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My Birth Story: Sarah Hoover

Trigger Warning: This article mentions loss and/or miscarriage. 

Sarah Hoover is a wickedly sharp, smart, and witty director of Gagosian’s Chelsea art gallery. The Midwestern born, SoHo dwelling Hoover recently went on record as  being “deeply opinionated about cheese” (same) and can almost always be found wearing “that dress” you really wish you had bought. She is the mother to two-year-old Guy Sachs and is currently completing a book based on her journal entries, which chronicle her postpartum experience.

 

 

I got pregnant very early in January of 2017. We tried one time. I guess I didn't really understand what "trying" meant. It seemed like a fun thing to do after an entire lifetime of trying not to get pregnant. What a thrill!

I had a couple of exciting events coming up over the next couple of weeks. Lots of parties, I got Botox, I drank a ton. I really was having a great time. And my skin looked really good and normally, if I party more than once a year, I look disgusting because I'm one million years old. I wondered: I've been drinking every night for two weeks and I'm glowing. That's weird.

I went home to Indiana for a weekend and my mom also noticed I was glowing. Soon after, I realized my period was late, which never happens to me. I was always super regular. I decided to take a test for fun and I was pregnant. I was so shocked. All the science I knew flew out the window.

 

 

I was immediately scared. I thought my natural instincts would kick in and I would be so happy and it would be so beautiful--and it wasn't. I didn't really feel any natural excitement. I was just really worried.

Someone very close to me had lost a baby at 40 weeks about six months before I got pregnant. There was no cause of death, which there often isn't in late term stillbirths. I never knew a stillbirth was possible until it happened to someone so close to me. I thought it was a super rare thing.

I learned it actually occurs in about one in 160 pregnancies. I'm continually shocked at how little I feel women actually know about this thing that so many women are capable of doing. And because there was such little information about why it happened to my close friend, I was convinced that the same thing was going to happen to me. My experience was colored by that. 

I spent my whole pregnancy terrified. I cried at every doctor appointment. I thought that every time I went to the doctor, I would look on the sonogram and not see anything. I thought every time the baby wasn't moving for two minutes it just wasn't there. I was just wracked with anxiety the whole time about that happening and about the prospect of becoming a mother.

It just didn't seem natural to me. I had never really liked babysitting. I'm very close with my siblings and I wanted to recreate that vibe, but I didn't understand how with my personality and work schedule, I was supposed to do that. It just didn't feel natural to me and it still doesn't, to be honest.

I was really sick the first 20 weeks I was pregnant. I couldn't eat anything, and food is a normally a real joy in my life. Pre-pregnancy, I spent a lot of time eating with my family and friends and I felt like that had been totally taken away from me. I felt like I had no quality of life. I couldn't go out to dinner with my husband or my girlfriends. That was very hard for me. It really limited my ability to be social.

 

 

There's that period before you're telling people you're pregnant when you just look your worst. That made me really sad because I really enjoy getting my makeup done and going out to dinner with a girlfriend on a Thursday night and getting a blow out, walking into the restaurant and feeling magical. I felt all that I had just been stripped from me. I just was very lonely in my pregnancy. I had a couple of friends who had kids, but I didn't want to bother them too much. I think, also, my husband didn't understand what it meant to be pregnant or have a baby.

The woman close to me who lost her baby full term, ended up getting pregnant two months after me. I was simultaneously extremely happy for her, but very worried. I felt like I couldn't really celebrate anything about my pregnancy until I knew that she was okay.  I felt like I couldn't celebrate anything about my pregnancy because I knew that things so often went wrong. I'd seen the worst possible version of that.

I didn't want a shower. I didn't want to announce my pregnancy on Instagram. I didn't want anyone to notice. I didn't want anyone to ask me about it. I basically just refused to be happy about it because I was very convinced it was going to be taken away from me. 

I was in New York all summer while my friends were away on vacations, working on a project and in the office a lot, but really lonely. I remember wandering around the city with no one here and being by myself a lot.

The only thing that made me feel good was that I worked out every day of my whole pregnancy. I got a trainer at Body by Simone, Beth Nicely, who became a very dear friend. It was a lot of dancing and cardio. I actually went into labor there! I really relied on moving. It made all the difference in my world to be able to bounce around a little bit and sweat.

 

 

I spent a lot of time at Rockaway beach on the weekends and I swam and wore bikinis and didn't care. My husband and I went to Europe a couple of times when I was pregnant. The second time we went, we decided to go to the beach in Spain--I guess you could call it a baby-moon. A friend of mine said, " You're not going to wear a bikini while you're there, are you? That would be disgusting!"

I realized there are two types of people that do this: There's the type of person that judges you and tells you what you should do, what you can and can’t do, what's gross and acceptable…and then there are like people who don't care. I was definitely in the category of people that don't care.

I tried to avoid the other category as much as possible. And, by the way, that "other category," exists at every phase of being a mother. There are school moms, they tell you what to do during labor, they tell you how to breastfeed…immediately when that woman told me not to wear a bikini, I thought, "You're demoted. I'm not listening to anything you ever tell me again."

I wasn't going to feel guilty about any choices I made. I was already miserable and lonely. I wasn't about to also feel bad because someone thinks I look gross in a bikini. I tried to live my life, but I was pretty mildly depressed, in retrospect, during my pregnancy. My husband was just living his normal life while I was so nervous for what the future would feel like. 

I had a healthy pregnancy, though. My biggest craving was watermelon. I loved an iced tea. I was floating around New York City in mini dresses, trying not to sweat and eating fruit salad and going to workouts and getting really tan on the weekends at the beach and trying to make the most of it. 

 

 

I felt zero shame about my body. I did not care that I gained about 70 pounds. I mean, it was annoying once I had the baby and it took me a year to lose it, but I wasn't worried about it at all and my doctor felt the same way. She told me the only thing I had to worry about is gestational diabetes, which I didn't have, but let it be known that I am the one disgusting person on this earth who likes the drink they give you for the gestational diabetes test.

Later in the pregnancy, I got really into feeling cute and really laid into #selfcare. I was getting pedicures and asking for the extra massage, blow outs all the time… I would find a cute dress online -- anything without a zipper -- and I would just buy it in the biggest size it came in and have it shortened. My business is a little quieter in the summer so I had the time to indulge in all of that.

There was not one minute of a scare about anything during my pregnancy. And then one night I got out of bed in the middle of the night and I thought that I had peed my pants, which to be honest was not all that uncommon for me during pregnancy. I just went back to sleep and woke up in the morning and went to my trainer.

I have a video from that day of us doing our workouts together. I had my weekly visit with my OB that day and figured I'd tell her about the peeing thing then. I went uptown, took a meeting, went to Sant Ambroeus, had my favorite tuna artichoke sandwich at the counter, saw 20 people I knew, and was loving life.

 

 

My husband met me and we went to the doctor--he went to all of my appointments with me--and she examined me and said I wasn't ready. I was totally closed up. This was the day before my due date. She said to come back in two days and asked if there was anything else I wanted her to know.

"I keep peeing my pants," I told her. "In the middle of the night, I woke up and I felt pee kind of trickle out and it's been doing it a little bit all day. My underwear is a little wet."

"Your water broke,” she informed me.

But it was barely anything! In the movies, it's like, a gush! It wasn't like that. It was more like a trickle. She told me that I probably had a tear in my placenta which caused my water not to break properly. But my baby was, in fact, open to the world. It's actually very dangerous. She told me I had to go to the hospital immediately.

“That’s impossible,” I explained. "I have an appointment to get my roots done at Bergdorfs." I'll go at 6PM, I thought, but I need three hours. My doctor said she'd let me get a blow out, but that I needed to be at the hospital within the next hour, hour and a half--tops.  

I wasn't having contractions; I was just kind of dripping. My husband went home to get my bag of stuff to bring to the hospital. I was incredibly shocked by his uselessness during all of this because he not only went home to get my bag, but he decided to take a meeting. I got a blow out, went to the hospital, and sat outside and cried. I was so scared.

He eventually showed up, of course, and we went inside. From then on, it was like a full out war for me, from which I may never recover. I'm incredibly traumatized by my labor, not because anything particularly bad happened, but it became very clear to me that hospitals are systems designed by men. It became very clear to me that [childbirth] was incredibly dangerous and no one had been honest enough with me about how enduringly difficult labor is despite modern technology. How so much is left up to chance. I fully trust modern medicine and science, but I also think that it's really limited when the people who are at the head of it are operating out of perspective where women aren't always prioritized.

The first thing they did when I got into the room was give me an IV. The IV you get when you're in labor is the biggest IV they use in the hospital. Even that needle going in was traumatizing. It was like they put a butter knife in my wrist. I don't deal with pain well unless it's for beauty, so I was immediately shaken by feeling physically hurt.

It was just me and my husband in the room at that point. My mom came a little bit later. I kicked them both out seven different times for various reasons. They were so annoying. Next time, if I do it again, I'm going to ask my son’s nanny if she will come with me. She cares for my son and is my best friend and has four kids of her own. She'll take care of me.

They had to give me a big dose of antibiotics because my water had been broken for 30 hours. That was Step One of 3000. I wasn't having contractions even though I had technically been in labor this whole time. The doctor decided to give me Pitocin to kick start the process.

But after 30 minutes of the Pitocin, my contractions still hadn't started. My doctor came back in and said my water was only partially broken and that they needed to break it fully in order for the contractions to begin. I watched the nurse hand her this tool that they use to break your water -- it's basically a knitting needle with a hook on the end. And it's not painful for everyone, but it generally is more painful if you are on Pitocin. It was incredibly painful and scary for me. I felt incredibly violated and immediately water and blood went all over my legs and all over the bed. I was shaking and I kind of went into shock. I couldn't really stop crying. Everything felt like it was slow motion. I remember thinking, how will I ever be able to explain this pain?

My first Pitocin contraction was what I can only imagine would be equivalent to the contraction of someone who is eight centimeters dilated. It was so painful. I could feel my hip bones within my body sliding apart. It was the grossest, worst feeling. I immediately asked for the epidural. They turned the Pitocin off so that I wouldn't have any contractions while getting the epidural.

The anesthesiologist came in and he was such a douchebag. If I knew his name, I would come for him. I would ruin his life with words. He was asking me the most mansplain-y questions. He also asked me if I had scoliosis right as he stuck the needle in my back. Why would he ask that? 1. I don’t have scoliosis and 2. HE’S THE DOCTOR! HOW WOULD I KNOW? And 3. Does it matter? 

Once I got the epidural I didn't feel anything. I labored for 19 hours without any real pain until the last couple hours when I was very uncomfortable and felt a lot of medium grade back pain, but that wasn't really fixable by epidural. It was just where the baby's body was positioned.

The whole time I was laboring my husband took a few naps, slept through the night and I was just spinning out, losing my shit, freaking out and thinking I was going to die. I was texting girlfriends--thank God for them. My mom had arrived, but she was not helping me. She was kind of driving me nuts as a mom will do.

The doctor was pretty sure I wasn't going to deliver until the next day, so I sent my mom to her hotel and my husband went to sleep and I was alone and freaking out, texting a few of my really close friends the entire time.

My mom came back the next day. At around 1:00 p.m., my doctor came in and suggested I start pushing. Of course, my husband had disappeared again. He had seen a Nathan's Hot Dog Truck from the hospital window and left to go get a hot dog without his cellphone.

I was freaking out. I was just like, "I hate him! I want a divorce! This f-ing idiot! Someone go find him and tell him to not come back." Anyway, he did come back and he smelled like French fries. I heard my mom whisper to him, "Was it good?" He responded: "There was a deep fryer in the cart and they're making fries to order!"

I kicked everybody out. They told me it was really time to start pushing and I realized I couldn't do this without my husband. I actually physically need him to be able to do this. Also, my Beyoncé playlist is on his phone. So I brought him back in. I put my hair in a high pony. I put my Beyoncé playlist on. I guess I have a giant vagina because I pushed four times--it took like 20 minutes. I didn't poop. I didn't tear. That kid just popped out.

 

 

Everyone had told me that labor is horrendous; that it's incredibly gruesome; that no one tells you the truth. But that once they put your baby on you, your heart explodes and all of it melts away and it's totally worth it.

When they put my baby on me I thought: What the F is this? This is not my baby. This thing is so ugly. It looks like it's been through a frozen yogurt machine. It looks like a tiny devil. I'm not breastfeeding it. I've been violated 9 million different ways. I don't want anything touching my body for at least six months. I'm never having sex again and I don't want this baby.

That vibe basically didn't leave me for a year.

I was miserable. I didn't want my baby. I didn't want anything bad to happen to him, I just didn't love him. But at the same time, when my doctor came to check on me and asked how I was doing I immediately began to perform the good girl, good mom character that we've all been taught we're supposed to do our entire lives.

I wasn't telling anyone how I was really feeling for a couple of reasons. I felt a lot of pressure in my life to be polite. I was raised in the Midwest. I was a cheerleader. I felt a lot of shame and guilt about how I felt because it didn't match the narrative that so many people had told me. It made me think there must be something wrong with me.

Luckily for me, but unfortunately not the case for most people in the world, I had help at home. I could kind of slide by not really loving my kid. I had other people to take care of him and I tried to spend time with him thinking that would help but I really felt no connection to him for a very long time. 

Three weeks after I gave birth, I chose to go back to work to complete a project that I had started several years before--an exhibition that was opening in Los Angeles. So, 21 days after I had a baby, I got on a plane in my adult diaper and flew to L.A. At the time I found that very empowering. One of my great fears of having a kid was that I was going to lose my identity. Going on that trip was me saying, "I got this! I'm still this working person."

 

 

But when I came home, I crashed. I would sit and try to make a grocery list and I couldn't remember if you could use numbers and letters in a to-do list or just numbers. It would take me two hours to write an email. I felt like I was moving through water. I was unable to do anything.

I wasn't breastfeeding, which is a choice that I'm very proud that I made for myself. It wasn't an option for me, despite the fact that a nurse in the hospital gave me a bunch of sh-t about it and without asking me, grabbed my breasts and squeezed them and said, "See! Milk came out! You should be breastfeeding!" I cried about that for three days, but all it did was make me more resolute that I wasn't going to do it. I'm very grateful to myself that I went with my intuition and didn't do it. But because I wasn't breastfeeding, I wasn't spending that time with my kid. I would go into his room to play with him or give him a bottle and I just found it so boring.

I felt zero connection to him and I really wanted my old life back. I felt like my identity had been stolen from me and I was incredibly jealous of my husband's ability to bounce right back and go back to work as if nothing had changed. It felt profoundly unjust to me that the impact on women is so much greater than the impact on men. I didn't feel like my experience was really honored. I didn't feel like anyone besides a few good girlfriends wanted to hear my birth story and I basically wanted to stand on the top of my building and make all of SoHo listen to it. I just felt like there was no way to honor this huge, life altering thing I had been through.

It was just business-as-usual...I was just another woman who had a baby. And I get that this happens millions of times a week, every week, all over the world, all the time. But it's also true that many women die and many babies die. Many women are injured severely during childbirth. Things like maternal death rates are horrific, especially for women of color. I just thought, this can't be it. I can't believe that you go through all of this shit and this is it. That feeling lasted for a really long time.

 

 

I was so angry that the cultural narrative about what motherhood was didn't match my experience at all. I felt like I had been gaslit by the patriarchy my entire life and it just became even more severe as a mother. Not only is this experience so not what had been promised to me, I thought, but if I say that out loud, everyone is going to look at me like I'm unhinged and ungrateful.

A lot of it was me lying on purpose. Like I said, for many months, I felt I couldn't explain this to anyone because, on the one hand, I felt the pressure to be polite and be socially correct and perform the good girl. But I also felt so much embarrassment about thinking I was a really bad mom for feeling this way. In reality, I think a lot of women feel some of this. Maybe not all of it. Maybe worse than me. Of course, there are women who fall immediately in love with their babies.

I got progressively more depressed. When my son was nine months old, we took him to Indonesia, which is really far away--a 32 hour trip. We went to this very remote island with no hospital, no electricity, which, in retrospect, was the dumbest idea, but I was already out of my mind.  I had a full mental breakdown in Indonesia, where I decided I wanted to divorce my husband. I took a lot of my anger at the whole system out on him because I saw him as an example of all the White dudes that uphold this system that make life suck for women eight million ways a day. Unfortunately, I love men, but I just wanted a life without men. 

I really hated him. We came home from Indonesia and I remember sitting at my kitchen table and thinking, "I can't really divorce him. I don't see a path for that." Really, what would I do? Where would I live?

I also felt like I really didn't want to be a mom. I didn't want to do mom stuff. I just wanted to be me. I remember sitting, thinking, "I just wish I could go away. I just wish I could move to another state and forget they existed and just start over." I knew that wasn't possible either. I couldn’t just abandon my family.

So, maybe, I thought, I should just die. Maybe that would just be better.

When I started thinking vaguely suicidal thoughts, I knew something wasn't right. That incident coincided with my annual checkup with my doctor. I went into my doctor three or four days later and she asked me how it was going with the new baby. I didn't tell her everything, but I said that I really was not getting along with my husband…that I didn’t want to have sex with him…that I was mad and I don't spend that much time with my kid. “I find motherhood really hard,” I said, “but, like, he's really sweet!"

My doctor immediately was like, "You have postpartum."

I remember thinking, "if she thinks I have postpartum and I've only told her this, imagine if I told her the rest."

I was also having horrific nightmares three or four times a night. In my nightmares, I would watch my son get killed. I've seen him drown. I've seen him get shot by snipers. I've seen him get dropped by my husband at the pool. My brain is incredibly creative. Even though I wasn't breastfeeding I was very sleep deprived, which makes anyone crazy. Nothing was right.

The whole time I thought to myself that I could handle this on my own. That I could do enough "self-care" to fix the way I feel. “I'm going to work out every day, go to yoga, meditate, journal, get my hair and nails done, go to acupuncture. If I do all of that, I'm going to be fine.”

I was doing all of that and spending all my money on self-care and, guess what? I was still so miserable. I was also going to two different kinds of therapy. It just wasn't enough. My GP recommended I go on antidepressants, which, at the time, I had so much stigma against. I don't know what I was thinking. She said, "Fill the prescription, put it in your purse and just carry it around with you. Sometimes even that is enough to make people feel a little bit better."

I filled the prescription and put it in my purse. The next time I was sitting there, my mind drifting into suicidal thoughts, I decided just to take one and see how I would feel. I felt better in three days. Three days was all it took for me to feel like a cloud had lifted. I don't know if it was a placebo effect. I doubt it because I was skeptical of them, and didn't go into it thinking that would make me feel better, but I felt so much better and it allowed enough of the cloud to lift that I could see how irrational I was being and see a light at the end of the tunnel.

The whole time I had this crazy fear-- to say it out loud makes me feel so nuts and shocked at how dark I was--I had this thought that if I talked about my anxieties, if I told someone about one of the nightmares where my child died, that it would come true. Apparently, that's very common but I didn't know that, so I was going to therapy, but I wasn't telling my therapist everything.  

Then all the sudden I took this medicine and it just kind of all went away. I could go to therapy and be a little bit more honest and say things I had been afraid to say. It gave me enough peace of mind to have the confidence to own up to some of it. Once I started doing that, it was a snowball effect.

It took me probably another eight months to feel like a human. But within three days, I felt so much better than I did at my darkest that I knew that one day I would feel human again. And the thing that sucked about my dark point was that I couldn't see light at the end of the tunnel. It just felt like this would be how I felt for the rest of time; like I had ruined my life by giving birth to a child.

Now, Guy is 2 and a half. I love him so much it feels strange and sometimes like more than a human can handle. It’s overpowering. We have our own world together. He's super into garbage trucks and into cement mixers and any type of construction stuff. He loves the movie Cars. He loves torturing my dog. My dog loves torturing him. He's a sweet, wonderful, joyful, happy person and my favorite person to hang out with and completely easy. They say God gives you what you can handle. I got the easiest kid on Earth. I feel so reformed in all of this that I'm actually considering doing it all again, which seems crazy, but I'm trying.

I journaled every day that I had postpartum. I didn't go back and read my journals until June of 2019 because I was scared that I would really be triggered by them. One day I cracked it open and I really found them entertaining. I was so nuts and outrageously hate-filled. I wanted to literally murder my husband with my bare hands while reciting Sylvia Plath. I had so much energy that the writing was actually kind of good. I thought, maybe I should do something with this.

I started turning some of my diatribes into essays and before I knew it, I had around 150 pages! I thought that I should do something with it, so I’m turning it into a book.

At the end of the day, it was a very difficult year two years for me. But I feel very impassioned to change the cultural narrative about motherhood, because I feel it really lacks authenticity, which is a disservice not only to women but to men.

I didn't know until maybe a week before I went into labor that you bleed for six to eight weeks after you have a baby. I took AP Biology and got “5” on the exam. There's no reason why I shouldn't have been taught at some point in my life that you bleed for eight weeks after having a baby. And if I didn't know that, then there are definitely not a lot of men that know it. And if men don't know it and men are the ones who are making legislation about things like maternity leave, how can we really expect them to make decisions that benefit us? I think we really have to change the dialog. I don't think we can expect to be treated better in our extremely paternalistic society until everyone understands childbirth for what it actually is.

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