Who Will Deliver the Mother?
Not long ago, I was at a park on an especially beautiful day. Engaged in watching my sweet little boy, I overhead a lady nearby, animatedly telling a pregnant mom about her amazing birth experience. "Maybe it’s because they’re a Christian hospital," she said. "They’re so pro-mom and so pro-attachment. They do everything they can to keep mom and baby together. I loved it there!" The two of them continued to gush, and by the time they finished talking, I found myself feeling like I was floating far, far away.
You see not long after the birth of my son, I was a psychiatric patient at that very same hospital. And while my circumstances were different, I can tell you that my experience was the opposite of what the park lady described. In fact, I often wondered while I was hospitalized, if any of any of my caregivers had ever encountered a mother with a post-partum illness.
Let me begin by saying that I know I needed psychiatric hospitalization. I was suffering from post-partum depression with psychosis, and my family was not equipped to handle my spiral into madness. I also want to say that I don’t believe the hospital deliberately tried to harm or to hurt me. To the contrary, I’m indebted to them for helping to stabilize me! But candidly, that is where the quality care ended.
Post-partum depression with psychosis. Prior to my illness, the term ‘psychosis’ triggered images for me of Andrea Yates and women driven to hurting their babies. I can assure you that I never once had thoughts of doing anyone harm, let alone my darling infant boy. Before I was hospitalized, I remember thinking that there were many coincidences. I remember feeling enraged at everything and everyone. I remember feeling that I had a special connection with the Holy Spirit. I also don’t remember big chunks of time.
I had suffered PPD previously, but never like this. This time, I had the perfect storm of circumstances that I think ferried me to the breaking point: a surprise pregnancy after finally having my older kids in school, and a business venture that failed just weeks before my delivery. The birth was difficult, resulting in a C-section, and heartbreakingly, my sister miscarried twins right after my baby arrived. I was mentally and physically devastated. And I snapped.
And so I ended up in the unit of the hospital where the craziest of the crazies go. It was filthy, with insects crawling around. There were scary, despondent people. I was kept heavily medicated and left to wander, still bleeding from the birth, with engorged breasts.
About two days into my stay, another patient told me that I could have a shower. Really? I knocked on the nurse station window and one of them told me that I certainly could. She was clearly preoccupied, so my fellow crazy showed me where to find supplies. I had managed to procure a breast pump that got returned twice before the staff realized that I would need it again. Maybe they missed female anatomy day in nursing school?
I had to be monitored while pumping, for fear I might hurt myself with the tubing. One nurse asked, "Why do you keep doing this when you have to dump your milk?" Why? It was the flimsiest thread that kept me connected to my baby. I knew that the medication I was being given would be toxic to him, but my body ached for him.
My poor baby! I asked numerous times if I could see him, and I was repeatedly rebuffed with, "Maybe tomorrow." Not once in the week that I was in the hospital did I get to see him. I don’t think they ever had any intention of letting him in to see me.
I eventually transferred to an area where there were not-so-crazy people. I began to think that seeing a priest and receiving Communion would be comforting. I knocked on the glass, and made the request. Hospitals have spiritual care departments, right? A chaplain came to see me, admitting that he generally didn’t get called to my part of the hospital. I was happy to see him and asked if he would give me Communion. It didn’t click with me that he wasn’t wearing a Roman collar. He looked at me quizzically. "No, I’m not a priest," he said. "Why do you want a priest?"
The last blow to my post-partum psyche was when I asked for Tylenol for the C-section pain. I was told that I needed the doctor’s permission. I sat in front of the nurses’ station until dinner arrived, and finally cried as I picked at my food. I waited there until bedtime. Later that evening when I was finally asleep, a nurse came in with a little paper cup and two Tylenols. "But I was asleep," I wanted to say, but didn’t.
I want to know this: when a post-partum mom is suffering and beyond the help of her loved ones, who will deliver the mother? How aren’t there hospitals with provisions to care for patients like me? We give birth with color-coordinated L & D suites, Women’s Pavilions, and pre-natal classes at the hospital. But after the requisite wheelchair ride to the curb with precious bundle in arms, what happens if something goes terribly, horribly wrong at home? Is there anything more important to safeguard than the delicate bond between mother and baby? Shouldn’t there be compassionate, in-patient psychiatric care available EVERYWHERE for the post-partum mom? This need seems shockingly obvious to me.
So until that day and while we work for change, there are fundamental things I believe the hospitalized post-partum mom needs. Remember: a woman who is so ill that she needs hospitalization probably can’t fight for herself. This, I offer from my experience:
Advocate for her motherhood: as crazy as she may seem, she has just given birth. Post-partum moms are different than others in the unit. Period. Request visits with her baby! Withholding this contact unless medically necessary is inhumane and can hurt progress. It did mine.
Advocate for post-partum body care: make sure she gets pain relief, and receives ice packs or breast compresses - even visits from a lactation educator or a rocking chair to sit in while pumping! Get her easy access to showering and maxi pads. Leaky breasts and lochia? Enough said.
Advocate for sympathetic support: it’s the "dark night of her soul." If she wants spiritual help, get it right! Would you send an Imam to visit a Jewish mom wanting a Rabbi? Bring her comforting items from home! Ask her caregivers and other supporters to assure her that she will recover, and that most importantly it’s not her fault!
On my last night in the hospital, a young nurse came to witness my pumping. She said she was also a mom and related to how easily your nipples bruise while using a hospital-grade pump. I felt an instant, human connection. Her words to me were achingly kind: "I think it’s great that you’re here and doing what you need to do to get well for your baby. You’re a great mom!’" And with that she got up to leave to give me my privacy. "Please come back," I wanted to say. "Please sit with me awhile!"
I am grateful. My heart deepened, seeing the suffering of others in the hospital.
I am blessed. I faced my greatest darkness, and I’m still here.
I am strong. This mother was delivered.