The Trauma of Childbirth Holly Cocozza on how this "magical experience" doesn't always go as planned, and how we can be better for it.

By Holly Cocozza

Holly Cocozza’s labor and delivery was a rollercoaster of emotions she wasn’t prepared for, one that left her depleted, traumatized and wanting to share. As head of community at Quilt, a new social wellness space to connect and learn through daily conversation, she was able to express herself freely in the supportive network she helped form. Here, Holly takes us along on the journey of her labor, and how sometimes the unplanned can show us just how strong we are.

My veins run hot, my blood pumping harder than ever, tears flood my face. Suddenly level 10 pain and cramping return to my uterus. All this from simply watching a two minute birth video on Instagram. 

I never knew that trauma from birth could hide deep down inside of me and come out to play whenever the hell it feels like it. It’s not just me, 1 in 3 people who give birth report a similar experience. 

Within moments of this trigger, I transport back into labor.

My jaw tenses up, as my contractions begin. I’m feeling lucky to get started at home, with my doula (via text). I comfortably labor, rotating from the tub to a birth ball, all while listening to my curated labor playlist and hypnotherapy meditation tracks.  Perfectly prepared like a typical Virgo.

Birth is beautifully flawed. For me, there were elements of strength and triumph, shame, and defeat. I share my story to crack open and expose the things you don’t see in that perfectly curated square post as you scroll through social media. 

As I arrive at the hospital, my contractions are 40 seconds long and about five minutes apart. I abandoned my contraction tracking app which would have had me here hours ago, but by the time I was emitted, things slowed to a crawl. I blame the fluorescent lighting. It was like the waiting room at the DMV. I couldn’t wait to get my room set with dim lighting, flameless candles, crystals, music, and eucalyptus aromatherapy. 

Nine hours in now, I start on a “light Pitocin” to get things moving. This wasn’t a step I wanted to take, but I was open to it moving things along and still achieving a non-medicated birth, sans epidural. 

8:30 AM: the next day (after being up for 24-plus hours already, 14 hours into active labor, five hours on Pitocin) my high pain tolerance is being tested. My contractions are strong and consistent, and I want to drown the pain with high energy music and explosive movement. My doula cautions me that as a first-time laborer, it is very important that I rest for the short 4–5 minute periods between contractions.

I kept the lights low, and music soft and tried to stay in a relaxed headspace. It’s time for my doctor to check my progression, and I’m sure I’ve dilated much further and might be ready to push. The first moment of defeat, I’m still only 3 cm dilated. My doctor breaks my water to help give my baby a chance to push down further and open my cervix. Once the amniotic sac is broken, I lose the slight cushion between the fetus, my uterus and cervix which makes the contractions get even more painful. 

It’s hard to shake my desire to “overachieve” such as in life, but if my pre-labor coaching taught me anything, it’s that I will need to surrender. 

It’s time to switch up the energy, so I open the blinds and channel some of the most powerful female artists and mamas I know. Another four hours of taking the pain minute to minute, working with my partner for counter pressure on each contraction, and I’m checked again by the nurse, no progression. I start to feel shame. My body isn’t doing what it is supposed to. Exhaustion creeps in, tears fill my cheeks. Doubt appears as I continue to breathe and stick to my well-rehearsed pain management tools. 

I blame the fluorescent lighting. It was like the waiting room at the DMV.

As I move into 24 hours of active labor, I start to resent the IV bag next to me. My low back is on fire. Going up and down, extreme highs with big guttural screams of a strong lioness achieving the unthinkable, to lows where I shrivel up, shaking and moaning, craving to be cradled like a baby. 

Aromatherapy, visualization, focal point, anchor, breathwork, rapid progressive muscle relaxation, massage, acupressure, hot and cold compress, counter pressure, squats, lunges, and laps around the hospital, every trick in the book, but all I want is a fucking nap. 

8 PM: 26 hours of active labor only to find out I have yet to progress. We see the same nurses from yesterday, as they begin baby spinning exercises like Froggy Walcher’s to help my hips open and get my baby to drop. My teeth start chattering, and my legs begin shaking. Exhaustion hits a new high as I enter a state of lucid dreaming, only partially aware of my thoughts. My doula reminds me that our body can recognize pleasure before pain, so I grab my husband and start to make out with him aggressively. 

Now it’s 1 am (31 hours in) and I’m ready to throw in the towel. I am utterly depleted, defeated. I cannot continue. The white flag is out, someone else needs to have this baby for me. 

Suddenly, rectal pressure, a good sign that the baby is dropping. Excited by this new sensation I get dizzy and see spots. The nurse rushes in, and for the first time in my 32-hour labor experience I had progressed! I’m now dilated 6-7 cms and I get my first uptick in energy. The black clouds disintegrate, and the sky opens up. 

4:30 AM: Things get weird. My teeth chattering, legs convulsing, guttural screams and moans return, seeing spots, getting dizzy, and puking. I’ve never done crack before, but I believe this is what it would look like on me. 

I tell myself that all I need to do is make it to 7:30 AM. My doctor will be here, the nurse that I like will be here, my doula will be here, the sun will be up, and a new day will start, the day my daughter will finally be born. Minute by minute I clock the five hours between totally giving up and being in the place to finally push this baby out of me. 

7:45 AM my doctor arrives and says she hears it’s time to start pushing. My team is all smiles as she checks my dilation.
I see her face change. 

“3-4 centimeters”, she says. “WHAT? Noooooo!”
“I’m so sorry Holly.”
The dark cloud re-enters the room. 

I trust my doctor, as she has different nurse double check.
How is this possible? Why me? It doesn’t make sense. This isn’t right. But that’s where we are. 3-4 cms. 

I am no longer defeated.
I am furious.
I am now a Mountain Gorilla.
Beating my chest, I proclaim: “I cannot meet my daughter in this condition. I need rest. I need to come back to myself. Stop the Pitocin. I need the epidural. NOW!” 

I consider myself incredibly privileged that everything progresses from there. After 49 hours of labor, the universe timed up my mom landing in L.A. from Chicago, entering my hospital room minutes after I began pushing, giving me the last ounce of strength I needed to bring our beautiful baby girl into the world. At 7:43 pm Francesca Sky came out, and my whole world got brighter. 

I believe all birth is natural. All birth is valid. It is messy, unique, painful, and heroic. The flaws within this stubborn miracle are the tissue that binds us together as humans. A metaphor for life: sharing in the raw, honest, vulnerable pain and struggle is how we truly connect, grow, and appreciate the beauty of evolving into new versions of ourselves. I’m a firm believer that this journey doesn’t need to be caged and curated for other people’s validation. I see a world where we can celebrate without shame or judgement in a space that honors the reality and complexity of all our trauma.