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Mom Talk: On Anxiety, Failure, & Feces

Written by Abby Sommerfeld

Photography by Photographed by Michelle Drewes

In our latest “Mom Talk” column, San Francisco-based life coach Abby Sommerfeld writes about her pre-pregnancy anxiety, multiple “failed” birth plans, and dealing with her shit, both metaphorically and physically.

About six years ago, out of what felt like nowhere, I began having panic attacks about what’s got to be the world’s most esoteric phobia: That I would get stuck in traffic. On the way to the airport. And shit my pants. That’s right. Yes, that very random and specific set of circumstances would set off a panic in my heart, and in my bowels. When I couldn’t get to SFO to catch my flight (to a Hawaiian vacation!) without an Ativan and adult diaper in my bag, I knew it was time to get help.

Desperate for any way to loosen the stranglehold of anxiety, I saw my acupuncturist. And my therapist. And my doctor. And eventually a hypnotherapist. What the heck was going on? Where did this come from? What had changed? What could it possibly be about? Would I always feel like this? It didn’t take long to unearth the inner voice that was trying to get my attention by any means possible—the most effective of which seemed to be these paralyzing panic attacks.

Was I drinking too much coffee? Was it hormonal? Did I have GI condition I wasn’t aware of? No. That’s not it. Wait! Oh yes! That’s right. Now I remember. I was about to start trying to get pregnant. No big deal.

The hypnotherapist explained that what I was going through was called “reckoning”. Common for women when we enter into motherhood—whether we’re just beginning to think about it or 7 months pregnant or staring at our child for the first time, somewhere along the path to motherhood, we are all faced with our moment(s) of “reckoning”.

What is motherhood forcing us to face? To take with us? To let go of? What is and isn’t serving us as we prepare to pull away from the shores of life as we knew it before motherhood? I learned reckoning is basically facing your shit. In my case, both literally and figuratively.

Understanding and unpacking the metaphorical loads we carry is my jam. I’m a personal growth nerd and a professional life coach. I am also a pretty literal person. So my nascent phobia as it related to my “reckoning” wasn’t too difficult to unpack. It was about control, shame, pride, inconvenience, imperfection, and messiness…did I mention control?

So, I faced my shit. I worked on my shit. I worked through my shit. I conquered my shit. Or so I thought…

Fast-forward a year and half. I am about to give birth. Here was my plan: I would give birth at home, birth team and husband by my side. It would be the most athletic event of my life. I would labor, I would push, I would reach down and pull my baby out myself, I would proudly place him on my chest—our bond cemented in that moment, having proven to myself and the world that I am strong, I can do anything, all by myself. And I would smile proudly as I popped my encapsulated placenta and embarked on motherhood. All according to my plan. Perfect.

Here’s how it actually went down: Two weeks past my due date, with a lot of help in the form of needles and tonics and stripped membranes, labor began on a Wednesday night. When my water broke Thursday afternoon, there was meconium (more shit!) in the sack. That meant no homebirth. To the hospital we went that evening. “I failed at home birth,” I told myself, hope and ego deflated.

After 24 hours of excruciating back labor, I had only progressed to two centimeters. That meant it was time for the epidural. Convincing myself I wasn’t tough enough, I thought, “I failed at un-medicated birth.”

Through the night I labored and puked and was poked and prodded and stared at my midwife while she stared at the monitor that monitored my baby’s heart rate. I searched her face for clues about what was coming next. When Friday arrived, I had only progressed to 5 centimeters. Which meant it was time to talk about a C-section. Which meant it was time to have a C-section. “I failed at vaginal birth.”

As they wheeled me out of the room to the OR, a code call went throughout the floor, which meant they were now running me to the OR, which meant that code call was about me, which meant that my baby did not have a heart rate, which meant it would be an emergency C-section. With the help of drugs and adrenaline, I left my body. I couldn’t witness that moment. His heart rate returned as they moved me to the table, and as the doctors worked swiftly in a choreographed dance that was all at once chilling and comforting, I returned to my body. When my baby was pulled out of me, I was cold and shaking and tied down to a table. My neck hurt so much I could barely turn my head to look at him. I couldn’t hold him. I didn’t recognize him. Away he went with my husband while they sewed me up. “I failed at bonding,” I told myself through a fog of sedatives and sadness. I turned my head away, closed my eyes. My heart and body broken.

Late, inconvenient, messy, imperfect, filled with moments of shame and failure and fear and swallowed pride, out of my control and not at all according to plan…my birth turned out to be the birth story equivalent of shitting my pants.

But as I sat on the toilet later that night in the corner of my dark hospital room, mesh underwear around my ankles, I stared into the eyes of the nurse who kneeled beside me. She held my gaze and my hand and dropped peppermint oil into the toilet to help me pee on my own. In that dark and deeply vulnerable moment, I fell in love with that nurse. With humanity. I remembered and realized how incredible people are. I realized that I couldn’t and wouldn’t do this alone. I felt the power and the beauty of being cracked open in that way. And as my drug induced fever haze broke hours later, I woke up in my hospital bed, my brand new, sticky headed son in my arms. I was soaking wet, he was soaking wet. I stared at my son and found that moment of recognition I thought I’d lost my chance to have. “You’re my son! I’m your mother! I love you!” my heart sang. I found my triumph.

It will be five years this November since that fateful feverish night when my son was born and I was born into motherhood. My labor, and frankly motherhood, has been my greatest teacher. What have I learned? That people are good. That we are all connected. That we are not alone. That rawness and realness and grit beat perfection and tidiness. I learned how to be inconvenient and messy. To fall apart. To be gentle. To ask for help. To let go. To find triumph in my failures. To face my shit, and to shit my pants.

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