"Call 911 if I pass out." Those words made my husband drive me back to the emergency room for the third time after giving birth. I felt overcome with shame. Under my sleek black leggings and cotton T-shirt, I still wore adult diapers stuffed with Tucks pads and perineal cold packs the nurse had given me before I left the hospital a week ago.
Five days after I gave birth to my daughter, I lay curled up in bed, breathless with pain. Strange contractions pushed and pulled my insides. I'd frantically called the hospital and the OB-GYN on call explained that the pain was normal. I still went to the ER twice and left with a bottle of hydrocodone, tubes of hemorrhoid cream, and laxatives. I even drank a whole 10 oz of magnesium citrate.
I kept telling myself that it was normal. But it didn't feel normal.
On my third visit, as the nurse asked that I wait for the doctor to come around, I apologized to my husband profusely, ashamed that he had to see me in this state. When I took off the diapers, I hid behind the curtain and wiped myself. I felt like I stunk. I couldn't get myself to face my husband, who was holding our baby girl as she drifted in and out of sleep in his arms. Would he ever see me the same way again? I worried.
No one prepared me for this. Sure, I knew that it would take some time for the bleeding to subside and the stitches to heal. But here I was—dehydrated, convulsed, exhausted—reduced to a mere shell of a human being. Is this what new mothers dealt with? I had no idea. I'd gone two days without eating a meal and close to five days without using the bathroom. I had third-degree tears and my episiotomy stitches burned whenever I used the prescription cream.
An hour later, the doctor examined me again and delivered the news. The problem, it turned out, wasn't hemorrhoids. I had fecal impaction, or when a hard mass of stool gets stuck in the rectum or colon. Sometimes fatal, the condition can be caused by constipation. The doctors who assessed me previously assumed the pain and constipation were normal, as with any other woman who has given birth, except my condition wasn't. They would now have to do a manual evacuation of my bowels and give me an enema. I cringed.
I was angry and frustrated that I'd been misdiagnosed. But mostly, I was embarrassed. I wanted the pain to end so bad, yet I couldn't look my husband in the eye. I bit my lips as the nurse changed my sheets and the doctor worked on my naked body. But instead of the look of horror I expected, my husband simply held our daughter in his right arm and held mine with his left, his face concerned and sympathetic.
"Don't worry. You'll be OK. I'm here," he said. With those words, the shame I felt about opening up about my pain—especially with him—suddenly dissipated. It's proof how important a good support system is.
Postpartum pain is a scary reality that many moms don't prepare for—studies even link it to postpartum depression. And giving birth isn't pretty. The diapers, the blood, the incontinence, the feeling of cracked nipples, the tears. But going to the ER again that day taught me that when I had doubts, I had to show up for myself. After all, there was a person beyond those happy photos of new motherhood. There was a new mother that hurt, that needed help, that needed reassurance, and shouldn't be ashamed of something as natural as poop.
A few days after I returned home from the ER, I lay back on my bed near my daughter. The pain had ebbed, and the episiotomy tears had begun to heal. My baby cooed and blinked, her eyes widening with wonder whenever she heard me talk. I realized that I too was just like her once before I'd grown into an adult so concerned about by what others think of my body.
I learned that to care for her, and help her embrace her own growing body, I'd have to learn to take care of mine.