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.
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.
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.