A lot of people have told me their traumatic birth stories. I’m usually introducing myself to a new group of people, and I them that I help women heal from their traumatic birth experiences, so that mothers can reclaim their power. Since one third to one half of women worldwide have experienced emotional trauma while giving birth, usually someone approaches me during a break, or before we leave, and the words tumble out of their mouths. They begin telling me about the fear that gripped them when their ordeal began, the spiral of interventions, the way they were treated by their doctors, nurses, and families, and they usually conclude by saying how much it still hurts and they’re surprised at how hurtful people can be when they tell their stories.
I do my best to hold space in these spontaneous confessions. That means that I listen deeply to these women, and refuse to judge them. I usually ask them if they’re looking for comfort, or if they’re looking for solutions — and I give them what they want. But heed this warning: don’t tell your stories to just anyone. Telling your stories like this is an intimate act, and to paraphrase Brene Brown (world renowned shame and resilience researcher), only tell your stories of shame and vulnerability to people who have earned that right.
When you’ve been traumatized, it’s hard to save your story for the right people. If someone asks you a question that triggers memories, if you begin disassociating, it’s hard to reign in your reaction and stop talking. So here are three people you need to stop telling your traumatic birth story to immediately.
1) The medical service providers who attended your birthing.
I know, they seem like the perfect people to talk to! They were there, they’re experts in birth, they’re supposed to have your well-being as their priority… but the truth is, for them, hearing about your experience of your birthing will probably put them on the defensive. Because they are experts, these medical personnel will have a particular view point: that they did everything that they needed to do to ensure your safety, and the safety of your baby, within their ability. How you felt about those actions seem secondary to them, and they’re going to make it clear that they think they’re opinion is paramount here — after all, they are experts.
This is because doctors, particularly, and certain midwives, tend to forget to look at birth as a holistic situation. The whole of birth involves a mother and an infant — and the best outcome involves both coming through the event with emotional and physical well-being intact. However, because of the key role that medical providers play in birthing situations, it may be very important to you to confront them to help you bring closure.
What to do instead: If you need to tell your medical professional how their actions affected you, in order to achieve closure, consider either writing a formal or an informal complaint. An informal complaint would just be a letter to your provider to tell them your recollections of the birth, how you perceived your treatment, and how that has affected you long-term. A formal complaint is a process in which you would take your birthing story, a copy of your medical records, and the information about professional guidelines that OB/GYN and Midwives are held to, and make a persuasive case for wrong-doing. ImprovingBirth.org has a Complaint Tool Kit to help you with a formal process, click to access it.
2) The moms sharing their birth stories at the new mom playgroup.
This also seems like a good place to talk about your story, because where better to share your experience than with someone who recently had a similar experience? The problem is that new mom playgroup is likely to be a place where women either consciously or unconsciously want to make themselves look good. Being a new mom is a very uncertain point in time (even if you had the perfect birth experience), and as such, there can be a lot of posturing. Ever heard a woman with a newborn claim they sleep through the night? Yeah, they’re saying that because they want to look good, like they’ve figured something out.
It’s the same with birth stories. Even if you’re in a room with 9 women, and statistically at least two others besides yourself has had a traumatic birth, and the subject of birth stories comes up, it’s likely to become a subtle power struggle where everyone tells the version of the story that casts them in the most positive light, to avoid their feelings of shame, guilt, anger, and sadness — any feeling that may seem inappropriate to mention in “polite” company. Not only that, we often feel “less than” in comparison to others, and when someone tells their birth story, it seems impossible not to compare.
The obvious exception to this is if you’re in a new mom group that has worked hard to create an atmosphere of trust, non-judgement, and support — perhaps you’ve found one!
What to do instead: If you can, steer the conversation away from a blow-by-blow of birth stories, towards more of a analytic discussion about lessons learned. Ask “What is the one thing you learned about mothering from your birth experience?” This will bring the discussion into more abstract level, thus minimizing the problem of triggers as well as taking away the power of comparison.
3) The well-meaning, dogmatic friend.
Your friend has strong beliefs, and she believes that her beliefs are the key to happiness and safety. In this instance, this is the friend who has strong opinions about birth — any kind of opinion. Or, she has a strong opinion about how to heal from trauma, or get past it, or otherwise wants to help you move through the process before you’re ready. Healing from trauma is a personal process, and while your friend might have tools and tricks, she cannot fix it for you. And if she tries to fix it for you, she’s putting her beliefs ahead of her love and respect for you.
Instead, a friend should help create a non-judgemental space, in which you feel heard and validated — a real friend should hear what you have to say and affirm to you that it is true, because you say it is. A good friend should ask if you need comfort or if you’re looking for solutions. You need someone who you can trust with the intimacy of your story.
What to do instead: Wait for someone who has earned your story, by giving you space to tell lesser stories. I know this is hard, because it makes sense to go to the person with the most knowledge, but if that person doesn’t also know how to take a step back and make it about you instead of about them, they’re not the right person to tell.
Something that’s incredibly important in all of these situations is knowing how to “speak truth to power” — in other words, which words to use and how to use them so that the people who need to hear you and believe you about your traumatic birth story are rapt with attention.In my do-it-yourself healing journey course, Transforming Birth Trauma, you’re guided through many journal prompts to tell your story to yourself until you’re ready to share it with others. Let me give you a free excerpt, which tells you the most important thing to do next, after defining what birth trauma is, and relating your own story to it. Click here to get your excerpt of Transforming Birth Trauma!