Let me just start off by saying this is not a post about postpartum depression. The word ‘postpartum’ is often associated with depression, but this isn’t so in my case. To be clear, this is about my physical and emotional experience following childbirth.
This post might fall under the category of “too much information”, so if you’re disgusted by bodily functions and fluids, then I implore you to stop reading. But I think my story is an important one to share because not enough women discuss their postpartum experiences. I think for some, it may be an off-limits topic because who really wants to hear us complain about how we basically have a six-week long period after birth? Or how we need to take stool softeners to make using the bathroom easier? Or how we sweat profusely at night, soaking the sheets? Well, I for one, would have liked to hear it from an actual person and not an impersonal book that spends half a page on it. So here I am, making up for that by sharing my in-depth, personal experience.
The night I went into labor, Juliette’s heartbeat wasn’t as strong as we had hoped. When I started to push, her heart rate slowed even more. The doctor then decided that the baby needed to come out immediately so in addition to an episiotomy (an incision on the perineum), she used a vacuum which would extract the baby quicker. Within no time, this beautiful and healthy baby girl was born and put on my chest. It took a good 20 to 30 minutes of stitching me up, which didn’t phase me one bit because Juliette was in my arms and the epidural was keeping the pain at bay. I was kissing and cuddling her, while the doctor told me, “Your recovery is going to be slower than most people’s because blah blah blah…” That’s all I heard. I was so entranced with my little one that I just kind of shrugged it off. Little did I know the road to recovery would, in fact, be a long one.
After the medication wore off, I felt immensely sore. I could barely walk or sit. The pain was so consuming, there were times I’d go to the bathroom just to cry privately. The only thing that made me feel physically better were the Percocets. The nurse had warned me not to rely on them too much since they were highly constipating, but I wasn’t too worried about it. I would pop a pill every few hours and I’d feel normal again. I could care for my baby, do housework, stand, sit, walk.
I read that it usually takes a few days, maybe even a week, after childbirth to have a bowel movement. After five days of not going, I finally felt it. I woke up at around 12:30am with this intense urge to go. My body just took over and started pushing. I had no control over it. I was pushing for hours but, to my frustration, nothing was happening. I was stressed out, panicked and terrified of popping a stitch from pushing too hard. I called the obstetrician at around 3am, who suggested I use glycerin suppositories. Bob ran out to CVS and when he came back, I was so exhausted from pushing that he found me laying on the floor between the bathroom and kitchen. After the suppositories didn’t work, I’d had enough. There was no more energy left in me, but my body still wanted to push regardless. We headed to the ER, while Juliette stayed with Bob’s grandmother, who conveniently lives downstairs. It turned out I had a fecal impaction, which basically meant it was impossible for me to go without medical intervention. Being in the ER was an incredibly humiliating and humbling experience. I was in a semi-public room with dozens of other patients. The beds were just inches apart – Bob couldn’t even stand next to me – and only thin curtains divided us from our neighbors. And here I was in a diaper, while the enema took effect. Like I said, HUMBLING. It was surprisingly painful too. My stomach cramped and didn’t stop cramping until 4-5 hours later when my system was completely cleared out. Bob was such a sport about it too. He was operating on no sleep because he had spent a good portion of the night trying to comfort an inconsolable Juliette. And yet, he was right by my side, trying to keep the situation light and humorous.
Over the next few days, ironically, I had incontinence. There was no control whatsoever. I barely had time to make it to the bathroom before I started to go. I worried and wondered, what is going on with my body? I made an appointment with the doctor that had treated me in the ER and she put me on a temporary diet of starchy, low-fiber foods such as white bread, white rice, bananas and highly processed foods, which would help with binding. Even though I felt like crap eating white foods every day for a week, I was at least making it to the bathroom, though I still only had a little control. For the next few weeks, I stayed home and only went out for short periods of time. Unfortunately, that doctor hadn’t give me much information on why this was happening, only that it was birth-related. So I accepted that.
Needless to say, my anxiety was through the roof. I would dwell on what this meant for my future quality of life. What if I’m never able to go out again? Will I always have to be near a bathroom wherever I go? How will I go back to work like this? What if I have to use the bathroom during the commute? Will I have to wear adult diapers? Is this my life now? I felt hopeless. That is until, my appointment with the obstetrician finally came up. At this point, the incontinence was gone, but the strong urge to go was still present (basically meaning, when I had to go, I HAD to go. There was no putting it off). She referred me to a colleague of hers; a respected colo-rectal surgeon, who she said was “the best” and would be able to help me. For the first time in weeks, I felt optimistic.
In August, I met with the surgeon. After examining me, he confirmed that the traumatic physical events of Juliette’s birth are what were causing my issues. It turned out that I had third and/or fourth degree lacerations all the way down to the sphincter, which is the muscle responsible for “holding it in”. He was hopeful that the damage wasn’t permanent, but he also warned me it would take a long time for the area to heal. “It could take several months, ” he said. The next month, I had an MRI which confirmed his theory, but it also showed more internal damage than he thought. More specifically, a breakdown of tissue between the vaginal and rectal wall which would have to be repaired by surgery. The procedure, I’m told, is pretty standard but I’ll be incapacitated for a couple of weeks. “You’ll need to take time off to selfishly care for just yourself for at least two weeks,” he told me, while putting emphasis on the word ‘selfishly’. And so, after I have the surgery early next year, I’ll be staying with my mom who will be taking time off from work, while she cares for Juliette and I care for myself.
Right now, I feel good. My urgency issues have improved considerably. The pain from the incision and tearing is almost completely gone. I can go out now. I can commute with confidence. I can enjoy my life and my baby, all without anxiety. I am nervous about the surgery, especially since the recovery is similar to that of an episiotomy (which I dread having to go through again) but I have faith in this surgeon. And I have faith that my body will heal.
Would I have done things differently had I known what I was in for? Sure. The incontinence might have been unavoidable, but the severe constipation could have been prevented if I weren’t so reliant on the Percosets, thus saving me that trip to the ER. I would have made my appointments with the doctors much sooner and not have just stewed in my own misery. Most of all, I would have been more informed about the birth process. There are so many things that can happen during delivery, but if I’d just read up on what the interventions are and the pros and cons of each, I would’ve been better for it. If there’s any advice I can give to women who are about to give birth, it is to educate yourself. Doctors are smart, but they don’t always fill in the gaps for you. We have to take our health and pregnancies into our own hands with research and frank conversations with women who have been through it. In other words, let’s talk about this ladies! Let’s talk about all of it.