Mothers are in the midst of a continuing intense experience — first, the traumatic birth of our child — then our child’s newbornhood, the first year of our child’s life, and then the birth of subsequent children. The daily aspects of parenting can hit emotional triggers — one of mine is bedtime resistance. (When my daughters resist sleeping, it totally sends me into fight/flight/freeze mode.) Maybe one of your trauma triggers hit by parenting is separation from your child. The point is, parents live in a world of intense emotions; sometimes they belong to our children, sometimes they belong to us, the parent. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it’s common for mothers to be continually triggered and reminded of their trauma by life’s circumstances.
And because we are continually being confronted by potential retraumatization, we need support — we need people around us. But the people who love us the most are sometimes the most unsupportive.
The Wrong Advice at the Wrong Time
When my daughter was born at 34 weeks, I felt guilty that I had failed to carry her to term, something that I thought I was capable of doing. And when I thought about why I had failed to carry my daughter to term, I began to think that I was flawed, that I was broken, and that’s why preeclampsia found me. Of course, when something bad happens, we want to know whom to blame. I blamed myself, and as the long-term effects of my trauma continued, I blamed myself for not being able to snap out of it. I judged myself for not putting up a fight to avoid a C-section, but that kind of fight wasn’t actually an option for me, especially as sick as I already was — that sort of “fight” would not have been helpful.
And then, the continued disassociation after the events of my child’s birth was not well received by my family and friends. Modern society tends “to judge immobilization and disassociation in the face of overwhelming threat as a weakness tantamount to cowardice. Beneath this castigating judgment [from others] lies a pervasive fear of feeling trapped”1. When our well-meaning loved ones notice that something isn’t going well with us, that’s when the advice starts coming. For some reason, humans tend to hear about someone else’s discomfort and become deeply uncomfortable themselves. They don’t like hearing about you feeling trapped in your emotional loop, so they try to solve the problem with pithy advice. The advice is usually aimed, though subconsciously, at getting us to stop talking about our experiences. It shuts our stories down, and further traps us in our loops. This advice includes:
- Just let it go. It’s time to move on. It’s behind you.
- Everything happens for a reason. (Variation: Before you were born, you made an agreement with the universe about the lessons you needed to learn in this lifetime…)
- At least… [insert something “worse” than what happened to you here. Maybe, “At least you didn’t need a c-section.”]
- All that matters is a healthy baby. (Variation: Be thankful you and the baby are healthy!)
- You can have another birth. (Variation: You can have a healing VBAC!)
None of these things help. They imply judgement when I’m already judging myself. I get it, you want to help and solve the problem. You know what would solve the problem? If the thing that caused me to be so angry, scared, ashamed and full of grief never happened in the first place.
If that horrible vaginal exam that felt violating never happened, I could’ve appreciated that my daughter is healthy and happy and put my birth experience behind me. If a nurse had offered to take me to see my baby in the NICU in the middle of the night, I could’ve “just let go” of the feeling, the knowing, that I had unwittingly abandoned my newborn and would never see her again. And no matter what the future holds, what happened happened to me and I need to be able to talk about it and feel about it. So, how can I make it so that these horrible, awful experiences never happened? Do our loved ones have an answer for that? Do they have a TARDIS? Is the Hot Tub Time Machine outside? Are any one of various fictional time travel devices available so that my pain can be relieved? No? Then, how do you suggest “getting over” it?
Here’s what people who have not experienced traumatic birth don’t realize — Traumatized moms can’t make the horrible, awful experience go away. We can’t just focus on something else because our bodies and minds are on a loops that won’t let us leave it alone — loops triggered by intense experience, and intense experiences happen every day while mothering. Our birth experiences happened, and we need that to be recognized. Not only that, we know that traumatic birthing experiences are going to keep happening to other women — it’s a deeply unsafe feeling for mothers who are already vulnerable.
The Right Advice At the Right Time
People who give out the pithy advice above are unwittingly deepening our trauma. Not only was there no one available to save us in the moment of our trauma, but there’s no one who is willing to reach out a hand and help us escape the continual disassociation that occurs with ongoing trauma. We need someone to witness us, to hold space for us to heal, on our terms and on our timeline.
Here’s what moms who have experienced emotional birth trauma need to know:
- tragically, your experience is not unique — you are part of a community of survivors, friends you haven’t met yet, who are waiting to embrace you and lift you up
- finding meaning in trauma can be helpful — not the kind of meaning saying that it was okay that you were treated poorly — but rather meaning that you can feel strong in overcoming the circumstances and discover the feeling of your power that you still wield (even if it seems all the power had been taken from you).
- Believe that what you found traumatic was traumatic — learn to trust your own perceptions, trust yourself, forget about comparison to other people, and amp up the compassion to yourself.
- Know that you matter, as much as your baby matters — that you are an essential half of the mother/child dyad, and that your child will thrive when you thrive, and that you can grow happily and safely together
- heal in a way that does not need to wait for another pregnancy or another birth — you deserve to feel good, to remain present, to laugh and play, and be without fear now, not when or even if you decide to have another child
If we can be wrapped up like this, held like this, we have a chance at realizing that we are loved, we are valued — and that we can hopefully begin to love and value ourselves as perfectly imperfect. Our birthing experiences are ours, and even though they were shaped both by ourselves and our expectations, they were also shaped by forces outside of our control — including the medical establishment’s role in denying women’s autonomy.
I wrote Transforming Birth Trauma so that I could know that I wasn’t alone in my experience. I wrote it so that I could find meaning — not in denying what had happened, or minimizing it’s impact on me, but by claiming my birth in a different way than someone whose birth wasn’t traumatic– so that I could go from guilt, shame, and anger to joyfully telling my daughter her birthing story, and knowing that I had birthed in a way that showed me my power in motherhood. I learned to trust myself and my perceptions through this process, and that my well-being is so, so important.
I wrote Transforming Birth Trauma for me, as I prepared for the birth of my second daughter. Because it was the guide that I wish I had had after the birth of my eldest daughter. And while I had actively and passionately pursued my healing and had completed it before my pregnancy, I know that not everyone can do that. Not everyone has the time, space, understanding partners, and access ot therapy and other supports. I want the other women who have experienced emotional birth trauma to have the guide that I wished had existed (and will exist on March 22) so that they can heal now — no waiting for their next birth, because women are worth it just as they are now.
I am so excited to share Transforming Birth Trauma with you, and so if you haven’t signed up for you SNEAK PEAK free excerpt yet,please do so by following this link, or filling out the form in the sidebar.
And, if you know a woman in your life who has experienced birth trauma, send her this blog post — let her know that you want to help her get what she really needs, that you’re not going to try to fix the problem, and that you’re behind her 100%. Here’s a sharing button to help you out:
- Levine, 2010, p. 59 ↩