the Empathy List #103: Big Feelings
Who controls your emotions? Plus a story about how I hated breastfeeding.
Hello friend, Liz here.
I want to talk about something very nuanced today (surprise 😉), something that has been essential to me finding healing from past pain.
I want to dissect the idea of our “triggers,” AKA “activations,” AKA those huge, overwhelming, surprising emotions that sometimes seem to swallow us whole.
I found myself interested in this question of where our triggers come from and, crucially, who is responsible for them once they arise within us? Are triggers primarily internal or external? And how do we sort through ownership and blame and boundaries when it comes to these tidal wave emotions?
But to get there, I want to start with a story of my own, one about my first childbirth & breastfeeding experience.
I married my husband, Jeremy, at age 23, he was 25, and we were pregnant by January of the next year. We were and are devoutly religious, both raised evangelical Christian (though our journey has led us to other sorts of Christian spaces since then).
Within six months of our marriage, I began to feel desperate for children. Obsessed. I was 23-years-old and so baby crazy I could hardly think of anything else. I tried to bully my new husband into breaking our agreement—he’d asked for a full year married before we tried to get pregnant because he’s not a psychopath—but he’s not the sort to be bullied. He would just calmly repeat over and over that he wanted just me and him for awhile and he still wasn’t ready to add more bodies to the family. Hadn’t we discussed a newlywed year?
Of course we had. I’d just changed my mind.
I suspect a large part of my hunger for babies was that I truly had no idea what to do with myself. Despite being a high-achieving student, I expected to be a stay-at-home mother. I also assumed that my husband would always make more money than I would and so, ultimately, his career would matter more than mine.
I assumed that what mattered most about me was the empty space below my rib cage. I needed a job and that job, according to how I read the Bible, was babymaking.
(Now I see the internalized misogyny. Sigh. But not back then.)
I can assure you that when we did get pregnant, it had been assiduously planned. And it worked—FIRST TRY. I was 25 by the time our first child entered the world.
Entered might be too tame a word for how my daughter arrived.1
As you may remember about me, I once worked as a birth doula. I witnessed the births of 21 children, their families remade in a second amid the chaos of labor and expulsion.
The reason I went into that profession was because, during my first pregnancy, my husband and I made a fairly radical choice, a choice I did not know was radical until later.
We decided to have a home birth.
Yup, I pushed my daughter out of my body in an inflatable tub in my living room, surrounded by midwives (CPMs). Actually, the two midwives who attended that first birth were both in training. True, we lived five minutes from a hospital, BUT STILL… I now understand how my relatives could barely stomach the fact when we explained what we’d decided to do.
While you might expect the majority of reactions to center around concern for my or the baby's safety, most of it centered on pain. Because home birthing allows for no options in pain relief. Having a baby at home means that you manage the pain of labor through clenched teeth.2
I have heard many and varied accounts of labor pain and I believe your account of yours completely.
For me, the experience of labor was pain like a lightning bolt, a repeated electrocution every few minutes.
Every time a contraction appeared, I jumped up from my bed and sprinted to the wall in the living room to lean my forearms on the plaster and take heaving breaths, even as I yelled for Jeremy to pummel my hips. Then I groaned and trembled under the pressure of the internal squeezing.
By the time the midwives arrived hours into this marathon, an inflatable hot tub had been filled in the living room about a quarter full, and I had already jumped inside. They walked in to see me half naked, writhing through transition. Jeremy, who had kindly sat behind me in the tub so as to hold me up between surges, nearly got clocked in the face by my flailing elbows.
When our child finally descended in fire and sweat, Jeremy caught her slippery body in the water.
Her umbilical cord was short. Her head barely broke the water line as we waited for her first breaths.
A long silence followed. She blinked, coughed, and then wailed.
Jeremy and I spoke to her: “It’s okay, baby, we’re here, it’s okay, I know…” She stopped crying suddenly. Her body went still and she opened her eyes. Then she looked back and forth between my face and Jeremy’s, back and forth, meeting our eyes. I swear she recognized the sound of us; she knew our voices already.
I’ll never forget that otherworldly moment.
Unfortunately, that brief moment of glory was followed by a sort of apocalypse for me.
As I stepped out of the tub to head for the bedroom, I started to bleed. In fact, the midwives told me that no, they would not let me sleep though I nearly collapsed into my sheets—nor would they themselves leave—until the bleeding stopped because they feared the amount I was losing. I was hemorrhaging slowly and my head was ringing. Would we transfer to the ER? They weren’t sure. Finally, they resorted to a shot of pitocin into my right thigh. It worked. The bleeding ceased and my insides clotted. Finally, I could sleep. Drama over, right?
Nope, not really. ‘Cause that event had consequences.