Over a decade after first being sexually assaulted as a teenager, I was ecstatic to learn that I was pregnant with my first child. I thought about my previous history with sexual violence and ignored its possible significance to childbirth. I wouldn’t let it get in the way, I thought to myself. But then my friend convinced me to at least tell my midwife that I had been raped and, after giving it some thought, I decided that it might be best, “just in case”, and I told my midwife. Telling my midwife was not easy because like many women who are raped I learned to keep that part of my history very private.
I planned on having a home birth, but after labouring at home for 26 hours I decided to go the hospital. Almost immediately after arriving I was pressured into a list of medical interventions. First I agreed to induction, then to the epidural. Next, they wanted me to have a cesarean section. But, I could see from the fetal monitors that there was nothing wrong, so I decided against the C-section.
After being in labour for about 36 hours I was fully dilated. As soon as I learned that I was fully dilated I felt incredibly excited because everyone around me had spent hours trying to convince me that it wouldn’t happen and that I’d need a C-section. I was so happy that I wouldn’t need the C-section after all. But, right after telling me that I was fully dilated, my midwife informed me that she didn’t want to deliver my baby. I felt very betrayed and frustrated at this because it seemed like all she wanted was for me to have a C-section. I told her that I wanted her to deliver my baby and she said, “I don’t know”, which made me feel very insecure about pushing and giving birth.
Eventually, after pushing for over an hour, there was a blip in the fetal monitor that showed a brief heart rate acceleration. At that point my midwife started to get noticeably angry with me for not having the cesarean. But, by that point I didn’t feel that I could trust her anymore, as she had wanted me to get a cesarean section before for no other reason than that it was taking too long. I wasn’t convinced that a single brief acceleration was the emergency that she wanted me to believe it was, and have since learned that I was right as brief accelerations are somewhat common and can happen for a variety of reasons including maternal fever and as a side effect of the drugs that are used in labour.
Shortly after the brief acceleration a new nurse came on shift.
Whereas the previous nurse had only pressured me a little to have a C-Section, this nurse had clearly decided that I was going to have the baby within the hour. She immediately demanded that I get on my back and try to push with my knees pinned to my chest, but I couldn’t do it. She kept asking “Why”, and I wanted to scream “because I was raped”, but I couldn’t. I offered to labour in any other position, but I couldn’t labour while pinned down. During my research on hospital birth I had seen that position and just viewing it made me feel nauseous. But, I was completely incapable of announcing to a room full of strangers that I had been raped.
They were still trying to get me on my back with my knees pinned to my chest, and at some point I heard the nurse ask my midwife, “Why won’t she labour in that position?” and I heard my midwife reply, in a very sarcastic tone and loud enough so I would hear, “It’s because of some video she saw on the internet”. I was so angry when I heard my midwife say that. In my mind I was thinking, “you know, you know”, but I couldn’t say the words out loud. It was so difficult to tell her in the first place that I had been raped.
At this point the nurse started to abuse me very badly psychologically. The nurse would ask why I wouldn’t get a cesarean or why I wouldn’t be pinned down, and I would try to answer, and she would say “but it’s best for baby”, then ask why I didn’t want what’s best for baby. Her and my midwife would look at each other and I could tell that they thought I was being a very selfish person and that I was a bad mother for refusing to follow their orders. At that point I started to become very concerned that they would take the baby away when he was born, since they were openly judging me a bad mother.
I felt that they wanted me to do things not because they were best for the baby or me, but because they wanted to prove a point, namely that a good mother does anything for her baby. During those moments I felt totally dehumanized. It’s not that I didn’t want to get over my past history with sexual violence, or that I didn’t try hard enough. I’m a human being, and like all human beings I have limits. Needless to say I would have loved very much to not have my son’s birth evoke the same feelings that I had when I was raped years before.
I felt terrified because I knew I couldn’t control what happened to me or my baby, and I felt that the people around me were behaving in a self interested manner and didn’t have my best interest, or that of my baby, as their primary concern. I knew that it wasn’t medically necessary for me to be pinned down with my knees to my chest, that this was more about what was most convenient for them.
Eventually the nurse just refused to help me unless I got on my back, and I was worried for my baby’s safety, so I did get on my back. I naively thought that she would accept me being on my back, and that she wouldn’t make me be pinned down. But, as soon as I got on my back she demanded that I be pinned down with my knees pinned to my chest. With one arm full of tubes, and my knees against my chest, I was totally restrained, and I started to black out.
The rest of the night is pretty hazy; my memory is in and out. I remember being so happy when the doctor offered forceps, as it meant that I could escape the nurse’s and my midwife’s abuse. I remember the feeling of the placenta being removed from my body, but I didn’t feel anything from my baby being born, nothing at all. I don’t remember the first time I held my son, something that has left a huge scar on my heart. I remember, sometime later in the night, seeing a sandwich in front of me. I don’t remember a lot of that first night at all though.
The next day I smiled and did my best to be what I thought hospital staff wanted me to be so that they would let me go. I was still afraid that they’d take my baby away because they had obviously decided I was an awful mother. I kept thinking that I should be the blank slate, who takes everything in, has no opinions of her own, and if I was that way they would let me go and we would be okay. I pretended I didn’t know how to do anything and smiled and nodded at all their suggestions. I didn’t have any opinions. They let me leave that day. I don’t remember getting home or that first night home with my son.
The next day at home I ate a few small meals, and my mom came to take care of me. After eating dinner I threw up. For the next ten days I threw up everything I ate. I thought a lot about death and I wanted to die. I thought about driving off a bridge every day, or walking into the ocean, peacefully, and fading away into the water. A part of me felt that I was trying to kill myself by not eating. I remember vividly lying awake, another restless hour in the middle of the night, barely able to lift my arm, and wanting to die so badly.
About five days after giving birth I passed a large clot and went to the ER where I was treated for dehydration and given antibiotics. The doctor said he thought I likely had an infection from the catheter that was causing me nausea, but infection was later ruled out. They never did find out what caused my extreme and prolonged nausea. But, I believe it was a result of the trauma I experienced.
The day after my mother left to go home there was no one left to take care of us and I decided I had to start eating again. All in all I went 13 days with very little food.
For the six weeks that I had to stay in touch with the midwife I did my best to smile and be as compliant as I could, and to not alert her to my true feelings. At our final postpartum visit I felt safe enough and confronted her, and told her that she should never force a woman to labour on her back with her knees pinned to her chest. She told me that “all that matters is baby is healthy”. I told her I disagreed, that I matter too. This clearly did not impress her and I could tell that she was again judging me a bad mother. She said that she had the right to do whatever she wanted to my body if she thought it was best for baby. Hearing her say that made me feel nauseous and I started to cry uncontrollably. It wasn’t the first time that someone had looked me straight in the eye and told me that they were entitled to do things to my body without my consent. In that moment I truly felt like my midwife was a rapist.
Psychologically I was unwell for a long time. I would wake up in the night with vivid flashbacks of the nurse forcing me into that position and I would cry and feel so much rage. I would imagine screaming at the nurse “No! No!” and chastise myself for not kicking her off, and not fighting more. In my darkest moments I would lament that even as an adult I am incapable of protecting my body against rape.
After about five months of mental anguish I felt like I was loosing my mind because all I could think about was the event. The disturbing invasive memories were constant. So, I decided to do something and I wrote letters expressing my feelings to those who had wronged me and I sent them.
I’m doing a lot better now and my baby is doing fantastically well. He is so cute and amazing. But, even though he’s totally awesome I’ll never pretend that his awesomeness justifies their abusive treatment of me. It doesn’t, what they did was not okay, it was very wrong.