A Tale Of Two Births
As a mother, a part of Alicia McKenzie’s story is a tale of two births that differed greatly from each other. Giving birth to her oldest daughter was a traumatic experience that McKenzie was wholly unprepared for and the outcome of which has had repercussions that McKenzie has endured long after Madison’s birth. With her second daughter, Olivia, it was a redemptive birth, it was an opportunity to reclaim what McKenzie lost the first time around.
McKenzie and her husband met in the fall of 2007 at their alma mater, Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU). They got married in 2014 and shortly after found out that they were pregnant. McKenzie’s initial reaction to the news was a genuine shock, they had planned to enjoy a year or two of wedded bliss before starting a family, but they quickly came around to the good news. They were both working, McKenzie had recently earned her Masters in Counseling with a Specialization in Student Development in Higher Education and started a job at ECSU as a Residence Hall Director while her husband was working for the state of Connecticut. They were confident that they would be able to raise a happy and healthy girl and on the morning of March 26th, 2015 they were ready to welcome baby Madison McKenzie into the world.
When McKenzie’s water broke, she was immediately rushed to the hospital and was unable to labor at home. Because she tested positive for Group B Streptococcus, a bacteria commonly found in pregnant women and when not treated could cause postpartum infection, her labor was induced.McKenzie was in labor with Madison for 20 hours and despite all of her efforts, Madison would not come out.McKenzie’s doctor told her that she would more than likely have to have a C-section, but that wasn’t part of McKenzie’s plan, she couldn’t afford it.
“I couldn't afford to be out for eight weeks, I just started working at Eastern. I panicked and was like no I can't have a C section, so I forced myself to go and do vaginal,” McKenzie said.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 states that if you have been employed for at least one year and work at least 25 hours a week, an employee can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. McKenzie had been working at ECSU for 6 months and only earned 6 weeks of leave.
“If I had the C-section I would have been out for eight weeks, in my mind I was just thinking I can't afford to be out an additional two weeks. I'm barely even making ... I barely have enough to cover for six weeks. And I even went back to work at five weeks, I didn't even go back at six weeks, I went back at five because I didn't have enough to even cover the six weeks,” McKenzie said.
To make matters worse, Madison’s umbilical cord had wrapped around her throat twice. The common sounds of newborn wails and joyous uproar of family members were absent from McKenzie’s delivery room when Madison was born. McKenzie’s husband, mother, and sister stood softly crying over Madison while McKenzie rallied her family to pray as Madison was rushed to the NICU.
“You dream of being able to hear your baby cry and then hold them in that first moment. There is nothing that can describe that feeling and I felt like I was robbed of that opportunity.”
In March of 2018, McKenzie discovered that she was expecting her second child, another girl. Having learned so much from her first delivery, McKenzie set out to have her second child her way. She researched beforehand and settled on birthing her second daughter, Olivia, naturally with the assistance of a doula. A doula, which translates to a female servant in Greek, offers support for mothers during childbirth and advocates for the mother, making sure that their birthing plan is followed during delivery. Use of doulas during birth is on the rise. According to the DONA International, the world’s first, largest, and leading doula certifying organization, “more than 6,500 birth and postpartum doulas have been certified to date. That’s more than triple the number certified in 2002.”
“Because I had such a traumatic experience and I literally had PTSD from [Madison’s birth], I wanted to try to do whatever I could to have a different experience. I really personally believe that having a doula would support me in being able to get me through natural birth and to get Olivia here safely,” McKenzie said.
It was especially important for McKenzie to have an advocate in the delivery room, not only because of her first delivery experience but additionally, in 2018, reports had been coming out about the rising maternal mortality rate among women of color. According to the CDC, black mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers. Social class does not increase the survival rate for black mothers either; black, college-educated mothers are more likely to have complicated or fatal births compared to white women who’ve never graduated from high school.
Antiquated medical theories pointed to health disparities among the black community, however new research shows the role that systemic racism plays in the quality of care that black women receive compared to their peers. According to 200 accounts from African American mothers that were collected by ProPublica and NPR, their testimonies revealed scenarios of unconscious biases and feeling devalued and disrespected by their medical providers.
“I wanted someone that was gonna be vocal or maybe a little bit more vocal. I don't like being as vocal when it comes to certain things like that, especially when the people that I'm working with are white because I feel like I'm going to be stereotyped as an angry person of color or angry Latina or whatever the case may be, or rub them the wrong way and then they don't want to work with me or they don't want to support me and help me. I needed someone that was gonna be able to vouch for me in that space.”
With Olivia’s birth, McKenzie described the feeling of empowerment from beginning to end. She was empowered by the utilizing her voice and advocating for her needs and empowered by having a natural birth and experiencing how her body seamlessly went into auto-pilot, executing what nature had intended and what centuries of women had accomplished before her.
“I felt so strong. Even though I'm definitely not the most attractive, I felt beautiful, I felt strong, I felt powerful because I was able to give birth to my daughter 100% naturally, no complications, she came out breathing, crying. They placed her on me. All of those moments I felt like I was robbed of before, I was able to have. It was just a moment that was so overwhelming but in such a beautiful way. Because it was just like this was what my body was made to do. A man can't do this. Do you know what I mean? We were created to do this. We are so strong, we are so powerful.”
McKenzie has been reflective of the moments that she’s lost with Madison due to the traumatic experience she had after her birth. When McKenzie first had the opportunity to hold Madison when she was in the NICU, she had an overwhelming rush of anxiety and remembers pushing Madison back into the arms of the nurse. In the moments where a new mom would be bonding with her new child, McKenzie guarded herself against her child because of the lost she almost experienced, she didn’t want to feel that again. McKenzie described how this negatively affected her relationship with Madison.
“After women have babies they feel this enormous amount of love. I've never loved something so much and blah, blah, blah, but there were points where I would literally look at Maddison and I loved her, but it would be like I don't know you. It was like how am I supposed to love this being but I don't really even know you, I haven't connected with you. That made me feel like a shit mother. Because I'm like how could I look at my daughter that way. This is the little person that grew in me that I carried for almost 10 months that I birthed that needs me and obviously I love you because I do, but it was just very different. It was very different.”
It was after going to therapy when Madison was two years old, where Alicia realized that she suffered from postpartum depression and truly realized how Madison’s birth affected her relationship with her daughter. She’s thankful that she came to that understanding before it was too late and before she had Olivia. Adding a second sibling to the family dynamic can be complicated to begin with, where the eldest child may feel replaced or excluded, but add to that the complicated relationship McKenzie already had with Madison, McKenzie was facing an uphill battle. However, equipped with knowledge and undying love for both of her daughters, McKenzie sets out individual time to bond with them both.
Although traumatizing, McKenzie’s story is one that she is proud to share. She shares her story for any mother who may have had the same experience or not, for expecting mothers who are planning their births and weighing their options, or for any mother who thinks they are struggling or failing as a mom. There are so many unspoken experiences that aren’t shared about motherhood. McKenzie’s story is a tale of two births, both very different but both reflective of what many women across America are experiencing.