Featured Storyteller

PHILIPPINES: There is Beauty in Our Differences

Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Posted April 27, 2018
Photo Courtesy of Karen Axalan

After a difficult birth led to a cesarean section, Karen Axalan was shamed and judged. She reminds us that, as women, it is the uniqueness of our experiences that give us power.

“I blamed myself for not trying hard enough. But every time I recalled my labor, I knew deep down that I had.

As women, society tries to put us in boxes.

We are to be flawless models on a magazine cover; trophy wives with beauty, body, and brains; super moms who balance home life, career, and child-rearing with ease. Or we are to be perfect mothers who give birth naturally, use all organic products, and exclusively breastfeed our babies.

If we fall short of these categories—if we were born with shorter legs, larger body frames, or less-than-picture-perfect faces; if we choose career over family; or if, like me, we give birth via cesarean section and struggle to breastfeed our newborns—society tells us we are less than worthy of praise.

When I was pregnant, my husband and I prepared for a normal delivery. We enrolled in a Lamaze class; I practiced my breathing exercises, walked, squatted, used evening primroses, and did all that my OB-GYN and Google suggested.

When my due date arrived, all I had were cramps. I exercised more and pushed myself harder so the baby would come out. Nothing.

I labored for more than 36 hours. Like a good student, I used my Lamaze breathing like a pro. Still, my cervix would not dilate. I had a dry labor for 27 hours until the fetal monitor showed that my baby was in distress. In total, I was laboring for more than 72 hours.

After all the inhaling and exhaling to relieve the labor pain, I was rushed to the operating room for an emergency Cesarean section. I gave up my dream of a natural birth to save my baby.

A few hours later, I held my son in my arms, but they took him away immediately for observation. He stayed in the neonatal ward for five days. It was not the birth story I imagined.

It pierced my heart when nurses injected antibiotics into him, and when they collected a portion of his blood for another round of tests. My baby's hands and feet were left bruised as needles were jabbed in and out of his small body. At the same time, my breasts did not produced milk. So the nurses fed him with other mothers' milk while he struggled to nurse from me.

My baby wanted to be near me all the time, and he was always crying and never sleeping. I was so exhausted. I did not know motherhood was so hard. I certainly did not witness the same from my mother who has five children. My siblings slept well and cried only when hungry, wet, or sleepy.

Six weeks after he was born, my baby was weak and lethargic. His skin turned bluish. For six weeks, I decided to breastfeed exclusively, refusing offers from my mothers and in-laws to feed him with formula. I waited for my milk to arrive just like the experts said.

My nipples got sore. Eventually, they cracked and bled. I felt so confused as to why my milk would not come in huge volumes despite frequent feeding. My baby became dehydrated.

My mother could not stand the frail state of her grandson. She, a breastfeeding advocate, immediately bought him formula milk. She quickly made him a bottle and he sucked with all his might. In seconds, he finished it and he finally got satisfied. For the first time, he slept soundly. My mother and I cried as we witnessed that event. I questioned why my milk did not satisfy him.

When we learned I was pregnant, my husband and I bought books on pregnancy and motherhood. We equipped ourselves with knowledge. The plan was a natural birth. The plan was to breastfeed. I felt I was a failure at both.

It did not help when people learned I gave birth via C-section. They asked me why I did not push harder. It did not help that most of the mothers I know gave birth naturally and breastfed successfully. In their eyes, I chose the easy way out. They told me that there are no C-sections in the mountains. There, in rural areas, women push with all their might until they hear their babies cry. They did not say that there are also high rates of maternal deaths in those areas. I knew someone who died from pushing with all her might, refusing to undergo surgery.

Still, I blamed myself for not trying hard enough. But every time I recalled my labor, I knew deep down that I had. I even vomited black liquid as I labored. It looked and tasted bitter like black coffee, but it was not coffee. The medical team tried to induce  me multiple times to force my cervix to open. However, my son was way too high, stuck inside my pelvic bone. He came into this world with an almost pentagon-shaped head.

I cried silently when people judged me for delivering via C-section and giving my son formula. I hurt when people looked down on me before they had even heard my birth story. They did not bother to ask me why I did not give birth naturally, and even if some of them listened, they still concluded that I did not try hard enough.

I would hide from those people when I fed my son formula. They didn’t know how much I wanted to feed him breast milk. Years later, I read an article about a mom who lost her son because she refused to give him formula. He became dehydrated, then days later succumbed to death. That baby could have been my son.

It wasn’t until recently that I remembered I have a medical condition that makes natural childbirth difficult. I have Lordoscoliosis, a rare medical condition in which there is a combined backward and lateral curvature of the spine.

I forgot all about it. I was diagnosed during my early twenties; a doctor told me I would have a hard time conceiving a child due to the abnormal curves of my spine, and the complications that came with it. He even added no man would want to marry me if he knew I could not give him a child.

My body frame is deformed; my internal organs are affected. That explains the hardship I went through during childbirth. I now realize I am not less of a woman because I gave birth via cesarean, nor because I struggled to breastfeed.

Roses may be the most exalted of flowers, but they are not the only type of flowers. And all flowers are beautiful. It has taken me a long time to realize that this metaphor applies to our experiences as women, as well.

As women, we struggle with depression at alarming rates. It could be because society places a very high one-size-fits-all standard on everyone, but especially on us. A woman should be this and that. If not, we are put down, bashed, and bullied.

Our beauty lies in our ability to give life—biologically, or through our artwork, our careers, our ministries, or our advocacies. Our beauty lies in our talents, whether we are able-bodied or differently abled. Our beauty lies in our skin, whether it is brown or black or yellow or red.

The world would be dull if there were no diversity in humanity, or if the colors in a rainbow were only green and violet.

Let us embrace our uniqueness and beauty, and let us stop apologizing for our skin color, our height, our weight, our civil status, our menstrual cycles, our moods, or our birth stories—or our lack of a birth story.

We are flowers that bloom in the plains, up in the mountains, along the rivers, within the rainforests, in the deserts, and under the vast ocean. We complement the roses in a garden of flowers.

Let us stop measuring ourselves from the scales of mass media and societal expectations. The world might only exalt the roses. But let us bloom as daisies, chrysanthemums, tulips, petunias, irises, lavender, lilac, sunflowers, orchids, lilies, dandelions, poppies, sampaguita, edelweiss, marigolds…

Let us celebrate our differences; let us celebrate and bloom together.


STORY AWARDS

This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.

Comments 30

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  • Ann Forsthoefel
    Apr 27
    Apr 27

    Dear Karen,

    I am so moved by your story and also by the beauty of your words. You are truly a gifted writer and your words so resonate with me "Let us embrace our uniqueness and beauty, and let us stop apologizing for our skin color, our height, our weight, our civil status, our menstrual cycles, our moods, or our birth stories—or our lack of a birth story.

    We are flowers that bloom in the plains, up in the mountains, along the rivers, within the rainforests, in the deserts, and under the vast ocean. We complement the roses in a garden of flowers.

    Let us stop measuring ourselves from the scales of mass media and societal expectations. The world might only exalt the roses. But let us bloom as daisies, chrysanthemums, tulips, petunias, irises, lavender, lilac, sunflowers, orchids, lilies, dandelions, poppies, sampaguita, edelweiss, marigolds…"

    And I am sending your story to all my friends so your words can inspire them as they have inspired me.

    Bright blessings,
    Ann

  • You have no idea how blessed I am to read your comment and encouragement me, Ann. Your words motivate me to write more. Thank you for taking time to read this piece. I am honored that you are inspired with it. Thank you also for appreciating.

    Love from the Philippines,
    Karen

  • Olutosin
    Apr 28
    Apr 28

    My dear Karen,
    Congratulations you did it. You survived. You sacrificed. You have your baby in your arms. Finally finally, it is over now. Congratulations once again.

    Ah I don't listen to people. No matter what I do, how I managed to survive, if I'm happy or not afterwards, nobody cares genuinely here, so I decided to always do what is right, suits me an clears my conscience. As long as it doesn't affect the other peoples lives, I don't care anymore.

    When we place a crown on our head, some will look at it from the left and say the crown is well placed, while another will look at it from the right side and scream, not well placed. Ah, same crown, same head, yet different opinions.

    In a facebook group, I read about some sisters who argued that CS is not giving birth, I sad Shuo, so what is it then? Is it vomiting the baby? Ehn???
    It's high time women continued to stand up for one another. Who cares how a child came to the world as long as both mother and baby are safely alive and healthy!

    I stopped listening to stupid talks long time ago and I have chosen to celebrate my sisters all over the world.

    We come in various shapes, sizes, colors etc and I have chosen to be my sisters keeper and lover.

  • Oh my beloved sister, Olutosin! I just want to hug you right now. I treasure every word you commented here. My tears are about to fall.haha. I am so touched with your encouragement. Priceless!

    I love the way you illustrate it as a woman wearing her crown. That imagery will stick in my mind for as long as I live.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I admire your strength of character. I am with you in being a sisters keeper. You model it so well. I really look up to you as a survivor, leader, and global changemaker. I want to bloom like you and with you.

    Thank you for taking time to read this.

    Love from the Philippines,

    Karen

  • Olutosin
    Apr 28
    Apr 28

    Hugs hugs hugs to you my lovely sister.
    You are welcome, we are together.

  • Thank you again!

  • Lily Habesha
    Apr 28
    Apr 28

    Dear Karen,
    What a story!!!!
    Thank you for sharing.
    Lily

  • Hello, Lily,

    Thank you for dropping by and for the encouragement.

    Love from the Philppines,

    Karen

  • Lily Habesha
    May 09
    May 09

    Hey Karen,
    It is ok. You are wonderful sister.
    Lily

  • jlanghus
    Apr 28
    Apr 28

    Hey there Karen,

    Thanks again for sharing another stellar and vulnerable piece of writing that is going to help so many women heal. The more stories like this that we share with other women, the more women that will feel like they can share their own, similar stories and start breaking those nasty taboos that have been holding us back from true happiness and wellness. Congrats too, on another story published... great job!!!

  • Hello, Jill,

    The bravery of our World Pulse sisters in showing their vulnerability led me to share my own. I agree that we need to speak our truth.

    Thank you, Jill, for sharing your thoughs. It is always a joy to read your encouragements. Thanks also for celebrating with me.

    Love from the Philippines,

    Karen

  • jlanghus
    Apr 29
    Apr 29

    Hello there:) That's awesome that you were inspired to write even more of your story. Great to hear! You're welcome. Have a great day!

  • Adeola Samuel
    Apr 29
    Apr 29

    Dear Karen, I could totally relate with your story as I had a similar experience. I tried all I could to experience a natural childbirth as a first time mom. Here it's like there are forces working against one when childbearing result to ceaserian section. I fell on my back 3wks before my edd, I couldn't have an X-ray as it was dangerous for my unborn child said the doctors, I was giving an option of cs which I declined. I was in so much pain which I endured because I was determined to wait for natural delivery. Again I had pile which doctors said it was as a result of the pregnancy. To cut the long story short I went for antenatal on my edd and was told I had to be operated because my bp had risen, placenta was getting weak and water was drying. I was so disappointed, cried but I thank God I'm alive and so is my Prince Charming.
    I was depressed for 2weeks wondering if I would ever be able to stand or turn with my right said. I later realized its just a phase and it doesn't matter how you give birth what matter is "healthy mom and child". No-one will know how I had him except I tell them now, I'm healed! We've got to find strength to encourage ourselves and offer encouraging words to fellow sisters always. Much love dearie. We are stronger than what we can ever imagine or think of.

  • Hello, Adeola,

    I could only imagine the pain and apprehension you had when you fell on your back three weeks before you are due. This is one of the many challenges a pregnant woman faces.

    Like you, my water was already low and I was scheduled for CS, but when I got admitted to the hospital, my cervix was still close. After an overnight stay, my OB-GYN told me to go back home and drink plenty of water. I was already in mild labor that time, but I was not progressing yet. So I exercised harder, walked and squatted more. A week later, I felt stronger contractions than ever, but got ZERO in I.E. Cervix still closed. So that was the time I got induced in different ways (oral, injection, IV), still nothing.

    It is truly a more painful route to give birth via C-section. It takes months up to a year for the surgery to be completely healed. The early days/weeks are the hardest when we take care of our babies with minimal movements. I get it.

    I am celebrating your birth story with you, sister! You did well in bringing your Prince Charming safe in this world. I am happy that you found healing.

    Yes, there is strength in encouraging one another. Much love to you, too, sister. I truly love hearing your birth experience. Thank you for sharing!
    Thank you also for reading!

  • Adeola Samuel
    May 03
    May 03

    Thanjs dear Karen, looking forward to reading from you. Much love!

  • Oh thank you, Adeola! I look forward to reading your stories, too!

  • Suh Diviner
    Apr 30
    Apr 30

    Hi Karen.
    I read your story with anxiety.
    I havn't put to bed yet but i feel your pain. Do not get worried over what people say about your child birth. What matters today is that your boy is healthy and loves you so much.
    I wish you a happy motherhood .
    The world really will be dull if the colours of the rainbow were green and violet.
    O lovely woeds you have there in your story.

  • Hello, Suh,

    Oh, I am sorry if this story brought anxiety to you. It certainly isn't good to feel that before going to bed.

    Yes, I have resolved to ignore what people say. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

    Thank you for reading my birth story and for your encouragement. I appreciate those so much!

    Love from the Philippines,

    Karen

  • AbdulRaheem Dirisu
    May 02
    May 02

    Hello Karen,

    You touched me and brave me to something I ever imagine as a man to a woman,Our love shouldn't be negotiable for a woman in needs,pains and other support no matter the circumstance "WOMEN ARE NATION BUILDERS"It;s take me far to memory lane in my community Owan East Local Government Afuze,Edo State,Nigeria,where a private Hospital is subjected to every woman in labour for cesarean section even if they can delivery normally.My Investigation on the private hospital brought to my understanding that is surgery process are always 80-90% successful because the management get more paid from patients in Surgery/cesarean section than normal child delivery.

    So in my summary and conclusion,Women at child delivery should be given time to enable them exercise the strength and the push out of there babies before taken cesarean section,if no complications from any scan or radiology section on her.While Some women also prefer the cesarean section because they don't have strength and the undersign with hospital management quickly.Woman in any society of communities should be respected and given the high moral grounds care and love.

  • Hello, Abdulraheem,

    I am delighted to read your encouragement as you are the first male commenter I received.

    It is true that C-section can be an option to some hospitals because it costs more. On the business side, you are right, it pays much compare with normal delivery. Thank you for sharing your study.

    Thank you also for your respect to women. May there be more men like you who is in depth with knowledge on women's experiences. I appreciate you for taking time to read my birth story and for your empathy. That is huge from a man!

    Love from the Phiippines,

    Karen

  • Adanna
    May 02
    May 02

    Dear Karen,

    You are a strong woman! Thank you for sharing your story.

    Indeed, there is beauty in diversity.

    You have a way with words! I read your story so many times :)

    Hugs,
    Adanna

  • Hello, Adanna,

    Thank for your kind words of encouragement. I am honored that you have read my story many times. You encourage me to write more.

    Hugs to you, too, dear sister!

    Love from the Philippines,

    Karen

  • Musenge Musomali
    May 06
    May 06

    Thank you for sharing your story Karen. I can relate to your story because my daughter was born via Caesarian and I had to bottle feed her. I am happy she is alive, well and healthy. You are so right, people will judge based on what they term as the ideal norm, they will consider a natural birth as a birth worth celebrating. I'm happy I had a caesarian, it saved my daughter's life.

  • Hello, Musenge,

    Hugs to you, dear sister. Undergoing a surgery is definitely not an easy way out. There are too many risks involved and it takes months to heal.
    You are a testament that a mother will go through anything just to save her baby. I rejoice with you that your daughter is well and healthy.

    Thank you for reading!

    Love from the Philippines,

    Karen

  • QueenVirtuous
    May 12
    May 12

    Dear Karen Axalan,

    I was moved to tears by your story. It reminds me of my Aunt who died in the process of childbirth. It was a difficult labor, and she had a misshapen pelvic bone which led to that difficulty. But because it was expected of women in that rural area to give birth naturally, she wouldn't go in for a CS. She wanted to "try harder". By the time it was obvious that the situation was becoming extreme, it was already too late even though she later agreed to go into surgery. She died, along with the twin babies.

    There is no shame in sacrificing your dream of living up flawlessly to set expectations and adhering religiously to the status quo if you did it in order to save the life of your child. We can't always leave it to society to think and decide for us. We must be reasonable.

    "Roses may be the most exalted of flowers, but they are not the only type of flowers. And all flowers are beautiful. Let us stop measuring ourselves from the scales of mass media and societal expectations. The world might only exalt the roses. But let us bloom as daisies, chrysanthemums, tulips, petunias, irises, lavender, lilac, sunflowers, orchids, lilies, dandelions, poppies, sampaguita, edelweiss, marigolds… ". I'll never forget what you said here.

    I want you to know that I am proud of you, and I am sure that your child will be too.

    You're a gifted writer! I'm sure you've heard that many times already, but I mean it. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    I've been sharing your story with family. We've been all tears. Your story inspires us to "bloom as daisies". We don't want to make the same mistake again. We don't want to lose another sister.

    Thank you for sharing. Hugs, hugs, hugs, for you and your son.

  • Hello, QueenVirtuous,

    I want to hug you and your family right now.

    Death is not an easy thing to handle. What should have been a celebratory welcome of new family members ended up with losing three ( aunt and her twins). I could not help but burst into tears when I read your aunt's experience. It left me speechless for hours. I am deeply sorry for your lost. HUGS!!!!

    I was never proud of my birth story because I felt I failed. But I didn't know that mustering the courage to share it would touch lives who've been through the same experience across the world. My heart leaps with joy that you are inspired to bloom as daisies. You have the right to do so. And the world is waiting for you to reveal your beauty just as you are.

    Yes, let us silence prejudice together. Let us be our sisters' keeper so no one will have to experience shame, judgment and, worse, death.

    Please send my sincerest sympathy to your family. Thank you for reading and sharing this piece. Thank you for your encouragement. Each word means a lot to me.

    Please hug your family for me as I am hugging my son for you.

    Much love from the Philippines,

    Karen

  • QueenVirtuous
    May 12
    May 12

    My family says to tell you that they are more grateful than they can say for the story, the love, and the hugs. We've really been touched by your courage.

    Thank you for hugging your son for me. He's a warrior already!

    Much love, and hugs from a fellow sisters' keeper.

  • Awwwww. So sweet! You have a wonderful family. Your words and support touched me as well!

    Thank you again to you and your family, QueenVirtuous! Hugs, sister.

  • Elizabeth Kerubo
    May 18
    May 18

    Dear Karen,

    Thank you for sharing your story and being an inspiration to many.

    Much love,
    Elizabeth.

  • Hello, Elizabeth,

    Thank you for your kind words, and for reading my story. I never thought sharing it would bring inspiration. Thanks again.

    Love from the Philippines,

    Karen