You may be pregnant now and feeling a need to process past birth experiences or immediately postpartum and reeling from an unexpected and frightening birth. It could even be that you are approaching your birthing-day (even for the second, third, or eighth time), and are finding yourself more overwhelmed with the grief of the birth — unable to fully celebrate birthdays without remembering the pain, fear, and anger.
Frequently, women who have experienced birth trauma hesitate to share their stories with others for fear that they will be misunderstood or attacked. Women who have little understanding of the nature of birth as a rite of passage will often say things like, “Well, at least you have a healthy baby” or “No sense worrying about what we can’t change.” Statements like these, no matter how well-intentioned they might be, serve the purpose of silencing the mother and making her feel as if her trauma isn’t legitimate.
When we think of these kinds of comments in the context of survivors of other kinds of trauma, we can easily see how ridiculous they are. If someone survived a home invasion and robbery, we’d never dream of saying, “At least you got some decluttering done!” If a military vet shared that she is still processing the trauma of having taken life, we’d never say, “But aren’t you glad you got to see the world?” If a friend confided that she was raped by a mutual acquaintance, you wouldn’t say, “Wow — he’s so hot! At least you got to have sex with a really hot guy!”
Yet for some reason, when a mother shares that she found her birth experience to be traumatic, people get uncomfortable and say things that are not genuinely helpful to the mother. Plus, when you go searching online for resources to help process birth trauma, you’ll likely come across some incredibly unhelpful discussions.
- “A healthy baby is all that matters.” This is a statement that can come from a few different intentions. Some women believe that the modern medicalization of birth is a good thing, and believe that active management of labor, scheduled births, surgical births, and saving us from “big babies” are all wonderful technological blessings for which we should be happy. These mothers may not understand the psychological impact that birth can have on women simply because it did not seem to have that impact on them. This statement can also mean that someone thinks they are being helpful by looking for the “silver lining.” And indeed there are many “silver linings” in a traumatic birth, but it usually requires a good bit of processing the pain before you can fully appreciate them.
- “Honestly, I’m not sure that birth trauma is even real. I mean, if you hadn’t had such high expectations of your birth you probably wouldn’t be feeling ‘traumatized’ now.” For starters, the belief that high expectations are a cause of feeling traumatized by birth is false. Research shows that high expectations are actually associated with more positive psychological outcomes. Additionally, this idea attempts to place the blame for the traumatic birth on the mother who expected to be treated humanely, rather than acknowledging that other factors have a tremendous impact on how a woman experiences her birth (e.g. level of support she received during birth, attitudes and practices of the providers, medical complications, premature birth, effectiveness of communication, etc.).
- “Were you abused as a child? I’ve heard that birth trauma only happens in women who have prior sexual trauma.” This belief works against birthing women in two very insidious ways. First, it isn’t true and dismisses the experiences of women for whom the “causes of the birth trauma are primarily situational, as are the causes of any trauma.” If you have medical procedures done on you against your will, something inserted into your body without your consent, or experience a frightening and painful procedure without proper support, that is enough to cause birth trauma, even without prior abuse. Secondly, this dismisses the experiences of the 25% of (American) women who have been sexually abused, often by people they trusted. With such a high percentage of women identifying as survivors or rape or sexual abuse, providers owe it to their patients to learn how to support survivors in birth in a way that minimizes trauma. And truthfully, many survivors are not comfortable disclosing their abuse history, or have not done counseling or therapy work on those past experiences, and a provider may not know which women are abuse survivors and which are not. This does not let providers off the hook; it means that they must treat all birthing women with respect, keep open lines of communication, listen to women’s concerns and questions, give good information on procedures offered, and avoid pressuring women who choose to decline certain procedures. No woman should have to disclose a prior traumatic history in order to receive compassionate and respectful care.
- This is one you’ll not hear as often (at least said directly to you), but often women are outright attacked when they discuss trauma-related challenges they experienced. A woman who had trauma bonding after traumatic cesarean may be told, “I’m sorry you can’t bond with a baby without pushing it out of your vagina.” A woman who experienced a traumatic operative delivery may be told, “You’re being ungrateful — that doctor saved your life.” A woman who experienced a traumatic hospital birth after transferring from a planned homebirth may be told, “See, you ended up in the hospital anyway. You should have just planned to be there in the first place.” All of these things represent flippant and uninformed attitudes toward both birth trauma and women’s bodily autonomy.
Whenever you hear these hurtful reactions to sharing your birth trauma, remember that they do not at all govern your ability to feel, acknowledge, grieve, and ultimately heal from your traumatic birth experiences. You can allow it to go in one ear and out the other, and completely ignore ignorant comments. You can request that people who can’t be a supportive presence in your healing process not discuss your birth experiences with you. You can correct misconceptions as you hear them, if you feel up to it and choose to. Most importantly, you can remember to be a better listener for others when they share their birth experiences, and support them as they heal, whether their experiences match yours or not.
Whatever it is that caused your birth trauma, the greatest gift you can give to yourself (and your child) is to actively work on healing.
Healing from Traumatic Birth, part two, will explore specifics of the healing process after traumatic birth.