How I Healed My Traumatic Birth Story — And How You Can Too

If you haven’t read the unhealed version of my birthing story, you should click here to read it. It is the very essential “before” for the “after” that comes below.

But if you have read the “before” part of the story, here’s a recap: Before my healing journey, I was angry. I was angry that my friends got to remain pregnant to term. I was angry my friends were able to have births more closely aligned with what they planned. And I was ashamed and afraid of how intense my anger was. I grieved the rest of my pregnancy, and I grieved my daughter’s forced eviction into the the world outside the womb. And I was ashamed and afraid of how intense my grief was. I felt guilty that I may have done something to cause my birth trauma, that I might have done something to cause my preeclampsia, and ashamed that I hadn’t been “strong enough” to succeed in birthing vaginally.

How I Healed My Traumatic Birthing Story-- And How You Can Too

The Healing Journey

When my daughter was 6 months old, I started graduate school for my Master’s in Public Policy (MPP) at a nationally ranked university. This was a welcome distraction from baby-land, where I was depressed and anxious. I was under the care of a therapist and a psychiatrist, but the fog of depression, anxiety, and trauma didn’t seem to lift. My work load was intense, and when I wasn’t at school I was parenting. And so, every day, between classes, while my daughter was cared for by my mom, I pumped breast milk for my baby. I decided to use that as my quiet time. No school, no Internet—I began to journal.

Journaling is what finally gave me the emotional space to begin to heal. As one of the founders of Trauma and Birth Stress (TABS), a now-inactive Australian and New Zealand based organization, writes, “Writing is private and at your own pace,” and, “Writing down invasive thoughts (particularly by hand) gives them anchors” 1. The more I wrote, the more that the story wasn’t in my head. But still, it seemed like it was important for me to know this story, and so in writing it down I also made sure it wouldn’t be forgotten. Because I was no longer worried about forgetting, I began to learn about who I was, and lessons that I had been taught in the process.

Journaling was so important because it gave me a space where I didn’t have to censor myself. I could tell the story and no one would sigh and say, “I’m tired of hearing about this.” No one would try to console me by saying, “At least you and your baby are healthy.” And as I realized that writing provided this, I wanted to give other women a container to do the same healing—I began to dream about writing a book to share what I was discovering with others.

The journaling was transformative, but I still had to live my life. The feelings of danger (which is what trauma teaches us to be vigilant for) happened at the oddest times: just seeing a woman visibly pregnant put a lump in my throat and had me wanting to jump into action. This is when I began to learn about trauma more generally, to learn about how to deprogram my stress response, and to rely more heavily on resilience and coping rather than becoming a vigilante trying to “save” everyone around me.

I researched, and experimented, and used the skills that my MPP provided me in order to read and understand both qualitative and quantitative statistics. In this way I hoped to gain a deep understanding of trauma as told by those who have survived it, and also by those who study it. I realized that I had this body of work that not everyone could amass on her own—and so I decided that anything I offered needed to include this information, too. More dreams for writing a book.

All of this required gentleness and self-compassion. My daughter’s birth was in March 2011. I finally feel that I am healed, that I no longer need to tell the story, as of June 2014. It was a long process, and as I prepared to give birth to my second living child (Born October 2015, as I put finishing touches on the manuscript), I understood that the process was still continuing. I went slowly; I am going slowly, and I refuse to rush it. I gave myself breaks when I began to feel overwhelmed. I did something nice for myself to refill my reserves in between journaling and research sessions. I learned that healing is about moving forward, but not about forcing ourselves forward in a way that causes us to reinjure ourselves.

The Healed Story

One of the side effects of being at peace with your traumatic birth, is that you no longer have the compulsion to tell it at every opportunity. I do tell my stories in fits and starts, when I think a particular piece would be helpful to another woman who is struggling with her own story. It isn’t an open wound anymore — I remember, but it isn’t causing active pain. And because it’s healed, I am able to leave room for others to explore their own stories, and be a witness to that.

But if I were to tell my story in full, from my now healed perspective, I would tell it this way:

I was diagnosed with preeclampsia at 33 weeks and 3 days gestation, at which point I went into the hospital. The hospital was a strange place for me, and I was afraid both for myself and my baby. The staff did not act in a way that I would expect them too — they did not engage me in my own care. They didn’t trust my judgement, and they didn’t consult me in their thought process or their choices. In short, they acted in ways that denied that I was an adult, capable of making my own decisions. I was cared for poorly, and unfortunately, this is a problem that is not unique. I was angry for a long time at my doctors, nurses, midwives, and doula. I’m no longer angry — not because I absolve them of the responsibility of their mistakes, because they were mistakes, but because I know that being angry doesn’t help me. I can’t change the past. But I can change the future.

Not only was I treated poorly by my care providers — medical and nonmedical — I was in a lot of pain. I was talked out of taking an epidural by my doula, and as a result, some of the procedures that were meant to protect me and my child ( breaking my waters to start active labor, heavy use of pitocin to hasten labor, internal fetal and contraction monitors, etc.) were extremely painful. Labor is supposed to be hard work, but I had cross the line from hard work into suffering. I was afraid of the suffering of motherhood — many therapy sessions before and after my daughter’s birth were dedicated to talking about how I didn’t have to deny my own personhood to be a good mother, even though I believed I did.

And so, after the worst vaginal exam of my life, when the doctor showed up in the room, I knew that things had become serious. He explained that my daughter’s heart tones had become flat, and that he wanted my daughter born in the next half hour to the next six hours to ensure her safety and mine. To be comfortable with me continuing to labor, he said, “I’d like to check you.” I laughed at him, and said, “No more hands in my vagina. Prep me for surgery.” The doctor looked confused, and the midwife (who was no in charge of my care, but who was doing her best to be a supportive presence) said, “I think she’s serious. I think she’s done.”

If you read the traumatic version of my birthing story, you know this moment is one that I really struggled with. I chose to have a c-section — circumstances were emergent (getting worse), but not yet an emergency. I had planned a natural birth, and I ended up asking calmly and seriously for a c-section. But it was this moment which healed me more than any other, because it was this moment, the one that I obsessed over wanting to change the most, where I became the kind of mother I needed to be — one who refused to suffer.

And that made the story I tell my little girl about her birth possible. I tell her:

On the day you were born, Mama was very sick with something called preeclampsia, and hurt all over because of the medicines I was being given. The doctor came in and said, “I want your baby to be born soon; I think it will make sure your baby is safe and healthy.” I said, “I want my baby to be safe and healthy, so yes, let’s get ready for a C-birth.” They got Mommy ready for surgery and then they cut a little opening on her tummy above my vulva, and the doctors pulled you out! You came out tongue thrusting and looking for nursies. The nurses took you to be weighed and measured, and they wrapped you in a blanket. They brought you over to Daddy, and you were crying! So Daddy started singing to you. “Lightly row, lightly row, in a little boat we go. Lightly row, lightly row, lightly row.” And you stopped crying! You must have thought, “Oh, I know you, you’re my daddy!” And then I stroked your cheek and said, “Hello, my Rocketship!” and you must have thought, “I know you, you’re my mommy!” And then the nurse took you to the special nursery for babies who were born early, because you were born early, and made sure that you were breathing, and eating, and peeing and pooping and keeping warm. And Daddy came to take care of you, because Mommy was still very sick, and he introduced you to your Grandmama and Grandpapa and Uncle Mike, as well as your Grammy Hope and Pop Pop and Auntie Grace. And that’s what happened on the day you were born!

As she gets older, if she has questions, I know I can answer them honestly — about how I was treated poorly, about how much hard work it was, and how much it hurt. I will also tell her about how I chose self-care instead of suffering, that I let go of an ideal in favor of nurturing myself and my daughter. I’ll tell her about our seperation, and how good and how wonderful our reunion was for me. But for now, I want to fully embrace how happy I was to have her join our family, and tell the version of this story that is honest about the less than ideal parts while emphasizing our joy.

My panic attack, my separation from my daughter while she was in the NICU and I was in recovery? I still feel sad and angry about it (on a very low level), but it also taught me a lesson, part of a lesson I was  learning in the early years of my marriage — that no one knows what I need unless I state it with exact clarity. If blame needs to be assigned, I can take part of the blame for that trauma — I didn’t ask. I didn’t know to ask. But neither did the nurses assigned to care for me offer — and they should have been more familiar with what new moms needed emotionally, even if what I needed physically was a) food and b) my baby.

Can Anyone Heal Their Birth Story?

I’ve heard a lot of birthing stories by this point — moms who say, “I know this isn’t a big deal, but…” and moms who say, “There was nothing redeeming about my birth.” I’ve heard the whole spectrum, and so it seems to me that there are people who believe their story doesn’t need healing because “they don’t qualify” and people who believe their story can’t be healed — ever. I think that coming to peace with your birth story is easier done than many people realize, if you have the right guide.

If you’re anything like me five years ago, you’re working hard to be a good mother, at the same time that you’re consumed by memories of giving birth. You know this isn’t normal, and you want it to stop. So you’re trying to fit in therapy, attempting to lean on dismissive friends and family, looking for other resources — all while meeting the demands of a small child and “normal” life. (Life hasn’t been normal, has it?)TBT-Cover

That’s where my research and analysis comes in. My book, Transforming Birth Trauma, is a guide to stop your birth experience from consuming you, and instead escape to begin a healing journey. You can stop feeling angry, hurt, and ashamed of your birth experience, and instead feel at peace and work towards being proud of how you birthed your baby. In other words, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to wait to give birth again to start healing from traumatic birth.

Click on the BUY NOW button below to focus on yourself and your well-being right now. The investment is $47, so you can stop seeing yourself as the victim of your birth story and start seeing yourself as a hero.

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  1. Beck, Driscoll, & Watson, 2013, p. loc 1420
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