I made this in an art journaling class probably around five-ish years ago, before unintentionally conceiving David (who will be four in about a month). I had been working hard for years, diving and wading through ptsd from childhood, flashbacks of which had been trickling in since my mid-twenties, picking up the pace after my second child was a toddler. Often while breastfeeding him down for afternoon naps, the quiet intimacy of a darkened room and the blissful haze of oxytocin as my milk flowed would bring with it invasive scenes from early childhood sexual trauma that set my adrenaline running. I knew that adrenaline in my system would flow into my milk and into my child, so I coached myself silently to breathe deeply, calm my rapidly beating heart, and reassure myself while these scenes played out. I kept myself grounded by reminding myself where I was, and when in time, and that I was safe. I thanked this childish aspect of myself for finally showing me these memories she had been burdened with for far too long and could no longer carry alone. Essentially, when I was introduced to CBT techniques a few years later, I already knew what it was, because I had done it for myself innately, motivated by the desire to protect my child.
I had seen a number of therapists, started some art therapy, but still felt like I wasn’t making very much headway. By early spring in 2016, I had sunk into a deep depression because though I had processed a lot of trauma cognitively and made a lot of recognizable progress, I’d reached something like a dead end and didn’t have the slightest idea how to proceed. I had reached out for the help I knew I needed, and it seemed I kept getting the silent message over and over and over from even the most kind, well-meaning people: I want to, but can’t help you. I was very deeply lonely, unhappy, lost, and hardly understood why. No matter how much I could focus on my dedication to and appreciation for my kids, their father, and all the little things that went into the humble swirl of our lives together, I couldn’t sustain happiness or fleeting moments of joy. I was able to go through the motions of what people expected of me, but couldn’t even begin to meet what I expected of me. I was hardly cognizant of the fact that I was merely going through the motions, and not actually living fully. I was a half-self and I knew it, but that was normal for me. It had been for such a long time that I didn’t know any differently.
I didn’t realize that I had compounded layers of trauma, not just from childhood but also from my romantic relationships, and from becoming a mother. Those layers had made working through the deeper layers nearly impossible to do beyond an intellectual, occasionally emotional, surface-level recognition. I couldn’t release any of it from my body, even though I’d been diligently focused on improving myself by various means for years—ever since reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in college triggered nightmares that sent me seeking therapy and stepping onto the path of working through my own history—most of which remained inaccessibly still in the dark for years.
I don’t think many people recognize that the experience of becoming a mother in a culture deeply rooted in misogyny—one that privately and oftentimes overtly imagines motherhood as the ruination of the female mind, body, and spirit—can be traumatic. I became a mother in 2009, and it was deeply traumatic for me. The trauma came not from the birth itself, but from the experience of other adults coercively managing it for me. It came from the experience of being rendered completely helpless and powerless over my own desires and my own body while the adults in charge exploited my fears and my trust in order to do what they wanted, what they thought appropriate, correct, and best: even when that physically hurt me, emotionally and psychologically degraded me, and endangered the life of my son. After nearly 24 hours of labor, the misjudgment, interventions, and arbitrary guidelines of the hospital staff made it literally impossible for my baby to be birthed through my own body except via a c-section.
I didn’t realize yet that I was unconsciously repeating and recreating traumatic patterns and inciting them in others—nor that I had the power to begin to consciously create different patterns, and different experiences.
Luckily my experiences birthing Kaiden (2011) and David (2017) were much better, much safer, and much more empowered. Kaiden was born so much more quickly than anyone expected that we didn’t make it out of the house. I put on my pants between contractions that were becoming more difficult to manage and then tore them off again as I felt, for the first time, the full-body imperative to bear down with a contraction that is actually pushing a baby through the birth canal. He was born within 15 minutes of that first push, a somewhat terrifying yet also exhilarating experience.
David’s birth was a planned home birth. During labor, the midwife pressured me into an unwanted cervical exam, grew frustrated while she performed it because of the way my uterus is tilted, and subsequently got rough and hurt me. After David was born, though it was a powerful and transformative experience, I did not have the release of euphoric hormones that facilitates recovery for the mother and greatly enhances mother-child bonding that I had gotten to experience with Kaiden’s birth. I could feel the sense of something crushing in that irretrievable loss as I held him, helped him nurse, and gazed with him in that first hour after birth, without the glow I had already known once.
The midwife’s harsh treatment in that one impatient moment during my labor, even though she apologized later and acted more professionally after that, had blocked up the release of those hormones. I will never, ever get to go back in time and get that experience with David back. There is still so much unexpressed grief in that experience, though I’ve also successfully released a lot of grief, too. Real grief, real sorrow, feels good to release. It isn’t the same as the emotionally exhausting ugly-crying that is so painful you feel like you might die if you kept going. Grieving can be painful but it’s also alchemical: it isn’t a negative experience, it’s a positive one. And it can’t be forced. It can be found, it can be allowed.
I haven’t been able to allow as much as I’d like. I can sense the backlog.
My experience of motherhood is uniquely my own, informed by my own history and circumstances. But I also know I’m not alone. Aside from the basics of my birth stories, I haven’t been able, still, to really sit and write out what the experience of becoming a mother in our misogynistic culture was like for me and why I describe it as a traumatic one. Being able to put an experience into narrative form is the first step in really healing, and I still have enough parasympathetic stress in my nervous system that the full story eludes my ability to put more of its scope into words.
Every single day I consciously attend to healing my nervous system, not only for my own benefit and my family’s benefit, but also because I understand the effect incoherence in my nervous system has on everyone around me—every single interaction I have with every single person I meet is informed by my own relationship to my traumas. That has been, and remains, the most heartbreaking thing about it.
But heartbreak has given me a lot of drive, and my ability to process, heal, and transform my traumatic experiences has continued to steadily even if gradually, improve. Each new step of healing I’m ready for reveals itself in time.
The painting above has two parts. This is one part, half of the truth—the past historical truth. My body, my person, my selfhood, had been trampled, overruled: colonized by hatred and violence in a way that I was powerless to go back and change, or even fully understand the extent of even at the time of creating the painting. I felt powerless to live more than a half-life, guilty that I even had any awareness of wanting more for my life, as-yet unaware that continuing to try to live a half-life was literally, gradually, killing me.
I didn’t yet know myself as essentially native—indigenous to my own being, my own body, my existence in space-time. Or I did, but I didn’t yet understand how that could help me.