In their words: A traumatic birth

How this Hyde Park couple weathered a scary birth and the postpartum fallout

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Camille Powell/City Bureau

Stacy Tolbert and Ian Macswain are married with two teenage children living in Hyde Park. They sat down with City Bureau reporting fellow Camille Powell to talk candidly about their birth trauma. Tolbert had a near-death hospital birth experience when her epidural ran out and she could feel everything during an emergency c-section. To combat the pain and complete the c-section, she was given ketamine, a hallucinogenic that also goes by Special K.

The couple talks about the experience and the importance of trusting oneself and your partner during birth and postpartum.

What happened when you first got pregnant?

Stacy: We basically had to make a decision about marriage and family, like in a day. We met that day for lunch and decided on the course of our lives: that we would have this baby, that I would defer from law school, and that we would have a family and just get married. We were married a week and a day later.

What mental and or emotional changes did you see during Stacy's first pregnancy?

Ian: Her first trimester hit her like a truck. I mean, she was napping all the time and it was really hard for her to stay awake. She all of a sudden got very sensitive to certain foods. I remember I would come home from work and all the lights would be off and you'd just be on the couch under a blanket. It was strange. It was like everything about who you were and what we did changed, like you were a different person with a different sort of needs and abilities at that time.

Stacy: I remember trying to communicate that to you. When I was able to unpack it later on and we figured out that I was pregnant, it was like this other instinct kicked in. I became a mama lion almost right away.

We never sit down and tell young women that there may come a time in your life, whether it's pregnancy or otherwise, where no one is going to be able to guide you but you. To have that sort of absolute trust in oneself, that goes counter to everything about how women live.

Your epidural wore off during your c-section. Beyond the terrible physical pain, how did that affect the experience of your son's birth?

Stacy: We went into this experience realizing that things could go wrong, but the thing that never even occurred to me was having that sort of birth experience.

Part of what I began to understand during that healing process is that it felt like they were destroying my body. Like I was a husk. I never felt like I was able to give birth to him because it was something entirely different. I remember looking at him and wondering if he was mine at different points because that was not a birth. Maybe we can call it a Cesarean because it sounds very nice, but if you do it without anesthesia, I was cut open and had a baby taken out. Then, I was angry because they had completely destroyed that bond and would not acknowledge it unless I got an attorney.

I could not wait to get home to be alone with [Ian] because we needed to talk about it in a safe place and it didn't feel safe at all in the hospital, like at all.

Stacy, you started seeing a therapist right after the birth. What went into making that decision?

Stacy: We were lucky we had insurance and that I was not someone who was afraid that other people might question my sanity. I really didn't give a damn; I knew something was wrong with me.

Ian: I knew you'd been through something terrible, but only you knew just exactly what was going on in your head. I think a lot of people don't have that kind of wisdom coming through a situation like that, certainly not as early as you did, or they just don't want to talk about it. From the moment you got pregnant, I just became instantly worried about money and that hasn't stopped. I remember feeling like that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Like, oh, and now we have to do their therapy too. But, you know, you needed it, and we did what we had to do. Yeah, it was scary.

How important was your partnership during this whole ordeal?

Stacy: At no point did I feel like we were adrift from each other, that's profound. I always trusted you, you always trusted me, you know, you didn't question. Even now, we're 16 years out and there were times where I look back and I'm like, what the hell? That idea of healing and what healing really looks like, learning to trust you, being able to communicate all of those things that nobody talks about.

How did your first birth inform your second birth?

Stacy: We decided to have the doula the second time. I wanted the doula to not just be support for me and the baby, but that there would be someone who was able to jump in for you. You know what I mean?

Ian: Yeah, just someone who knew what was supposed to happen.

Stacy: Yes. And to be able to share that responsibility with you, of never leaving the baby alone. Part of having the doula was really because we needed someone else in there. Family is great, but you know, family is also prone to hysteria. I don't think that either parental units could see either of us hurting like that and maintain their sanity.

What advice would you give to partners who want to be supportive during pregnancy and postpartum?

Ian: I did get sort of lucky that Stacy knows herself very well. She was very good at communicating what she thought she needed. And I mostly just had to go along and try to be supportive and that was fairly straightforward.

Stacy: You trusted me, you know what I mean? You didn't present roadblocks, you didn't try to fault me. We didn't turn on each other. I felt like you were supportive of me. You trusted me, you had my back, and you stepped up. You didn't question me, and there was lots to question, but you trusted who I was as a person.

How do we do better for moms during pregnancy and postpartum?

Stacy: My mom was born here in Chicago in the forties at home on the kitchen table, and it was attended by aunts. I think that in some ways having a doula or having women support, we need to bring that back. It was always understood in my family that when you have a baby, you stay in the house for that first 30 days. Family would come and attend to you, that you have got to give yourself that time to heal. We need to teach our daughters and sons that we have to honor that the body is wise and there's no question about it.

We cannot put all of that faith and trust in the medical profession. It isn't even warranted: It is a business. And you wouldn't trust a business to tell you how to take care of your body. Their interest is numbers. We really need our families. We really need our sisters, and it doesn't have to be a biological family. When you know someone has recently had a child, just go and sit with them, be with them. Husbands too, I don't think that there is a ritual for men supporting men who have babies.

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Woodlawn. Learn more and get involved at www.citybureau.org.

Read all stories in our special Maternal Health Issue here.

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