Birth Trauma Needs To Be Addressed Openly: Buzzfeed Restarts The Conversation With Rachael Benjamin
Working with women and birthing people through trying to conceive, infertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum, I often emphasize just how much of these emotional experiences go under-discussed. Perhaps one of the most overlooked is birth trauma, which can occur when a birth experience goes from being an expected level of anticipatory fear to the birthing parent and/or child being (or feeling) unsafe. Restarting this much-needed ongoing conversation about birth trauma, I was excited to be featured recently in Buzzfeed’s article “Moms Are Speaking Up About The Trauma Of Childbirth.”
The article begins with a personal story of the pain and difficulty of traumatic birth from Emily who experienced her OB-GYN reaching inside her body without her consent to turn her baby who was sunny-side up. Needing her doctor to slow down and provide information about what was happening, Emily recalls feeling ashamed that she was ruining her family’s “Hallmark moment of joy with the new baby, but needing them so badly.” The article continues through the voices of other women naming what happened to them during labor and delivery, including Ally who felt violated by an OB-GYN’s removal of a retained placenta, Liba who lived in fear after a malpositioned baby, and Gretchen who didn’t feel heard by doctors or her partner about pain medication.
Buzzfeed writer Ellen O’Connell Whittet also provides examples of community organizations and services working to prevent traumatic births. Many of these organizations, including Ancient Song, a doula group advocating for the Brooklyn community of birthing people of color, and the National Association to Advance Black Birth with their Black Birthing Bill Of Rights, specifically focus on helping Black women and birthing people whose birth experiences can be at increased risk of trauma due to medical racism.
What the article reveals overall is the sheer diversity of traumatic birth experiences. As I explain in the article, “Birth trauma could be an emergency C-section, not feeling safe during labor or delivery, insufficient pain relief, the loss of a baby, or a long labor…There could also be medical trauma.” The piece also shows the importance of sharing these stories so that women and birthing people are not left alone with trauma, grief, and pain. Because birth trauma so often goes unspoken, I want to expand the discussion raised in the article about sharing and socializing birth trauma:
Hiding Or Pushing Feelings Of Birth Trauma Aside Can Feel As If It’s Eating You Alive
Birth is a process in which we don’t have much power or control over how something went. With birth or labor trauma, something didn’t just happen that wasn’t planned for; it went wrong. When we are in the middle of unsafety, we just focus on our and our baby’s survival. We usually can’t process the trauma in real-time. This means birth trauma especially can be felt post-delivery, manifesting as hypervigilance or fear for your or your baby’s safety, intense rushes of sadness or anger, flooded memory or feeling flooded by new experiences or unknowns, or feeling a lack of connection to your baby or your partner because you’re stuck in a disconnected or flat state.
Sometimes women and birthing people can try to push through these feelings, particularly when overwhelmed with the work of being a new parent and the social pressure to be the new happy family. However, when we push feelings away, they live inside us in some funky ways that we may or may not be fully aware of, making us feel isolated and distant and affecting our self-identity as a parent and as a person. Unless we are able to say, speak, scream, cry, feel, and be with what happened or is happening, they can come out through feeling depressed, low, anxious, fearful, disconnected, or unable to give or receive connection, love, or touch. Sometimes it can literally feel as if the experience is eating us alive.
Sharing Your Traumatic Birth Story With Others Allows You To Safely Unpack And Feel Your Feelings
Rather than pushing through the experience, allowing yourself the space and ability to feel your feelings is key in trauma. One of the best ways to do this with birth trauma is to unpack your experience by talking about it with someone whether a friend, a family member, a therapist, or someone who has also experienced a traumatic birth. By talking about it, I don’t mean glossing over, as many folks do, the messy part of birth. Birth isn’t sexy or peaceful; it’s a mess (you may need to talk about blood, puss, puke, poop, catheters, oxygen masks, and mortality).
This can mean calling a parent or trusted friend or friends to discuss the experience while they hold the baby (or babies) so you don’t have to perform a dual role. Or as the baby is sleeping, take time to talk with your partner about both of your experiences during labor and delivery. Therapy too can be a healthy container in which you can unpack the experience slowly, so the mess, the feelings, and everything gets the attention it needs with a provider who will take the time to build a relationship with you and can live in the ick. A good therapist will be okay not knowing it all while also leading and asking a ton of questions.
No matter who it is, they should be ready to listen, ask questions, and slow down so you can just say and be with what this experience was, meant, felt like, and is and feels like now (even though the unsafety may be over, it may not feel over for you). Often when we are telling and unpacking our birth story, we realize in this process that it was awful, haunts us, or feels visceral. This may also be the time we recognize it as trauma (though sometimes even before we unpack it, we know it was trauma-filled). It may also have brought up other past traumas that have been buried.
Talking to others about your birth story can make you feel held so you can truly feel how scary, painful, out of control, or rattled you felt with the safety of having a trusted friend, family member, or therapist with you. Unpacking your birth story can also be helpful in grieving the loss of your expectations, plans, and hopes around labor and delivery that did not or could not happen.
Talking About Your Traumatic Birth Experience Socializes The Trauma, Creating Community
Through talking about birth trauma, you are socializing it. Unlike when we hide these experiences, this gives the trauma a space to live outside ourselves. As humans, we need to feel held whether literally or in being able to talk about the story rather than replay it or relive it on our own. By socializing the trauma, we ask our community to be “in on it” so we learn we can survive telling what happened, experiencing it, and living with the pain and grief.
A mother’s or post-delivery group can be particularly helpful places to socialize birth trauma by revealing you aren’t alone in these experiences. In a group, you can create a community that can grieve, cry, gnash teeth, be breathless, and then breathe together in a way that gets rid of the loneliness and isolation that traumatic experience can create and keep us in.
When socializing the trauma, you also create, what I describe as, a counterculture, meaning a space to live a “not wonderful labor” or “unsafe birth experience” rather than respond to social pressure and pretend everything went okay in getting the new baby here or that it was bad, but you’re fine because you and the baby are here. For instance, if a woman who had a traumatic birth is in a mom’s group where there were also non-traumatic births and this is a group that makes space for holding all experiences, then the group can hang with the pain and trauma in order to acknowledge that there can be more than one birth experience.
The group of women in the Buzzfeed article also provide a powerful example of socializing birth trauma. The article created community by compiling these stories so that birth trauma can be held as a reality, something that did or can happen. It shows that birth trauma isn’t hidden or rare, but rather something that is.
By Socializing The Trauma, You Also Have The Opportunity To See What’s Next (No Matter How Long It Takes)
Socializing birth trauma not only lets us hold, look at, and name the trauma, but can also allow us to see what’s next with an acknowledgment of the pain of the experience (rather than avoiding it). It’s essential to note that healing from trauma is multifaceted and may take longer than we or others want. And that’s okay. All good things are built in the time they take. It is often challenging in this day and age to not rush, but rushing may mean we are talking about birth trauma to simply “get it over with” rather than sitting with the terrible feelings of unsafety.
But when you feel ready, you have the opportunity to consider how you want to move forward, including deciding that you are going to put your safety first and foremost. You may decide to note your needs out loud as a priority with other providers, in other births, in other medical processes, or within your relationships. In the Buzzfeed article, O’Connell Whittet highlights Elizabeth who describes how the trauma of her first birth impacted her approach to her second. Working with an OB who wanted her to have an “atraumatic birth,” Elizabeth made sure the OB informed her of the process and the choices she could make.
Similarly, you could tell a provider: “I did not have a safe experience last time. I know what happened. We need to take twenty minutes in our first visit this pregnancy to talk about this.” Or if you’re a Black woman or birthing person, read the Black Birthing Bill of Rights to a provider, whether on your own or with a friend or partner, so that you feel heard and respected. It also may be that you need to go back to your OB team to talk about what happened as a postmortem.
Rituals too can help gain control and be with and acknowledge the pain and grief rather than hiding from it. For instance, you could bring your baby out of the bathtub and announce, “They are here. Here is my baby,” as a way to replace how they entered the world with a new greeting. Or write out a hope or sadness on a card and place it somewhere in your house as a way of pausing. You could utilize your anger (if that is the thing that is needed to release) by primal screaming with someone in a way you couldn’t or didn’t at birth in order to let the rage out rather than letting it consume you. You could also create a painting or drawing (or something else just yours) as a way to memorialize the pain and let it live and be without being all-consuming. A ritual could also be as simple as going for a walk with your partner to talk about the traumatic birth and share a long hug where you can both lean in and cry, as well as be held. Ultimately, these rituals can help mark that the birth trauma did happen and is part of you and your baby’s story, but it isn’t all of it going forward.