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.
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.
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.
But the most urgent apocalypse was not the birth itself but what came afterward: breastfeeding unmoored me.
To explain: part of my hippie-dippy childbirth plan was a committment to exclusive breastfeeding to feed my daughter. For so many boring and important reasons that I don’t need to go into, breastfeeding is healthier for newborns than any manufactured powdered formula on the grocery store shelves.
Consider the difference between a bowl of fresh salad and a pouch of dessicated greens astronauts eat on the international space station: nutritionally, there is no comparison between the two.
But soon enough, I discovered that I hated breastfeeding.
First, I was terrible at reading my daughter’s hunger cues… until she was raging, her face bright red and bellowing her lungs out. (Which set me weeping, too.)
Plus, it hurt. My nipples were rubbed raw.
And it was messy. As I slept, I soaked my sheets, the fronts of my shirts and bras with spotted with breastmilk. Every piece of clothing I owned had been doused either in breastmilk or breastmilk vomit.
The fact of leaking milk through every garment via my nipples (!) embarassed me to the same extent as those early days of managing my menstrual cycle as a teenager, when the sight of blood on underwear made me weak and mortified because I had not figured out how to use a tampon and didn’t yet carry a stock of pads in my backpack.
Now, I found I needed to learn a new complex skill under high pressure (MY DAUGHTER COULD DIE IF I DO THIS WRONG) and in PUBLIC. Because moms and extroverts (me) cannot stay inside forever. And when you go out into the world, sometimes your baby will get hungry and will not cooperate with your carefully planned schedule of events.
I found if I tried to feed my daughter anywhere but home, my breasts would soak a blanket, making the fact of hiding the feeding both impossible and ridiculous. Add to that my shame that I felt toward my body—that belief I held that revealing even a hint of my sexuality to anybody but my husband would dishonor God—and the whole experience felt incomprehensible and humiliating.
How did women feed their children? Did it dishonor God when I soaked through breastpads if my milk accidentally let down in public… because now men finally realized that I had breasts? (Hadn’t they known before?)
But for me, the worst thing about breastfeeding was the simple reality that my daughter constantly needed me.
There were no breaks ever to my role as mother and feeder, no moments when I could clock out. Every two hours, my infant’s stomach would register as empty and she would need to return to my breast in order to live another day. Despite his expressed desire to help, Jeremy could not give her the most basic thing she needed.
And so the only person she needed (or wanted) was me.
And so I felt smothered by my daughter’s constant demand for my body.
And so I felt like a cow; I was exactly like a cow.
And that feeling of stuckness, my body out of my own control, evoked a deeper emotional memory for me. Internally, I felt that this experience of breastfeeding was horribly similar to the codependency I’d come to despise in my family-of-origin relationships.
This past emotional trauma made it hard to see my daughter straight without that lens of dysfunction, anger and helplessness. Between my daughter and myself, I felt that same black hole gaping, a needing me that never ended. I feared that she, as my relatives often had, would suck up all my spare thoughts and emotions and experiences so that I lost sight of where I ended and where the others began.
Intellectually, of course, I understood that codependency and dependency were different, that her demands were rational and healthy. But emotionally, my daughter’s demands and my family’s felt the same.
I wondered, was this what motherhood was all about? If so, how could I survive it?
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that I ended up in therapy a few months postpartum.
In that gentle environment, I started to explore an idea that offered me relief: my daughter was not to blame for how I felt. And perhaps my feelings had nothing to do with motherhood at all.
I started to explore the story of my childbirth, how the early health scare I experienced had caused me to feel out of control and to bond more slowly with my infant, a fact which left me doubting whether I was up to the task of mothering. (“If I couldn’t handle that, how could I handle this?”)
I also started to understand that the intimate experience of mothering my newborn had surfaced fears and traumas from my past experience of family life, so that even if I attributed this feeling to my daughter’s behaviors, it was more connected to reprocessing my past relationships than to my mother-daughter relationship in the present.
Therapists call what I experienced transference. I can see now that, unsconsciously, I was pressing a formative experience from the past onto the present.
The difference was, my newborn had no intentions whatsoever, could not form an intention if she tried. Her dependence on me was natural, legitimate and healthy. She needed me for survival. Which meant that any blame I placed on her was misplaced.
My daughter could not be held responsible for my own big feelings about her big needs. That was mine to work through.
Generally we think of triggers as reactionary, a sort of allergy to an external circumstance. Thinking of “triggers” in this way can confuse the source of the feelings. The source is the allergen, right? The person right now in the present, causing you to feel the big feelings?
The source of our Big Pain usually lives in the past, especially when our reaction seems out of scale for the present circumstance.
Yet the body’s involuntary responses are informative. Our bodies hold, in our very cells, an irrevocable and indisputable memory of all our past experiences. In this way, we are not so different from tree trunks, storing inside ourselves rings of emotion that stand for years past.
Then again, it’s helpful to remember that our body’s sense of time is fluid. Sometimes the past is teaching us about our present tense, and sometimes we are right to equate the two. But it’s so easy to confuse the origin point of our big feelings.
We, the previously traumatized, very often experience the past in the present and we read the circumstances as the same… when they might not be.
What I’m saying is, your intuition may not be as sound as you suppose because trauma can distort it. So we should not expect to work out when we’re right or wrong all on our own. Without fail, our bodies will equate the two, making it hard to tell the difference. The two sets of emotions can feel the same, but may not be the same. And sometimes we need another unbiased witness who loves us to see the situation more clearly than we can. (My husband and dear friends do this for me.)
It’s entirely possible that us, the traumatized, may still be reeling from the past pain, may simply be assuming that everyone in our vicinity is a threat, even when those nearby want to help us and are notably distinct from the past. Often and easily, we can transfer inaccurate intentions, motivations and power to relationships in the present that, objectively, are not the same as the past.
I have confused the external and internal often enough, assuming that the one who evoked the big feeling in me today is also performing the same action that brought about the big emotion before.
But in reality, if someone has triggered me, it’s more likely that they have stumbled into a past pain by accident and, in fact, mean me no harm.
I bring this up because I understand just how easy it is to call a present-day friend a perpetrator and treat them as such while, in reality, we are biting the hand that could heal us.
But we can find ways through.
When it comes to my adult relationships today, the way I sort out my often distorted vision is by having hard and conflictual conversations. It’s the only way for me to see truly which emotions are due to the current situation and which are rooted in the past. Yes, it’s often painful and vulnerable. But it has taught me how wrong I can be in my assumptions about other people.
In therapy, I found psychological energy and somatic practices particularly helpful. Through these methods (and some CBT), my therapists retaught me how to separate out childhood experiences from present experiences within my own mind.
I’ve needed to relearn, with others’ help, how to evaluate my own gut emotions. What questions can I ask myself to discern more clearly? And how can I be relentless in a search for what is true in my life and self—not true according to my perspective, but true from the eyes of others’, too?
I began to see that my feelings resided within me. They were not external, but internal.
When it came to breastfeeding, my daughter was in no way to blame for my emotions. In fact, I learned that the question of whose fault these feelings were, in fact, mattered very little to me. Wherever or whomever the feelings arose from, right now, in this present moment, my responsibility was to resolve them.
Healing then became my task, even when it meant I was wrong about myself, other people, or the world.
And I began to see that these Big Feelings ushered me into wholeness—both for my own sake and for the sake of the child in my arms, the one who shared my chin.
These big emotions, ultimately, were as an invitation to get well.
As an epilogue, I want to tell you that my husband encouraged me to stop breastfeeding after I shared my heart-sick feelings with him. I ended up pumping for six months instead and then making a raw goatmilk formula for my daughter until her first birthday when she could finally drink cow’s milk (I told you I was hippie-dippy!).
Remarkably, after lots of therapy, my second breastfeeding experience with my son felt entirely different. Sure, it was annoying to soak through shirts and sheets and breastpads, but I did not endure the same panicked suffocation as I had felt with my first kid. I even grew to enjoy the cuddle time.
For that reason, I have great hope for you, too.
I hope that you can also experience the same freedom from your traumas, friends, that your pains will no longer bind you either in the past or the present, and that your relationships will be rich with honesty and forgiveness.
We ourselves desperately need both, don’t we?
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
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As I wrote this essay, I found that much of the language I turned to in order to obscure the details of childbirth rung of the sanitization of past obstetric language, that time when male doctors used to call childbirth, I kid you not, an “interesting event,” pregnancy being termed an “interesting condition.”
Some have claimed that during hombirthing, they orgasmed through their contractions???But that always smelled like bullshit to me. (I’m happy to be wrong though! Email me if that was your actual experience!)
No, your vision will not always line up with the perspectives of others, even those who care about you. But it will always help you to hear them out and consider their opinion, too, promise. :)
Liz this is such a beautiful invitation to do the work we can to be whole and well, and that its possible. I do think, as someone on that journey, it can be difficult to be in spaces that are repeatedly triggering. They can be very revealing of our inner world but also quite exhausting. This has so many helpful generous pointers I will return to
Liz! I love this! (haha of course I do, obviously). I also love your therapist. Thank you for being so real about your struggles. I resonate a lot (and still recall your empathy you offered in Denver at WFYL about how hard these early years of childrearing feel!). I'm talking about mental health/ postpartum in my post tomorrow... it's nice to know you're out here doing it too!