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Here's What Happened When My Doctor Told Me I Couldn't Scream While Giving Birth

"I couldn’t shake the feeling that the way I was treated, in a top-ranked hospital, still wasn’t right. ... It was the delivery itself that felt truly traumatizing."
“Now, no screaming,” the doctor commanded as she briskly entered the delivery room, her shoes squeaking on the pr
“Now, no screaming,” the doctor commanded as she briskly entered the delivery room, her shoes squeaking on the pristine floor.

No one told me I couldn’t scream in the delivery room — until I was in the delivery room. 

It was 2 a.m., the lights were low, except for a digital clock over my head that cast a red hue over the hospital bed. I was wearing a stiff white hospital gown with a blue pattern that despite my best efforts didn’t quite cover my exposed backside. I was about to deliver my first baby. 

“Now, no screaming,” the doctor commanded as she briskly entered the delivery room, her shoes squeaking on the pristine floor.

No screaming?

This is the shit no one tells you about in a birthing class. 

In every movie depiction of birth I had seen to date, women screamed. I hadn’t given birth before, but knew it was going to hurt. I hadn’t realized there were rules I was supposed to follow. I felt a heaviness start to creep into my chest. Why couldn’t I scream if I felt like it? 

Being told not to scream felt eerily similar to other moments in my life, moments when I felt silenced by someone with more power than me. 

There was the time a senior producer gave me a farewell hug at a noisy work party and let his hand slide down my back to cop a feel before I was able to pull away. Or the time my boss walked me home after an unofficial department outing, saying he’d make sure I’d get home safe. Apparently “safe” meant with an unprovoked “goodnight” kiss. 

In those cases, I didn’t feel I could raise my voice. I was early in my career, I wanted to advance, and while I worked hard, I was sure that turning in your boss wasn’t the way to get ahead.

Then there was the time a boyfriend told me I was “overreacting” when I cried and locked myself in a bathroom after he wouldn’t stop when I begged him to. I was too scared and in denial to say anything to anyone for years to come. In particularly difficult moments, I can still smell the vanilla lotion I had on that day, and still feel his hands on my body. I can still feel the fear that rose up in my chest as the realization I wasn’t being heard set in ― a weight that I couldn’t swallow down. 

Being told not to scream felt eerily similar to other moments in my life, moments when I felt silenced by someone with more power than me.

In the delivery room, I was shocked to feel the same sense of helplessness, the same heaviness in my chest, the same realization that I wouldn’t be heard. But this time I wasn’t a young woman at the beginning of her career, or a confused teenager. I was a grown woman about to become a mother.

And yet, I still couldn’t speak up. Maybe it was my doctor’s medical training and my lack thereof. Maybe it was my inexperience with birthing. Or maybe it was just because by this point, I was so wary of the medical system I just wanted out, with a healthy baby, and was willing to do whatever I was told to make that happen.  

Five weeks earlier, at 32 weeks pregnant, I had gone to the hospital at the direction of a nurse with what I thought were gas pains and a low back ache. In the hospital triage, my black shift dress was pulled up over my stomach, two scratchy elastic bands held monitors to my swollen belly, while a resident kneeled on my hospital bed and put his fingers inside me. I had never in my life had a cervical exam where a doctor had gotten onto the bed with me. It felt intimidating, strangely sexual and incredibly embarrassing. I held my breath and looked at the ceiling, unable to look at my husband who sat across the room in his suit and tie, worry on his face. 

That was when I found out I was in preterm labor. It was the start of a three-week hospital stay, where I felt like no one ever truly heard me. I was told on numerous occasions that I was in labor, despite the fact I didn’t feel any different than I had an hour ― or even a day ― before.

I thought that if a baby was actually going to emerge from my body, I would have some idea it was going to happen first. It was a sentiment I tried over and over to relay to the medical staff. They usually ignored my reasoning, instead pointing at monitors I was hooked up to. In those cases, I was often told I needed yet another vaginal exam. 

In one desperate moment, I asked my husband through tears, “How many people’s hands are going to be inside me?”  

He gently reminded me that it was my body, and no one could do anything to me that I didn’t consent to, even a doctor or a nurse. I was shocked by his resolve and steadfastness. 

And yet, I was trying to be a “good patient.” It was the same way I had tried to be a “good” worker and a “good” girlfriend. There’s a fine line between advocating for yourself and annoying the people you’re entrusting your care to. I had no way of knowing how long I would be hospitalized, how long I ultimately needed these same medical professionals to look out for my health and the health of my baby. There was only so much pushing back I could do.

I cried through numerous vaginal exams that I ultimately felt coerced into consenting to. Yes, some were necessary. Were they all? I don’t believe so.  

What I do believe, is that each time I did try to speak up but succumbed to hospital protocol or my desire to be the “good” patient, I lost a tiny bit of my voice. All of those moments compounded to increase the trauma I would ultimately feel at my most vulnerable moment, when what was left of my voice was silenced. 

I was back at the hospital at 37 weeks, having labor induced. The sterile smell of the hospital room filled my nostrils while the cold fluid from the IV seeped into my arm. Monitors dug into the soft flesh of my belly and made me itch. I stood at the bedside, clutching the sheets in my hands as another contraction hit, my knuckles turning white. I felt like I was drowning in my own body. It was hard to breathe. I was told I could start pushing, and I was suddenly invigorated by the idea that I was so close to meeting my baby. I smiled at my husband, who stroked my arm softly. 

That’s when the doctor arrived and issued her no-screaming mandate. That familiar heaviness formed in my chest. My excitement was gone, replaced by a worry of upsetting the person who was in charge of my well-being.

“Put your hands here on your legs and push like I told you to,” the doctor scolded after a few minutes. 

I was essentially told to just shut up and push. As women and mothers, we’re so often told that as long as we deliver a healthy baby, and we’re healthy, that’s all that matters. I struggled for months trying to accept that fact. But the new, fierce me, just couldn’t agree.

I couldn’t remember her giving me any sort of instruction on how to push. I looked at my husband, trying to telegraph my confusion to him. He returned a you’re not crazy look and gave my hand a reassuring squeeze but said nothing. Always the diplomat, he later told me he didn’t want to risk upsetting the doctor further or escalating the already tense situation. 

So I kept pushing, silently. I put my hands where she told me to, pushed when she told me to, but nothing felt quite right. Tears stung the corners of my eyes and the heaviness in my chest grew. I was frustrated, scared and swallowing any urge to make a sound. I didn’t understand what I had done to make the doctor so clearly annoyed with me. There were monitors beeping and the doctor saying to push and a nurse saying something nonsensical about not pushing with my face, and my doula saying, “You can do it!” 

There was so much noise it felt deafening — and none of it was mine. 

During a break in the contractions, I pulled my hair into a ponytail and tuned out all the noise. I’m not sure why the ponytail helped. But when I felt the next wave coming, I didn’t wait to be told to push — I bore down. I let out a small sound as I felt a release. Not a scream exactly, more like a sigh. 

I lost my focus then, locking eyes with the doctor, sure of her disapproval. But then I saw my son, his tiny little scrunched-up body, his dark hair. He was quiet at first — just long enough for worry to set in — and then he let out a wail. A loud shriek of life as he found his lungs. 

What came next was a primal, animalistic urge to protect him. I remember thinking I am an animal. Somewhere between my silence and his shriek, everything changed. A fiercer version of myself was born, too. The meek, doctor-pleasing woman was replaced by a mother, ready to do whatever I needed to protect him.

In the weeks that followed, I struggled to fall asleep. Even through the newborn haze, my mind kept coming back to the delivery room. The second I closed my eyes, the fear in my chest would return, and then anger for not sticking up for myself. These feelings would then be replaced with shame: You have a healthy baby. You’re healthy. Move on.

Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that the way I was treated, in a top-ranked hospital, still wasn’t right. While my initial stay was less than ideal, it was the delivery itself that felt truly traumatizing ― that, in my most vulnerable moment, I wasn’t empowered or trusted or cared for. I was essentially told to just shut up and push. As women and mothers, we’re so often told that as long as we deliver a healthy baby, and we’re healthy, that’s all that matters. I struggled for months trying to accept that fact. But the new, fierce me, just couldn’t agree. 

Today, nearly two years later, I’m slowly finding my voice. I’ve taken some small comfort in learning that I’m not alone; 25% to 34% of women find their birth experience traumatic, and as many as 1 in 6 women say they were mistreated during labor. It’s a startling but understandable statistic. 

I’m now pregnant with my second child, and this time, I’m determined it will be different. I’ve interviewed doctors and asked about hospital protocols. I’m letting myself envision what a more empowering and respectful birth could be like. 

And this time around, you better believe I’ll scream if I feel like it. 

Jamie Farnsworth Finn is a New York City-based freelance writer, digital consultant and content strategist. She previously worked for CBS and NBC News, where she most recently managed a parenting website while simultaneously spearheading brand and social strategy. She lives with her husband, son and small dog, while trying to figure out that whole work-life balance thing. You can find her on Instagram or Twitter @JamieFFinn.

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