Smarty Mommies is honored to publish this incredible piece, by guest author Stephanie Kuehnert, as the first in our series called The Unexpected. This series will explore the dark and the light of motherhood - the surprising and unexpected parts of becoming a parent - in order to reflect the complexities of motherhood as it really is. We hope this series helps you feel less alone, because ultimately our goal is to reflect what it means to be a thinking mother, for better or worse, and how we navigate it all. - Shannon
Seven of us, all in our third trimester of pregnancy, clumped in an uneven line in the middle of a circle of chairs. Our partners stood on the outskirts, perhaps guessing where we would arrange ourselves as Simon, the exuberant, tattooed-and-pierced nurse midwife who led our Centering Pregnancy group, asked questions and explained where to stand depending on your response.
I came from a family of nurses: public health nurse dad, neonatal intensive care unit nurse mom, and labor and delivery nurse cousin. My husband, Scott, and I had joined Centering because my cousin recommended it. “It’s group prenatal care,” she’d explained. “A model that allows you share experiences and learn more about what you are going through.”
Scott and I weren’t really join-a-group people, but this was going to be our only child and I wanted to do All The Things. So we’d ended up in the room with the brightly colored rug where everyone took their own vitals and met briefly with Simon behind a screen, one pair at a time, to hear our babies’ heartbeats and discuss any personal concerns before gathering in the circle for group discussion and activities.
At first, Simon and the nurse who assisted him did most of the talking. Everyone in our group was friendly and happy to share advice they’d gotten or resources they’d found, but this was Seattle, city of introverts. However, as our due dates approached, meetings were more frequent, and people becoming more open. Shit was getting pretty real after all.
That day Simon was gauging how we felt about aspects of our impending deliveries.
“How comfortable do you think you will feel advocating for yourself in the hospital?” he asked.
We had spent a lot of time on this in Centering. We’d been coached to ask for full explanations, for risks and alternatives, for time to make our decision.
I could have just nodded along with the other women who stood in the center of the line, indicating that they felt “moderately okay” at self-advocating because as a couple of them put it, they tended to “defer to those in authority, especially in a hospital setting.” But before Simon moved on to his next question, my hand shot up.
I mentioned my nurse relatives and that I felt they gave me knowledge and made me more comfortable in hospital settings, but…
“I’m a sexual assault survivor.”
I said those words fairly easily. Not quite “I write books for teenagers” or “my natural hair color is brown” easily. It’s not a fact that I toss out at dinner parties, but it is one that I’ve been living with for over twenty years—even if sometimes I still grapple with using the phrase “sexual assault” rather than explaining, “I was in an emotionally abusive relationship when I was fifteen and my abuser made me feel like saying no to sex was not an option.”
Though I managed not to choke up, my whole body went warm and I couldn’t make eye contact with Simon or even with Scott. I wondered if people were staring at me, or worse, if they couldn’t look at me as I blathered about my reason for sharing this deeply personal thing in our surface-level personal group: I didn’t know how to predict if something might trigger me.
Simon said that he was glad I’d mentioned it. That he would make sure it was in my file. (I’d already done so.) That I should put it in my birth plan. (I had.) That having a doula might be helpful. (I’d hired one and had actually chosen her because she’d been the most responsive when I’d brought up my history.) That I could ask have a cervical exam done before I went into labor so I’d know what to expect and could practice asking the person examining me to go slow. (This was new information. Good information. Another thing I could do to feel prepared.)
I still felt weird bringing it up. I usually did. Even though “survivor” is as much a part of my identity as “writer” and something I often write about, sharing it aloud always leaves me in an awkward state.
“That was probably a real buzzkill. Me mentioning the sexual assault thing, right?” I asked Scott afterward. I didn’t let him answer before continuing, “But maybe it helped someone. I mean, like, statistically, I am not the only one in that room who’s been… you know. Hopefully that information will help.”
Advocating for other survivors has always been my default mechanism for coping—my healthy one, at least.
I think there is some small part of me that hopes that maybe if I advocate enough, it will go away. The wound will completely heal. Never hurt again. I’ve tricked myself so many times into thinking that it has, including right before I started trying to get pregnant.
We debated about having a baby for nearly a year—so long that by the time we decided to go for it, I had never wanted anything more in my entire life.
I thought it would be simple. Thirty-five wasn’t that old and it had been drilled into me back in health class that pregnancy could happen so easily. I figured I’d get off the pill, my hormones would adjust, and within a couple of months I’d be knocked up.
A year later I found myself in the sauna of a women-only spa scrawling really bad poetry about getting my period:
They say to trust your body
Your body betrays you
Thirteen times, thirteen moons
Your body betrays you
It shouldn’t be a surprise
Your body betraying you…
Sweating and crying, I realized that it was happening again. I felt broken. I hated myself, hated my body. I was reliving memories of my abuse. The inability to get pregnant—infertility, a word that had officially become a part of my medical file—had brought it all back again.
So I did what I’d learned to do and headed to therapy to process this new aspect of the same old trauma. My abuser, I knew through social media, had a baby. How fucking unjust was that? He didn’t deserve a baby, and thanks to him, some broken part of me also thought I didn’t deserve a baby.
After six months of wading through feelings of unworthiness and anger and learning to navigate the anxiety and depression that accompanied the end of each menstrual cycle, I peed on the stick and the word I’d been waiting for appeared:
I chose to stay in therapy because I knew there was more emotional work to do. As my due date closed in, my concerns grew about how survivorhood might impact motherhood.
“What is your biggest fear in terms of the birth?” my therapist asked.
I sat with the question for a moment.
The worst thing about my abusive relationship was the loss of autonomy, wasn’t it?
No. It was the numbness.
Toward the end of my abusive relationship, my boyfriend often demanded we have sex in a dirty park bathroom. The way I survived was to disassociate. That wasn’t me on my knees on cold cement. I wasn’t watching the ants on the floor or smelling the piss. I was elsewhere. Conjugating verbs to prepare for my Spanish test. Reviewing the principles of geometry.
“You did what you had to do,” my therapist responded when I finished explaining this. “What many survivors do.”
“I know. But I don’t want it to happen now. I don’t want to blackout and miss my son’s birth,” I choked. My one baby. I wanted to experience this fully. Hence the doula, the classes, the daily meditations prepping me to be “calm and relaxed. Oh so calm and relaxed.”
“Also,” I added, “I stayed numb for years after that. The drinking, the drugs—I am not worried about falling into that again, but the depression, the blackness. I can’t control that and I don’t want to lose any moments of his life to that.”
My therapist nodded and we began exploring how Scott and Jessica, my doula, could help in the moment and set up a plan of action for afterward.
I was as prepared as I could be. I knew this. I’d spent most of my post-abuse life trying to control everything I could to make up for how badly damaged I’d been by having autonomy stolen from me. But parenting is an exercise in coping with the lack of control. I’d learned this while I was struggling to get pregnant. I’d faced it while trying to plan my family leave and searching for childcare. I was certain that birth was going to be another big test.
My water broke before contractions started. We’d learned in Centering Pregnancy that this hardly ever happens, but of course it happened to me. However, before long I was contracting in my hospital room with Scott and Jessica coaching me as planned. Simon was the midwife on duty as I’d hoped. My memory of this phase is similar to the times I’d done ecstasy in my late teens: Movement was choppy. I felt warm. I felt cold. I felt everything.
Then it got too sharp. Instead of moaning into the contractions like I had been, like I knew I was supposed to, I’d started saying, “No.”
“No. No. Noooooooooooooooo!”
And I knew that were I to continue laboring like this, the pain would get worse. I could not say, “No” to it. It would not listen or stop. That would make me feel helpless, triggered.
I explained this to Scott and Jessica.
Jessica held both my hands and my gaze. She was a tall African American woman with strong, perfect posture that I envied. Her brown eyes exuded calm, kindness, and complete understanding. “You have choices,” she told me. “No one will judge you for your choices.”
Scott nodded, his blue eyes saying the same thing.
They meant that I could speak the code words that would get me an epidural.
Part of me did not want to. I wanted to feel everything, to have the natural childbirth I had been hoping for. However, being present for that birth was key.
“Platypus pancakes,” I told Simon.
He grinned at me. “The fact that you chose that as your safe word makes me adore you even more.”
He, Scott, and Jessica all assured me that this was the right choice. Jessica squeezed my hand and told me how proud she was of me, for knowing myself and my limits so well.
She would have to repeat this to me several times because the epidural slowed my labor. We added Pitocin to get it going again. I had to push the button for more pain relief and I anguished each time. Was I not going to feel anything and would that freak me out?
Somewhere around six a.m.—thirty hours after my waters broke—Simon told me I was dilated enough. It was time.
Part II will run next week on Tuesday, May 15th.
Stephanie Kuehnert is the author of two Young Adult novels, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, both published by MTV Books. Her Young Adult memoir is forthcoming from Dutton Young Readers. She is contributing writer for ROOKIE, an online magazine for teenage girls, and has also freelanced for Jezebel and Ms. Fit Magazine. She has her M.F.A. from Columbia College Chicago, and currently lives in Seattle with her husband, son, and two cats. Visit her online at www.stephaniekuehnert.com