“There is a secret in our culture, And it’s not that childbirth is painful, It’s that women are strong,” ~ Laurie Stavoe Harm
While this is a great and true statement, there is a bigger secret that many women are hiding under their love for their new babies : birth trauma. While this can refer to a physical injury sustained during birth, I’m talking about the psychological wounds a woman can experience after a difficult birth experience. A healthy baby and healthy mama are the optimal outcome of birth, right? I think we all agree, YES! Even if she looks great on the outside, a mom who hasn’t healed psychologically after a traumatic birth experience is not a mentally healthy mom.
The feelings and symptoms after a traumatic birth are so wide, varying and personal, but I think a common theme is violation. It happens all too frequently that women feel forced into decisions they aren’t totally informed of, comfortable with or completely understand (yes, there are “informed consent” forms that are signed but that’s a formality and realistically, many of those are signed with a shaky hand out of fear).
Birth is a natural bodily function. Many people forget this fact and sadly, our culture has ‘brainwashed’ women into believing that they are passive passengers in the journey of childbirth (of course I’m speaking generally- fortunately this isn’t every woman’s experience!). At a time when they should be most encouraged, made to feel like a goddess, celebrated, respected and shown nothing but pure love, far too many women are left in the aftermath of a traumatic experience on the very day she is born as a mother. She is a new woman – amazing, strong and life-giving – ready to face the world. Holding her new baby in her arms and a smile (or not, depending on her acting skills) on the outside, with a broken heart, fractured spirit and shattered self-confidence on the inside. This is the result of traumatic birth.
Women are shamed into keeping silent about birth trauma. Made to believe that because their baby is healthy, they should just be grateful and keep quiet about such negativity. “Oh, your birth didn’t go as planned? You should have expected that. You have a healthy baby – that’s all that matters!”
Actually no, that’s not all that matters.
When a woman gives birth, she is forever transformed and a new creature herself. This is true whether her baby was born vaginally or via cesarean…no matter her age, skin color, where she lives in the world…midwife or doctor…naturally or with drugs. Why did our society lose sight of the importance of the mental health of new mothers? Where is the future of the world if it’s not in our children and the woman who birth and raise them?
I believe that while statistics can give us an idea of the reported amount of women who’ve experienced birth trauma, they’re not accurate because this is a silent epidemic. So many of us are totally ashamed to even admit to these feelings, let alone discuss them with anyone. Not talking about a traumatic birth makes a rich breeding ground for postpartum depression…and sometimes even leading down the dark path to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It wasn’t until my oldest son Jack’s 4th birthday that I was able to really acknowledge and validate the birth trauma I experienced. My plans for birthing peacefully at a birth center were derailed by some decisions I would have made differently, knowing what I know now. As a direct result of the pitocin drip that had me confined to a hospital bed, I had a 4th degree episiotomy. The experience, especially the fluorescent lights, was everything I didn’t want. My body was fine, I could handle a little soreness and stiches. But mentally (and I didn’t realize or acknowledge these feelings much at the time) I was beat up. Three years and two weeks later, I experienced the pure, gentle birth of my son Wyatt at home. I learned what birth could and should be.
I don’t rejoice in the experience of Jack’s birth the way I do Wyatt’s…and that’s ok. Of course I love him more than anything – I feel the same about both of my children – but the way he was born made me feel violated, out of control, powerless and disappointed. I even have issues with the pictures – I don’t want to see photos of myself in a hospital bed with machines nearby. This is not how I want to think of his birth. Time has healed the wounds enough that I remember the powerful feelings of pushing him out more than the pain of my lack of control. My broken self-confidence has been built back up over time as I continue to grow and evolve as a mother.
I did a little research about Ms. Harm’s quote with which I opened this article. She wasn’t talking about natural birth when she wrote that – she was referring to the fact that women have much to gain in sharing their birth stories with each other. That makes her statement even more fitting to this topic, its about sharing our secrets, our stories, our innermost feelings – raw and honest, as unattractive as they may be. That’s what makes women strong, we are able to go through some crazy-difficult things in life but come out on the other side transformed and whole, often better, more authentic versions of our previous selves.
I don’t believe that all births that unfolded differently than the parents had hoped and expected are traumatic. The danger is when these painful feelings are there and left unacknowledged. I think a great way to check in with a mom you suspect might be dealing with postpartum trauma is to say “hey, I know your birth experience was (difficult, painful, not ideal, hard, scary, traumatic, whatever word you choose), it’s ok to feel let down. If you want to talk, I’m here.” Even better, give her the phone number of a friend who’s gone through a difficult birth experience. Empathy goes a long way.
To be honest, I’ve had some “writers block” with finishing this article – it’s a pretty difficult and unpleasant topic. But finally my inspiration came to me on a sunny September morning, in the form of a recorded cassette tape made by my maternal Gram. She and I had fun over the years making cassette recordings of ourselves talking, reading and singing over the years of my early childhood. It was hugely devastating to me when she passed away 6 years ago.
When I pressed play on the tape labeled “#1,” Gram’s sweet voice filled my ears, tears sprang to my eyes and I felt a pang in the spot she’s imprinted forever on my heart. I heard a baby crying in the background, me. While Gram narrates the details of my birth – time, place, weight, length, the upset baby continues wailing and my thoughts are instantly (and I believe I said aloud to my 4-year-old) “Someone, give that baby a boob!”
Finally the baby is calm and quiet, as a bottle has been prepared and my mom is feeding me. It was so bizarre to hear myself as a newborn. It strangely put me in touch with my experience of the trauma of my own birth – I wasn’t born in the peaceful way my homebirth baby was. My mom’s pregnancy was difficult and uncomfortable, and resulted in pre eclampsia, toxemia and a cesarean. Clearly, she experienced a traumatic birth. No one discussed any feelings she may have had after such a stressful experience. She didn’t have a doula or know she had choices in the way she birthed. There was no one there encouraging her to breastfeed and wear her baby. My Gram gave birth in the 50s, the time of “twilight birth” and a dad-free delivery room – to me, the epitome of birth trauma.
It is only when we recognize and acknowledge our feelings of pain, disappointment, sadness, violation, lack of control and any other emotion that is stirred to the surface that we are able to recover and have closure. Unfortunately, a lot of women are afraid to give birth again after a traumatic previous birth. I love the #breakthesilence photo project by Improvingbirth.org, which has created a forum for women (and their partners) to speak out about their experiences. I wholeheartedly agree with them that speaking up is the first step to changing things. Find someone – in real life, over the phone, even on an internet forum – with whom you feel comfortable and tell them about the experience, how you felt, how you feel now. It is SO therapeutic and validating to acknowledge these feelings. If you’re not ready to talk about it, write down some words that come to mind. In the same way you nurture and care for your sweet baby, do the same for yourself. You deserve it!
This article first appeared in Holistic Parenting magazine, Issue 7 (Jan/Feb 2015)