by Brita Johnson
For Ben and his wife Lauren, the path from their son’s birth in January, 2017 to Father’s Day, 2017 was a rocky road marked by medical trauma, parenting challenges, emotional struggles, and, finally, healing. Ben recalls that first Father’s Day as the time when things started to normalize and they began to enjoy the kind of family moments he’d expected from the start.
Things had felt easy in the beginning. With nothing more serious than the slight nausea and fatigue that you’d expect, Lauren’s had been a textbook pregnancy. When they went into the hospital for an induction a few days past Lauren’s due date, they anticipated a similarly easy labor and delivery. Instead, Ben says, “we walked out forever changed.”
It was while on the operating table for a routine c-section that everything went sideways. Once the baby was delivered, Lauren started bleeding profusely. Ben was rushed out of the operating room while the surgeons scrambled to stanch the bleeding. He spent 15-30 minutes in an adjacent room, not knowing if Lauren would live or die. “It was the most profound loneliness I’ve ever experienced,” Ben says of those moments.
Once the hemorrhage was under control, Ben spent the next three days at Lauren’s side in the intensive care unit, focused wholly on her survival. No part of the story of their first three days as parents is about meeting their son, looking into his eyes, counting fingers and toes, and marveling at his tiny perfection. The baby, who would be named Sully, entered the picture only on day four, when their doctor had to push for an exception to the rules to allow Sully into the ICU to meet his mother.
Ben, Lauren, and Sully headed home from the hospital not long after, to settle into their new life as a family of three. But, “the course of what I thought parenthood was going to be was completely altered,” says Ben. Medical struggles, ongoing physical impacts from Lauren’s hemorrhage, severe colic, and the emotional fallout from their trauma consumed them for the next four months. Lauren experienced a bout of postpartum depression; Ben focused on supporting her through that. As she began to resurface, he took a dive into depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
During those months, Ben lived in a swirl of fear (“Would things ever be normal again? What if this was a mistake and we never reclaim our identity? What if we never get to surf or travel or do the things we love?”) and anger (“why us?”).
“It honestly took 8 months to…I won’t say ‘recover’… but to get back to neutral,” Ben says. What helped? A flood of family and friend support; research into paternal postpartum experience, PTSD, and trauma recovery; an awareness, shared with Lauren, about the need to heal; a subsequent therapy journey. And, support from Bridgetown Baby.
Friends recommended Bridgetown Baby, and soon postpartum doula support became an integral part of Ben’s, Lauren’s, and Sully’s early weeks as a family. “Merriah came into our home when everything was at its worst,” says Ben. Doula support was powerful for Ben and Lauren in ways both simple and profound. “Just to have the energy of someone who’d seen what we’d gone through, and could support us in learning to be parents… In the moments where the four of us could sit down together and talk, Merriah really listened and always gave thoughtful advice.”
Then there was the magical frittata (“I still remember how good it tasted”), and the gift of sleep: “For me, it was having Merriah walk through the door and look at me and say, ‘just go to bed.’ All the riches in the world weren’t as valuable as getting to lie down in the guest room and sleep uninterrupted.”
For Ben, postpartum doula support was something he didn’t know they needed until they needed it. Ben says, “it's unimaginable that we could have gotten through what we did without doula care.”
Looking back, Ben can (almost) chuckle at some of the fears he experienced in those early months. Sully is now a happy, verbal toddler—Ben’s face glows with joy as he describes Sully’s newest abilities and capers. As they approach Father’s Day 2018, Ben marvels at the difference a year makes. “Last year, we were still navigating the crisis, we were in survival mode. Right now, life is chaotic…but life is full, in a good way. We’re able to focus on each other in a different way, and enjoy ourselves as a family.”
With the perspective he’s gained, Ben now feels a drive to share the struggle he went through: if his experience can make it just one or two clicks easier for someone else to find the resources they need, he feels it’s worth telling his story.
For all dads, Ben would like to recognize the tumultuous feelings they might have: “[having a new baby is] a really intense experience, and it’s not easy. And it’s not easy for everybody, not just the mom. The dad’s emotions and reactions are not an outlier—they’re part of the equation. I didn’t think that way walking into it.”
For dads who’ve “gone through something with childbirth, or raising a kid, whether it’s [a crisis of some kind or whether it’s] as simple as you’ve had a completely normal experience but it’s just hard to raise a kid…I hope it can help to know that there’s someone else who’s gone through it and is willing to talk it through.”
His biggest take-home is that it’s okay to feel the feelings you have. ”You owe it to yourself first,” Ben says, “and your family second, to get in there with those feelings, to recognize them, and work through them.”