Birth is a transformative experience for new parents in many different ways. But, despite the many positive ways it can affect women and men, we hear less often about the negative experiences and, more importantly, their emotional fallout.
I spoke to Olivia Scobie, a counsellor who specializes in perinatal mental health, about recovery after a traumatic birth experience.
Q. What is a traumatic birth experience?
A. Usually, birth trauma falls into one of these four categories
1. Sexual (re)trauma: birthers with a history of sexual violence can be re-triggered by the birthing experience. It is not very often we ask survivors to expose their naked bodies publicly or be touched by people they don’t know very well, and it can be very triggering. Also, sometimes emergencies can lead the health care team to take action without full consent from birther (ie performing an episiotomy without asking).
2. Physical trauma: birthers can be traumatized when they experience unmanaged pain or suffering during the birth or postpartum, such as when an epidural doesn’t work, or severe tearing.
3. Emotional trauma: this is a broad category that captures birthers experience extreme distress during their birth, ranging from feeling concerned that they or their baby/babies may die, feeling as though you can’t hold or care for your baby/babies, feeling a loss of control over the process, or extreme disappointment with the birth events.
4. Structural trauma: this is when birthers experience systemic discrimination during their birth, such as not having religious practices observed or, for a trans birther, not having the appropriate pronouns used.
Q. What do women (and partners) experience emotionally after a traumatic birth?
A. Anyone who attends a birth — the birther, partners, family, friends, even medical staff — can feel traumatized from birth. How people respond can vary really widely! Some people struggle to bond with baby/babies while others become fiercely protective, and have a difficult time letting the baby/babies out of their sight. It is not uncommon to have flashbacks, be unable to sleep/get out of bed, or not be able to talk about what happened.
Some people experience post-traumatic stress disorder and often birth trauma can contribute a postpartum mood disorder. Any time a new parent is having a tough time emotionally after birth it is important they talk to their health care team, so that they can get screened for mood disorders and get the support they need.
Q. How can a traumatic birth experience impact someone’s life?
A. It can make the postpartum period, which is already fraught with change and challenges, much more difficult, both emotionally and physically. It can also make them afraid to have more children and cause tension in their relationships as it is really common for people who try to talk about their traumatic birth to get responses like “well, you are all healthy now and that’s all that matters” or “you’ll forget about it in time.”
Q. How do you help women after a traumatic birth experience?
A. There are a lot of different therapeutic options for people who have experienced birth trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) therapy can be very effective for trauma, as can some art therapies and cognitive based therapies. The goal of most therapy for birth trauma is to help those affected to process the events of the birth, and create strategies for managing emotional flashbacks.
Q. What is the first step towards recovery?
A. The first step is to find support. Talk to your partner, your medical team, your friends, or join online community groups. It is entirely possible to recover from birth trauma with the right supports, and it is totally okay to cry, get angry, feel jealous, and grieve what happened. And, if you are not okay and not sure where to start, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Olivia Scobie is a social worker and counsellor who specializes in perinatal mental health. She also runs a not-for-profit organization called Postpartum Support Toronto and an online community called Okayish Parents, providing a safe online space for new parents who are riding the up and down waves of parenthood.