Editor’s Note: This personal story discusses domestic violence and a traumatic birth experience, topics that may be triggering to some readers. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call or visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233).
There is a crisis for mothers in the United States. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate and the highest number of avoidable maternal deaths due to childbirth of any industrialized nation. This is often an indicator of poor public health and delivery services, corroborated by findings from the Commonwealth Fund 2020 International Health Policy Survey. Only a quarter of women in the U.S. rated their medical services as at least “good” in contrast to 10 other countries whose majority rated their system as “good” or higher. Women of reproductive age in the U.S. also reported higher mental health needs than any other nation surveyed.
The statistics don’t lie, but they’re easy to glaze over until it affects you personally. I am a survivor of these morbid statistics. Someone who was failed by the medical system, but who lives to testify. I honor those mothers whose lives have been lost with my words.
My story illustrates what can happen to pregnant people at their most vulnerable, when “care” is shaded with gaslighting, inattention, and a general lack of education. It is critical for healthcare providers to receive trauma-informed education that focuses on maternal wellbeing and warning signs of physical and mental health and safety. Domestic violence is more common than any other health problem among women during pregnancy. Many women report that the abuse either started or intensified during pregnancy and birth. Healthcare workers must be able to respond. My story is a lesson on close calls and why we desperately need to address this public health crisis, now. Here’s my story.
The Signs of Domestic Abuse During My Prenatal Care
When I was pregnant, my then-partner came to every doctor’s appointment with me and often spoke for me during the visits. He told them I was overly-anxious, overly-sensitive, and had mental health and confidence issues. My providers didn’t question it. They allowed these ideas to go unchecked and color the care they gave me.
I was able to go to the doctor on my own just once, and during the whole visit I was sobbing because of a fight my partner and I had just had. I told them I didn’t feel safe and was afraid of my partner and his family. I was advised to set boundaries with him and be strong with my expectations, but no other follow-up or resources were given. My due date was a few weeks away. This was their clue that I was in a domestic violence situation and needed urgent support. Instead of addressing it, they unknowingly gave my abuser perfect ammo during the birth of our child.
The Harm My Providers Unknowingly Caused
The birth of my baby was extremely traumatizing, and my providers’ actions created a dangerous situation for us both. I came to the birth center in labor and in extreme pain. They examined me, and when I wasn’t dilated more than one centimeter, they said my pain tolerance was low and that I was “not cut out” for natural birth. They said I should consider an epidural. I was there for less than 15 minutes. Instead of trying to figure out why I was in intense pain, they discredited my own knowledge of my body. Thinking of giving up my unmedicated birth plan and hearing that I was simply “too weak” to even try scared me so much I started throwing up.
My contractions were less than two minutes apart, yet they sent me away saying I had more time to wait. How could I know as a first-time mom?
Later, in conversations with medical professionals unpacking what happened, I discovered that dilation is only one way to measure active labor. I had every other sign. I also know from birth classes that women contract if they aren’t in a safe place. I had just driven 45 minutes to the hospital. Being dilated one centimeter at that moment and still in active labor is entirely possible. But they sent me away.
I Gave Birth in a Hotel Room Alone
When we were turned away from the hospital, my partner told me I was being dramatic, making up the pain, to just ignore it. He took me to a hotel room near the hospital and left me there, screaming on the floor, where I labored completely alone. Nobody holding my hand, nobody to call, nobody to encourage me, nobody checking whether baby and I were OK. Alone, I ran myself a bath in moments between contractions. I got in, passed out, and woke up in agony. I got myself out, sat on the toilet, and felt the urge to push.
My abuser came back and didn’t want to call the doctor. I begged, and when we got them on the line, they still didn’t believe me and thought I was exaggerating. I followed my body anyway and pushed. Out came a head. All of a sudden, with physical proof, the doctors and my abuser believed I was in labor. They sent someone to help, but by the time they got there, I had given birth alone.
When help arrived at the hotel, the healthcare provider told me “maybe you needed to see you could do it alone. You needed to overcome your fears.” This was never a lesson they were supposed to teach. My healthcare workers should never have allowed my abuser to isolate me from them. A mother should never birth alone. They should never be sent away in active labor and in agony or told they aren’t “strong enough.”
A mother should never birth alone. They should never be sent away in active labor and in agony or told they aren’t ‘strong enough.’
Thanks to my preparation and research (along with my brave baby, my health, and the doula who trained me), my baby and I were just fine. A few months later, after a period of escalated violence, I left my partner and found safety and freedom with my child. But I was robbed of a safe, supported, loving birth for myself and my baby. Mine is not an uncommon story, as the statistics show.
Stories like this are even more glaringly common for Black women, who face injustices and inequities that result in them being two to three times more likely to die due to childbirth.
Why I’m Sharing My Story
I didn’t realize the enormity of what happened to me until a month after the birth. I have been angry ever since, trying to heal this trauma. I hope that sharing my experience encourages providers to get more training, to believe birthing women’s knowledge of their bodies, to pay more attention to the life of each woman in their care. I hope this story encourages all people to keep fighting to transform our society that undervalues women and birthing people. I hope it is met with the seriousness it deserves, for my healing and for the sake of every family. Mothers and their babies deserve so much more.