently – this time in Austin – and his inimitable twang took me right back to that show in 1992. If there’s a statute of limitations on impersonating an officer on behalf of your tween daughter and her BFF, I hope it’s run out by now.

And then one day, they’re 10.

TEN

TEN.

Somewhere along the way, logic kicked in. Critical thinking showed up. And competitiveness planted a firm stake in the ground.

They went from hiding behind their father’s thighs to, “I want my own YouTube channel.” Excuse me? You cannot tell the nice waitress what you want to drink, but you  want to host your own online show? For the love.

The little boys are twins, but sometimes I refer to them as Big Brother and Little Brother even though they’re approximately seven minutes apart and Little Brother is approximately 1 inch taller than Big Brother.

Today they’re 10. This age marks my fifth year as their bonus mom, which means I’ve already known and loved them half their lives. The last five years have presented a rainbow of emotions, but I reguarly feel my heart lift up out of my chest when when I get to witness the emotional growing pains of childhood. When I get to watch confusion turn to comprehension. But also (and equally as important), when I have to stifle my laughter at conversations like this:

Big Brother: “Can I tell you what I learned today? To put other people first.”
Me: “Well that’s an important lesson. What are some ways we can do that?”
Big Brother: “Not thinking I’m the best one in the world.”

That’s a start, son.

At 6, Big Brother began a steadfast vegetarian stint — his own decision out of the clear blue.

“Is crawfish … meat?” he asked me one Saturday afternoon at a crawfish boil. I confirmed it was true. He kicked the dirt, but the boy did not give in. Little Brother wanted to know why they were losing precious playtime to this pouting, and Dad answered without missing a beat: “Your brother is struggling with his new lifestyle.” (That man slays me on the regular.) The meat strike lasted 3 months. Impressive.

Around 8, I watched Big Brother blossom into a voracious reader after a year of wrestling with fluency. This kid went from tears and slamming doors and “I hate books!” to Harry Potter’s No. 1 fanboy.  Did you know there are approximately 1,840,000 words in books 1 through 7? He’s read every one. That boy does not mess around.

And let’s talk about Little Brother, who once suggested we donate some money to children in Africa, “where many kids are born with a disease called claustrophobia.” God love him.

At 9, Little Brother vowed to have his future wedding at McDonalds “if mywife is cool with it.” He’d be a good husband, too, because he forgives quickly. Take this after-school declaration, for example:

“I’m never forgiving Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor!”
(1 day later)
“I wish I lived in Japan because their candies are so good. Also, they have SO MANY vending machines there.”

Mercy, I tell you.

These tweens are incredibly self-aware, big-hearted and FUNNY. They’re creative, sensitive, and opinionated.  But they’re also very very different. One loves dancing and baking and books. The other is all about Legos and football and fidget spinners.

In a world of raging sound bites, theirs are really the only ones that matter. Happy birthday, my sons. Embrace the masterpieces you are.

 

 

Instant gratitude: Just add water.

IMG_8069Years ago, Mr. Wonderful and I decided to take an annual trip on our anniversary. It’s our way of honoring and acknowledging the date, of course, but also an investment in our marriage. Adventures are the elixir for passion after all. This year, we hopped a plane to the Caribbean and made Caicos our home for a few days.

IMG_8096

On 7/11, we spent the afternoon on a floating tiki bar mesmerized at the electric blue water below, and I had to pinch myself. Is this real life?

Our captain, Mario, and his sidekick served up cold rum cocktails on board while navigating down the coast to a steel drum-filled soundtrack of island tunes.IMG_8101 Our little vessel floated east along North Caicos toward Little Water Cay, also known as Iguana Island, and home to the endangered rock iguana.

IMG_8046We took a break from the Caicos Passion Punch to admire a friendly southern stingray in the transparent waters below. A couple of egrets and pelicans tolerated our pointing as well.

What a gorgeous day to celebrate this adventure.

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