353,000 babies might be born every day, but childbirth remains a mystery to many of us.
Two days after Autumn Benjamin gave birth to her daughter, Layla, she felt like she was looking at her life through blurred vision. She lay awake during the night crying and desperately working hard to get her daughter to latch, while the newborn resisted and screamed.
For the rest of the day, exhaustion and the side-effects from the medication prescribed to ease the pain of her vaginal rip took over. She drifted in and out of consciousness.
When she needed to shower her partner had to help. But all she can remember is collapsing into him and sobbing about the emptiness she was feeling, now their daughter was no longer inside her. Autumn didn’t understand the intenseness and hurt that was suddenly overpowering her emotions. This was far from what she had heard, and imagined, childbirth to be like.
As she sprayed lidocaine on her rip from the birth, she repeated over and over again, “She’s not safe inside of me anymore”. Her partner prepared her mesh panties with witch hazel pads. The fishnet-styled pants are designed to hold up women’s maxi pads to control all the bleeding that happens post-labour, and provide some comfort for mothers.
On the night that she remembers crying the most, she was standing to eat her dinner (sitting hurt too much), when her partner captured the photo below. The 22-year-old from Tennessee recently uploaded the snap to a Facebook post, along with an honest account of her experience of the aftermath of childbirth, which quickly went viral. In her own unapologetic, candid words, Autumn describes all of the things that no-one had warned her about giving birth.
Autumn writes, “No one told me your belly doesn’t go down immediately. No one told me I’d be bleeding out. No one told me that I would spend hours crying and full of emotion. I remember just laying there in the hospital bed crying. I was crying because my babygirl was finally here.. FINALLY! But wait.. that means she isn’t protected inside of me anymore. And that’s a scary feeling…”
“I was also in so much pain.. no one tells you that typically with a “quick delivery” comes a bad rip. I ripped all the way up and down, and also side to side. The weeks following I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t use the bathroom. I wore these big depends diapers. I never thought I would be normal again. Kevin had to help me do EVERYTHING from pee, to walk upstairs,” she adds.
The post resonated with people all over the world, garnering 125,000 shares, 149,000 likes, and 21,000 comments.
It is no secret that childbirth can be painful and gruelling, with even a ‘quick’ birth averaging at a minimum of six hours. But it can also traumatise women so why do we whisper about childbirth and its aftermath rather than openly discuss it?
We spoke to Autumn about why she decided to speak out about giving birth to her daughter Layla, why discussing the realities of childbirth has become off-limits, and what the reaction has been like since her post went viral.
Refinery29: You said you were thinking about sharing the Facebook post for a while, what stopped you before and why did you decide to share it when you did
What stopped me before was the fact that it was such a vulnerable picture, and it’s a very personal experience that only my spouse was there to experience with me. In posting it, there was a risk in everyone seeing that vulnerability.
I decided to share it because after I joined a postpartum depression (PPD) support group, I realised that tons of women felt the same way I did.
What do you wish you knew about childbirth before, that you know now?
I wish I would have known that you could experience extreme emptiness, even with your baby in your arms. Your body was just a vessel for nine months, and all of the sudden your baby is ripped out of you, so to speak. You get used to that weight, that feeling of your baby inside of you. Bonding over the womb. And then all of the sudden you just feel so empty.
It’s something that nobody warned me about. It was an extremely emotional thing to endure. I cried for hours and hours, even though I was so happy my daughter was finally here. I had yearned for her arrival for so long, yet I was so emotional over feeling so empty due to her arrival. It’s a very confusing and emotional time, and I wish there was more preparation for that.
After posting my story, over 100,000 women have shared my post and commented telling me how much they resonate with my story, and how they were emotional over that same emptiness. That’s enough to tell me that it’s not abnormal, and it needs to be talked about more. I’m a first-time mom and this information should have been more available to me.
Why do you think there’s such a taboo and stigma around speaking about the realities of childbirth?
I think there’s a stigma about the realities of birth for many reasons. For one, I’ve had a lot of negative comments on my post telling me “you’re not special, women have been doing this for years, and in worse conditions”.
People were really looking at my post and thinking 'she is seeking attention and a pat on the back'. With that, I realised that somewhere along the line, women stopped being appreciated and credited for what they go through to bring life into the world and started being criticised for rejoicing in their pregnancy, being proud of themselves, and telling their stories.
With this, so many women have lost their voices. So many women are stuck silently struggling because they are made to feel ashamed to speak about their experience. The worst part was the fact that I had other mothers tearing me down on my post... my post that was made to uplift other mothers and remind people that mothers should never be discredited.
Women face a lot of issues around childbirth and unfortunately all the issues have become so taboo to talk about. I can’t express enough how many women are silently struggling due to society shaming every move a mother makes.
As a mother, you want to make every single right move for your child and it’s scary knowing what those right moves are sometimes... there is always going to be someone with an opinion.
Can you tell us a bit about the physical complications of your birth? What doesn’t get talked about? What surprised you?
With my birth, there weren’t a ton of complications. I was induced and laboured really well. I handled the contractions pretty well and my epidural went smoothly aside from my extreme anxiety over getting one.
It was only afterwards, when the epidural wore off, that I started to feel the rip. I had no idea how bad it was until the following days. I ended up having to go get the stitches cut because they were all mangled and tangled after a couple weeks!
The complications came afterwards for me, from the emotional toll, to me ending up back in the hospital a week after having my daughter. I had a septic infection in my blood and had severe clotting in my pelvis and legs and was close to death.
My OB, Helen Cavasin, was amazing throughout the whole thing, from prenatal appointments, to birth, to making sure I was taken care of when I was hospitalised for the sepsis and clotting.
How are you coping with PDD?
My PPD is almost completely silenced. My daughter is almost seven months now and life has been incredible being her mama.
I have my bad days, even bad weeks. There are times when I don’t even have it in me to shower and brush my hair. But in those times, Kevin carries me. He’s sat and brushed tangles out of my hair for me before. He’s said so many encouraging things that keep me motivated both as a woman and as an individual. He’s been so important in all of this, and I couldn’t do it without him.
Having a strong support system is so important. Even if it’s just a friend, family member, or therapist. Having someone like that makes a world of difference. It’s okay to reach out.
What has the reaction to the post been like? Have any particular comments or stories stuck with you?
The reaction to the post has been overwhelming. I’ve gotten so much love and support from mothers. Like any good thing, there’s been a few bad apples and hate comments, but overall the support has been overwhelming.
I feel less alone, and I feel like I’ve done my part to speak for mothers who haven’t found their voice yet. I’ve read so many touching stories, I couldn’t summarise it down to just one. I’ve had mamas who have flatlined, who have dealt with a stillbirth, who have also suffered the way I did, mothers who have made this sacrifice time and time again for their babies. I wish I could hug all of them... they all sound so incredible. I wish they knew just how important they really are. I’m sad to hear a lot of them felt alone before reading my post.
The last line in your post reads "I used to be Autumn. Fun loving, crazy, outgoing Autumn. But now I’m Layla’s mama. And I’m okay with that". Are you saying you feel you have to give up your identity for motherhood? Would you be comfortable clarifying that comment for our readers?
Because in that moment when that picture was taken, I wasn’t that crazy outgoing Autumn anymore. Before I fell pregnant I was in a very dark place and suffered with severe anxiety and depression. In that moment, I was renamed as Layla’s Mama. In that moment nothing mattered but being her mama. I'm still fun loving, and all those great things but as Layla’s mama. She made me who I am now. And behind the word “mama” is so many other things: caregiver, teacher, therapist, booboo kisser, cuddle buddy, nurturer, best friend... so many meanings behind being a mama. Becoming her mama led me into so much more than I was before.
That line didn’t mean I lost my identity. It means I found it when I became her mama.