My Birth Story: Tonya Lee Lewis
Earlier this summer, we featured Breighl Robbins, the founder of Ebi, a plant-based postpartum care brand. Today, we’re on to yet another female-focused wellness brand, again run by a strong mother: Tonya Lee Lewis, mother to Satchel (25) and Jackson (23). Motiva offers organic multi, beauty, and prenatal vitamins made from whole food ingredients that are individually grown and cultured in a probiotic fermentation system. Think: vitamins of the future, made just for you. Lewis launched her company to help women reach a general standard and understanding of good nutrition after she had served as the National Spokesperson for the “A Healthy Baby Beings with You” campaign, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. Working with the campaign, she felt compelled to further advocate for women’s health, launching a platform to help “continue the conversation about finding balance.” She is currently working on a documentary about Black maternity mortality in America. Here, Tonya shares her own labor story.
When I first found out I was pregnant, my husband and I had only been married for six months. I had thought, you know, I'm going to go off the pill just to get my body ready. I wasn't thinking I was going to get pregnant right away at all. I just wanted to get the hormones out of my system. The next month, I was pregnant.
We were happy about it. I was the first of my friends to get pregnant. I remember my girlfriend said that it was when, at brunch, I said I didn't want a mimosa and the ketchup was tasting really good that she knew something was up.
I was very lucky throughout my pregnancy. It was really sort of uneventful—no issues, really. I had a really wonderful OBGYN who was a friend of the family. It’s interesting, though. When I think about it now, 25-years later, if I could have done it again, I would have probably done it a little differently, knowing what I know right now.
I had a wonderful OBGYN and I gave birth at a hospital. I did the Lamaze classes which, I don’t know if they still do this, but they show you what labor is going to look like. I remember the chart with the different faces: green-faced means happy, everything's good! Yellow, okay, labor! Red, angry! Oh my God, you're in pain!
I left the Lamaze class more terrified of labor and birthing than I was when I went in. The whole focus was pain. “How are we going to manage all this terrible pain? It's going to be really bad! What are we going to do?” What I know now is that when we have fear and we're worried, it's all centered right here [in the gut], which causes more problems and more pain. But that was what it was then.
My daughter was due December twenty-something and it was like December 1st. My mom and I decided to do a little early Christmas shopping to get it out of the way. We were out at the mall shopping in Stamford, Connecticut and my water broke. At the mall.
We went and met my doctor at the hospital in the Bronx. The doctor said that I could go home and let labor sort of continue as it was going, or they could begin to induce me and get this thing going. Everyone around me was like, “Let's get this thing going!” But, I was like, “What about what I want to do?”
I don't know that I had gone into the experience with a full birth plan. I figured I would go to the hospital, my doctor would meet me there, and things would progress. I didn’t think about things like, “Should I take Pitocin? When should that happen?” It was just in the doctor's hands. Knowing what I know now, I would have had a plan. I think I had been so scared into everything. Everyone would say, “You're going to have the epidural. You're going to have it. There's no other way. Why would you not?”
They started me on the Pitocin and I remember progressing throughout the night. The contractions were getting really hard. In the morning, the anesthesiologist came and said I needed the epidural. I don't remember feeling the need for it as much as it was someone else just said it was time for that. With my second child, I remember because I pushed it. I said I didn’t want it and then, my husband says my head practically spun around 360 and I was like, “I need meds.” But I don't remember that with my daughter. I just remember getting the epidural. I had been in labor for about ten hours. Something like that. They gave me the epidural and then I don't remember how much time went by, but about 45 minutes in, I knew it was too much.
My legs and lips were completely numb. I told the anesthesiologist, “You really need to pull it back. It's way too much. I can't feel anything.” The doctor just said, “That's what you need. You don't want to feel the pain.” I said that I’d rather feel pain than whatever I was feeling [in that moment]. I had to get a little nasty with her in order to get her to reduce the anesthesia. If I had to do it again, I would have really tried to go for a different kind of birthing process and labor process, more meditative.
I feel like I pushed three times and there she was. I don't think she even really cried that much. She came out and just kind of looked around the room. I was talking to her and she looked up at me as if to say, “Okay, so we're gonna do this thing!”
We did skin-to-skin right away and I breastfed. I remember trying to breastfeed initially and she wasn’t latching on immediately. I wasn't sure what I was doing. The nurse was coming in and sort of shoving my breast into her mouth. It took us both a while to kind of get the hang of it. But we stumbled and tripped through it. She stayed in the room with me. I held her quite a bit during that time.
I don't remember feeling anxiety about breastfeeding, but you know what I do remember? I remember the skin around my areolas had gotten very dry and dark and started peeling. I asked the nurse if that was normal? I just didn't know that sometimes that's what happens. Your skin gets dry and it peels. Who knew? No one told me. I just didn’t know.
Nobody really listened to me. I remember that moment—when I first came in and the doctor said that I could go home or stay and get induced. It was my family that sort of made that decision. My father was going to travel, my husband had stuff…everybody wanted this thing happening. And look, I was excited, too, because I was excited to meet her! But the focus really wasn't on what was happening to me—it was on getting to the end result.
The anesthesiologist, she totally was not listening to me. What she was doing is she was telling me that she knew better than me. “If I reduce the dosage,” she said “you're going to feel pain.” And I said, “Let me feel it!” She was going to argue with me and I had to make her understand: “I cannot feel my mouth. That is not normal.”
I don’t think my first labor experience made me more anxious [going into my second], but I do think it made me want to go the distance. Similarly, with my second child, my water didn't break. It began to leak a little bit and the doctor again, said, “We can send you home and sort of see what happens or we can go to the hospital and start you on some Pitocin.” Again, this Pitocin thing. Knowing what I know now, I probably would have asked, “Do I really need Pitocin? Can we delay it and see what my body does first? Get to a point where if I need it, then we do it?”
My recovery process after giving birth was pretty amazing. And I say that because I was expecting that it would be terrible. I was expecting to be in so much pain. I was expecting to be laid up and I was really surprised at how quickly my body bounced back. I don't mean “bounced back” in terms of getting back in shape. I had to work at that. But, I didn't have any major tearing. I didn't have to be stitched up. There weren't issues from that. I will say, certainly when the milk came in, that was painful. It's unbelievable how big your breasts can get. It's unreal. What the body does is amazing.
I was tired, but physically, after giving birth, I felt much better than I had expected. With my second child, after he was born, at the hospital, they were giving me Percocet. I woke up and they came back to give me another Percocet. I was like, “Hold up! Why are you giving this to me” Again: “You're going to feel pain.” I told them I wasn’t feeling any pain at all. “Get out of my system and let me see what the pain is,” I said. “Then we can decide if I need the meds.”
Right after my daughter was born, it was really hard for me to get out of the house. I was a fairly young bride. I had only been married a year and some change to a very well-known person, adapting to a very new life in a new community...My parents weren’t that far away, but I was kind of out there on my own. Just getting out of the house with the baby was a big deal to me. Now, when I look back on it, I can’t exactly explain why it felt so hard, but it was really tough.
I remember I had a friend who said, “I'm going to come get you! Get yourself together! Get that baby together! We are going to a museum and we’re going to have lunch. You can do it!” That broke me out. I was like, I can actually function. I didn't have severe postpartum, but it was an adjustment. I remember the veil lifting and I felt I was back in the real world again. But it took some time for me to feel normal again or functional. It was hard.
My daughter is now 25-years-old and I just want to be super, super supportive of whatever it is that she really wants. What I hope and wish for my daughter is that her labor and delivery and birthing is really centered around what she wants. And that she's able to get the support for whatever birthing plan she decides [is best]. I want her to be in an environment where people are listening to her, where she's getting the best care…and the best care to me is not necessarily the OBGYN. I recently met this midwife who has a daughter who's 4-years-old who is basically, also, a midwife. I watched this 4-year-old handle a pregnant woman and her belly. I watched her find the heartbeat on that belly…just such a deep understanding. That little girl, by the time she is 20-years-old, is going to know more than any doctor will ever know.
Mostly, I don't want her [my daughter] to go into it with a lot of fear. It's really important to me that women aren’t afraid. I want her to go into it with wonderment, awe, [and] excitement. I want her to be able to experience that in the best way.