Mother; Survivor: Part II

Smarty Mommies is honored to publish Part II of this incredible piece, by guest author Stephanie Kuehnert, in our The Unexpected series. This series explores 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. Read PART I here. - Shannon

Image Source: Thomas via Flickr

Mother; Survivor by Stephanie Kuehnert


The pushing began, and at first, it was exciting. I could see the enthusiasm on Jessica and my nurse’s faces and knew I was making progress.

But then the progress stopped and the terrible back pain began. My ability to move was hampered by the epidural. I cursed myself.

The shift change came. Simon and my nurse left. At the four-hour point, an OB examined me. He granted me one more hour to try to get my son out or close enough to pull out with the vacuum otherwise I would need a c-section. The absolute last thing I wanted. My back was spasming and I was convinced I’d torn a muscle, but I wanted my hour.

I knew halfway through that it was pointless. There was no sign from anyone on my team that I was making progress. Sure enough, when the hour was up, I was told that I would be prepped for surgery.

Told. Not asked.

The energy in the room changed. Masks and gowns appeared. Brisk movements replaced smiles. The ice chips that had been my only sustenance for hours were taken away. The procedure was explained to me rapid-fire though I could not comprehend a word of it. I looked to Scott to see if he understood, but he seemed equally as shell-shocked.

“Is my baby okay?” I asked.

He was fine.

“Then can I have some time? Can I have my ice chips?”

No time. No more ice chips.

And my back. The pain was unbearable. I couldn’t lie still. How could they cut me open if I couldn’t keep still? Would the spinal block help my back?

The robot serving as an anesthesiologist told me maybe and if I couldn’t lie still they would sedate me entirely.

I think I screamed, “No,” at this. I definitely did in my head.

Jessica managed to get them to clear the room, give us a few minutes alone. She offered to leave as well, but after nearly thirty-six hours, she was family.

I was crying. So was Scott, who I’d seen cry only at the death of grandparents and pets, and that shook me even worse.

Jessica asked us what we were thinking.

Scott said that he was crying for me because he knew this wasn’t what I wanted and he was worried about the recovery.

I told them not to let the doctors knock me out.

We’d reached the lowest possible bar: I wanted to be conscious for my baby’s birth.

The OR was cold and bright. There was a curtain across my belly. The blood pressure cuff was really tight. I requested that it be removed and was told no by the robot anesthesiologist. Jessica put her face in mine and asked me to breathe with her, to visualize light or warmth or something. I tried, but I was just going through the motions.

Just going through the motions. Disassociating.

Before they cut into me, they went around in a circle declaring their readiness and any concerns. The robot robotically stated that my blood pressure was high.

Jessica would tell me later that it was the highest she’d ever seen. That’s why she’d been making me breathe.

The next thing I was aware of was the surgeon telling me that my baby had a really big head. I might have laughed. All the men in my family had big heads.

It was explained to me that between the big head and the way he was positioned in my pelvis, he could not have come out on his own. I filed this away. An explanation for why it was not my fault and I had not failed in bringing this baby into the world the “normal” way.

Most important, the baby cried. I don’t remember the sound of the cry, I just know it happened as soon as he was out and that meant he was okay. When they whisked him across the room, I could sort of see him and could tell that his color was good.

My baby was okay.

I did not feel okay, but he was and that was what counted.

I asked Scott to go to him since I couldn’t. He seemed to freeze at this. Not wanting to leave me; perhaps also not wanting to accidentally see behind the curtain where my insides were still on display.

Later we would debate who held our son first. Neither of us could remember. I was sure it was Scott. He was sure it was me. The time stamp on our pictures confirmed he was right.

One of my priorities in my heart and on my birth plan was immediate skin-to-skin contact with my baby and I got that, but it wasn’t as I imagined it would be. I’d wanted him to do that thing where he finds his way right to my breast like I’d seen in videos. Then we would cuddle and nurse in a loving, oxytocin-induced haze. I’d admire him, study his ears, count his fingers and toes.

I was in a haze, but the kind I was all-too-familiar with from my post-abuse binge-drinking days. They wheeled us out of the OR, my son in my arms, and I spent the ride terrified I was either going to puke on him or drop him.

“Take him,” I said as soon as we got back to the room where I’d labored.

The room where I’d failed.

I shook violently like an addict in withdrawal. “Take him. Please.”

A nurse, who reassured me the shaking was normal, lifted him from my arms and I felt relieved. I was ashamed of this.

“Scott, you need to hold him. You need to do skin-to-skin,” I insisted.

My husband, who was probably in his own sort of daze, nodded and Jessica helped set him up.

They looked peaceful, adorable. Everyone said so. I thought so, too, in the part of my brain that wasn’t broken. The part that was, the louder part, said, “Good, they are okay together. They don’t need me. They are better off without me.”

The baby began to root at Scott’s chest. Scott laughed and said, “I can’t help you out there, buddy.”

I felt my face grow damp. I was supposed to be holding him. He was looking for me. He needed to eat. I was screwing this up, too.

Jessica sensed that I was falling apart. Somehow, through calm words and breathing, she put me back together and then she got that baby in my arms and latched to my breast.

It didn’t feel easy or natural, but Jessica told me I was doing well—wewere doing well, we were so connected. I was glad that someone thought so.

On our last day in the hospital, I cried to Scott that I didn’t feel like I’d even really looked at our baby. I didn’t admit that because of this I didn’t feel connected to him. Not the way I wanted to or thought I should be. I think Scott knew what I meant though.

We were alone in the room with our son and he was sleeping—a rare moment on all fronts. Scott helped me out of my bed and over to the baby’s. He held my hand, held me up, and we stared at him together.

Memories from the early days flutter in my brain like pages of a letter that someone—maybe me—tried to tear up and burn:

The steady stream of lactation consultants in my hospital room trying to teach me different latches and holds. The tube they made me put to my breast that led to a syringe of formula that I did not want to give my baby but was told I had to because he’d lost too much weight.

The way I’d sobbed at the first pediatric appointment when the physician’s assistant told me that my baby was hungry and I should just feed him. In the chair without arms and all my pillows. With the breasts that still weren’t making enough milk.

My feet being swollen for days and no one seeming to care but Jessica. She touched them gently, meeting my eyes as she always had, and explained that it was normal, but she wanted to know how they were tomorrow. If they weren’t better, she would reach out to a midwife friend.

The night that the baby wouldn’t stop screaming and I curled up in a ball on my bed and squeezed my eyes shut, ignoring Scott’s pleas, his panicked insistence that they needed me. They didn’t. I squeezed my eyes tighter. Begging the world to go black. Wishing all of my organs would stop working. That my body would just stop because no matter how much of it I gave to this child, no matter how hard I tried, it was not enough.

Motherhood was too much and I was not enough.

Six weeks or so after my son was born, I took him for a walk with Casey, a woman from my Centering group and her son, who was exactly a week older than mine. Our group had a Facebook page where everyone posted happy pictures after their babies were born. We’d done the same, but one morning while Scott and the baby slept, I decided once again to share my hard truth.

It felt a little bit like it had over twenty years ago when I sent an email to a Riot Grrrl listserv I’d recently joined and confessed that I thought my boyfriend had been abusive. Back then, it had taken me months to question the relationship, to see that it was not right. With my birth, I knew while it was happening that it was not what I wanted. However, I’d also thought I’d prepared for every possible scenario and emotional response, but the raw, screaming mental and physical pain told me otherwise.

This wasn’t simply about feeling triggered as I’d feared, but also half-expected and prepared for. This was its own thing—a new trauma.

I was crushed that I’d done All The Things and still lost agency in my birth experience. The feelings that I was used to as a survivor—failure, self-blame, unworthiness—were dragging me under, but to unfamiliar depths.

I didn’t know how process it, and to a certain degree nine months later, I still don’t, but thanks to my previous experience, I knew what the crucial first step was:

I needed to hear I wasn’t alone.

Tears leaked down my cheeks as I pecked out the words on my phone, asking our Facebook group if anyone else had had a cesarean or a difficult birth experience because I had and I was Not Okay.

Casey messaged me almost immediately. She’d had a cesarean and was dealing with a lot of heavy feelings, too.

“I’m here for you, mama,” she concluded—something we have said back and forth to each other now more times than I can count.

We each shared bits of our experience via messages written in the wee hours, but we told them fully, aloud to each other on that first walk together.

The sun ducked in and out of the clouds as it does in Seattle. The babies fussed a little, but mostly let us have that moment to talk.

Mother to mother. A new kind of survivor to a new kind of survivor.


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