Valerie* felt well prepared for childbirth. She had done several labor and child birthing courses. She had employed the services of a doula. She was ready. She also had no idea what she was about to face: A marathon labor that began with a home birth on a Thursday afternoon and escalated to a cesarean delivery by Saturday evening.
During the long and arduous 54-hour labor, Valerie contracted an infection and experienced severe swelling (a condition called edema). She left the hospital over 30 pounds heavier than when she checked in. “My bones hurt in my body because the swelling was so intense. I couldn’t walk because I couldn’t bend at the ankles. “I had a hard time breathing, there was so much pressure in my chest,” she says. “It was awful.”
The whole experience left her shaken. “It was the total opposite end of the spectrum from what we had planned,” she says. “It was the most wonderful experience and the worst experience of my life, both at the same time.”
Traumatic birth experiences like Valerie’s are risk factors for postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety—conditions an estimated 15% and 10% of postpartum women experience respectively. An estimated 9% of women experience PTSD following childbirth and an estimated 3-5% of new mothers—and some new fathers—will experience postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder.
Valerie’s swelling eventually resolved but her postpartum complications weren’t over. Only a week after giving birth, she started to experience anxiety and intrusive thoughts. “These thoughts come from absolutely nowhere. You’re like, Why am I thinking of this? Why did I just have this thought? Am I going to hurt myself? None of it makes sense,” she says. “It’s really hard to admit that you might not be in control of your mind.”
Like so many women, Valerie didn’t know how to get help or how to talk about it with her OB-GYN. “I was afraid for a few reasons,” she says, “I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want to seem like I was ungrateful for my daughter. I didn’t want to be judged or not deemed fit to care for my child.”