“Whenever and however you intend to give birth, your experience will impact your emotions, your mind, your body, and your spirit for the rest of your life.”
– Ina May Gaskin
Unexpected Birth Experiences
(Information about your physical recovery following a Caesarean can be found here.)
Even if you are feel you are obviously struggling to cope with an unexpected birth experience, current screening tests for postnatal depression (PND) may not detect this – if you are well-attached to your baby and otherwise coping as a mother, you may not qualify for PND and all of the systemic support structures which are in place for women with PND. Post-traumatic stress (PTS), and – with more persistent symptoms – post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are quite often more appropriate diagnoses for women dealing with birth trauma, so discuss this with your GP and ask about the mental health treatment plans which may be available to help you to access professional services.
If you would like to know more about PTSD resulting from childbirth, Rhea Dempsey of Birthing Wisdom has kindly allowed CARES to offer access to the following article on the topic (as featured in the July 2012 CARES newsletter, issue 44):
it IS okay to feel…
In a society which increasingly values the scientific, the logical and the immediately tangible, our emotions, instincts and primal urges can be very quickly discounted and brushed aside, not only by those around us, but also by our care providers, our partners and our conscious selves. However, for many women who come to CARES, it is simply not possible, or even healthy, to continue ignoring these feelings.
Pregnancy and birth are amazingly transformative times which can open our eyes to new ways of experiencing, appreciating and understanding the world around us. While childbirth can be a moment of great joy, exhilaration and accomplishment for the women who are nurtured and empowered to step into their own space as they birth, it can also be a frightening, lonely and isolating experience which takes a long time to understand let alone absorb into the fabric of your life.
If your experience of childbirth was not what you expected, you may have a lot of emotional baggage to unpack. The following are just some of the common emotions and reactions experienced by the women who have come to CARES for support following, in particular, unplanned Caesareans:
- Grief – “I am sad the birth I hoped for didn’t happen. What if I never have a vaginal birth?”
- Anger and frustration – “Why didn’t I do this differently? Why didn’t you support me?”
- Loneliness and despair – “No one understands how I feel.”
- Self-doubt and low self-esteem – “I am a failure as a mother. My body is broken.”
- Shame - “People assume I am too posh to push. I am scared I took the easy way out. I have heard of worse births mine – I have no right to feel like this.”
- Confusion – “Why did this happen? How did this happen?”
- Betrayal – “I trusted you.”
- Anxiety – “I can’t stop thinking about the birth. I relive it every day. I am scared to make more choices as a mother.”
- Shock – “I wasn’t prepared. I was scared. I thought my baby might die. I thought I
One might experience any or all of these emotions from one day to the next, but one thing about traumatic experiences of birth remains the same: feeling like this does not mean you are crazy, overreacting or weak. It means you have experienced a traumatic birth. And, CARES exists because you are not alone and because there are other women out there who need support to heal, too.
If you found your birth scary and unexpected, if you felt out of control, disempowered, forgotten and disconnected, or if you genuinely believed (even if for a moment) that you and/or your baby were in grave danger (and this does not even need to have been medically true), it is no wonder that you might need some time and support to come to terms with this experience. A dose of any one of these feelings is enough to rock even the strongest among us, and if you encountered more than one of these in a single birth, you certainly need to give yourself the permission to feel upset and the time to process this experience. This does not make you weak, or weak of character – it means you are human. If you find that your feelings about your birth never get better, or perhaps start getting worse, you should seek professional help – there is a difference between normal responses to trauma (from which people emerge) and PTSD which should not be ignored if you feel you are not coping.
As you make sense of this emotional journey, do not to discount your reaction to the circumstances of your baby’s birth. Like most things in life, you will always be able to find someone worse off if you look for it (a woman with a more scary, more dangerous and more harrowing birth story than yours, for example), but comparing your story to others’ is not a productive way to heal your own traumatic memories. Your experience of the birth of your children is yours and yours alone. If your partner was present, he/she may have a similar experience to recount, or even quite a contrasting one, but that is their experience of the birth and their interpretation of its meaning. Likewise, what one woman may consider an ‘easy’ birth in one context could be painful and terrifying for another woman in a different situation, and vice versa. Such comparisons are pointless when you are wanting to face something as personal as the meaning of your own experience for you. How you experience the birth of your baby physically, mentally and emotionally is your own truth – do not discount it.
Similarly, do not be prepared to accept a traumatic experience as ‘normal’ – there is a difference between a birth that is challenging, difficult, painful, exhausting and/or confronting and one that is traumatic. A traumatic birth may be all of those things, or it may be none of them. If your birth has left you reliving flashbacks, persistently thinking about the birth, feeling anxious, suffering nightmares, feeling depressed, and/or suffering any other symptoms which you did not have before the birth, please see a health professional for help and support.
“But, you have a healthy baby – that’s all that matters.”
If you have attempted to discuss your traumatic experience of birth with anyone, you may well have already been told: ‘But, you have a healthy baby – that’s all that matters.’ This is quite a common response from listeners who are perhaps hoping to help your pain but are not sure how to do it. While it certainly goes without saying that having a healthy baby is a high priority (no mother we’ve met would ever suggest otherwise!), women who are perhaps feeling violated, disconnected, traumatised or broken and are looking to make sense of traumatic birth do not need to be reminded of this. This response might actually make you feel selfish for thinking of yourself and ‘indulging’ in your own troubles, or like you are a terrible mother because the good health of your baby is not helping you to move past your traumatic memories of his/her birth.
The reason this ‘healthy baby’ response offers little comfort is simple: you can be both grateful for your healthy baby AND sad about or traumatised by your own experience of his/her birth. This does not make you crazy or selfish, it does not mean you had unrealistic expectations for your baby’s birth which only set you up to ‘fail’, and it does not mean you are any less grateful for your beautiful, healthy baby. Wanting a particular birth for your child does not mean putting an ‘experience’ ahead of your child’s health – in most (if not all) cases we have seen, it is in fact the health of both Mum and Baby which motivates women and drives their birth choices. And, let’s not forget that a healthy mum is an equally important factor in the welfare of the baby – those early hours, weeks and months are much easier for all when Mum is physically, mentally and emotionally well.
Mum’s health can sometimes be forgotten in our usual expectations of the post-partum period – there are many cultures which do not forget the importance of the mother’s health during ‘la cuarentena’ or ‘zuo yuezi’, for example, and the role she has played in birthing her babe. We should each take something from these rituals and allow ourselves time to gently transition into our new lives and enjoy our babymoon surrounded by lots of support, love and encouragement. This is especially important if we are also needing to process an unexpected birth experience whilst simultaneously being mum to a newborn.
Lastly, be prepared that sometimes you might be presented with a different ‘brick wall’ response by your own mother, a female relative or a girlfriend if you discuss your feelings with them because they themselves have experienced birth trauma; shutting down the conversation with you (in which you unwittingly trigger their own traumatic memories) could be a self-preservation technique on their behalf. They may not even be aware of this themselves. It is important to remember that, in these instances, the ‘But, you have a healthy baby’ response is more about your listener and her birth journey than it is about your own. If you find yourself in this situation, try to have compassion, silently wish your listener peace with her own trauma, and keep searching for the right person to speak to about your feelings.
The great thing about the CARES community is that it gives women a space to safely and openly discuss the thoughts, feelings and emotions they may not be able to discuss with usual confidantes. Attending a coffee morning is a positive and proactive way to start understanding your birth journey and what it means for you. Being surrounded by other women who have ‘been there, done that’ not only reminds you that you are not alone, but that there is always room for healing and hope.
Healing is Possible
Many CARES women who have experienced subsequent empowering births might still tear up while sharing their Caesarean birth stories. Healing from traumatic birth is an on-going task which gets easier with time and practice, but takes some work. Many members find their child’s birthdays (their own birthing days) a particularly difficult time. These anniversaries may trigger memories of your birth experience which can make enjoying the celebration of your child’s arrival a very complex task; this might perhaps add an extra layer to feelings of guilt about your child’s birth.
As you work through the trauma of your birth experience, you will uncover many highly individual triggers. These might affect your relationships, your sex life, your confidence as a mother, your reactions to the births of friends’ babies and birth scenes on TV… Be prepared that simply learning your own triggers and avoiding these is not the same as truly healing from your traumatic birth – trauma will find a new way to surface and manifest if left unattended. So, when the time is right for you to face the emotions and memories of your traumatic birth, it is important to take the opportunity to do this. Sometimes women arrive at this point very quickly (within hours or weeks of the birth), but other times it can take much longer (months, or years, even) for a woman to be in the right place to heal. Whenever you are ready, make sure you seek the professional help and community support you need to help you in your journey.
The time it takes to heal from a traumatic birth is also highly individual and varied. It is important to understand that simply having a ‘better birth next time’ may not rewrite the hurt and pain of your birth experience. It is wise to direct your intention to heal towards the birth which is the source of the trauma, even if it is thoughts of your next pregnancy which prompt you to unpack your previous birth.
The path mightn’t be easy, but healing from trauma is possible and it is a goal worth setting when you are ready to do it; apart from allowing you peace, it can also bring additional gifts into your life. For many women of the CARES community, past and present, a traumatic birth ultimately becomes the beginning of a journey to self-empowerment which invites positive life changes on a variety of levels.
What You Can Do
There are many ways one can heal from traumatic birth. Over the years, CARES members have used a combination of the following to support this journey:
- Connect with the CARES community – come to a coffee morning, write us an email, join us on facebook, participate in an information workshop
- Find professional support – counselling, hypnotherapy, Neuro Emotional Technique (NET), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), craniosacral therapy (CST), energy work
- Access your medical records and go over these with a trained medical professional
- Read, research and ask the many questions you have – don’t stop till you get answers
- Find ways to honour your body and regain your trust in it – get a massage, have a bath, do things that make you feel good physically and give thanks for your body which can do amazing things like grow a baby and recover from birth and surgery
- Write to the hospital in which you birthed and/or to your care provider about your birth experience (even if you never send the letter)
- Write your child’s birth story (even if you are the only one to ever read it)
- Give healing the time and space it needs to happen
Please refer to our ‘DIY Research’, ‘External Links’ and ‘Directory’ pages for more information to help you find the answers to the questions of your birth experience. Birthtalk.org also have an excellent blog about birth trauma which we highly recommend.