Finding Peace After a Traumatic Birth Experience
With a large emphasis on medical appointments, doctor visits, lab testing, blood work, ultrasounds, and various medical interventions around a woman’s pregnancy, the powerful emotional and spiritual experience of labor and birth may often times be unintentionally overlooked. This unintentional yet big oversight may leave mothers feeling helpless and unheard during pregnancy, labor, birth, and postpartum.
Postpartum Support International suggests that approximately 9% of mothers are impacted by Postpartum Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by real or perceived trauma during labor, birth, and postpartum. A larger percentage experience significant stress related to childbirth and several symptoms of post traumatic stress without meeting full diagnostic criteria (White, Matthey, Boyd, and Barnett, 2006). Outside of the more glaring traumatic experiences such as those that are life threatening for either/both mom and baby, trauma may be overlooked. Someone can view what another may perceive to be a normal birth experience drastically different.
All to familiar comments such as, “You’re healthy and baby is healthy” certainly don’t provide reprieve and can make a mother feel further isolated in her emotional experience. I truly hope that individuals who serve and work with mothers wholeheartedly understand and appreciate that they play a crucial role in a woman’s journey towards embracing her title as “mother.”
I speak to this not from my professional experience, but rather, my personal one.
From the time I was admitted to the time I gave birth, approximately 30 hours had passed (this doesn’t include the additional 72+ hours that we stayed in the hospital thereafter). During the 30 hours, I had the opportunity to be seen by providers on three different shifts, that is, 3 different doctors and 3 different nurses. I can truly say that I am so incredibly grateful for the providers that were present and on shift the hours leading up to and at the time of my daughter’s birth. My labor and delivery nurse listened, cared, attended to my needs, made me comfortable, and desired for me the birth experience that I desired for myself. The nurse on shift before her complained at my constant use of getting up to use the restroom, to which she didn’t offer assistance and instead asked if I had a UTI because I was using the restroom so frequently. This particular nurse checked my cervix with her wedding ring on. I was confused as to why my cervical exam was so excruciatingly painful, and it was only after the second time she attempted to check that I realized she left her ring on.
While I haven’t disclosed all of the details of my experience, I’d like to share a few things that have helped me along the way, some of which you may also find helpful for yourself as you navigate and attempt to make sense of your personal experience.
Learn as much as you can about your experience: Talk to your healthcare provider, to a family member or friend who may have been present during labor (if able – traumatic births may impact those present in the room as well), or your doula if you had one. The more you can understand or make sense of various things that occurred, the more you can piece together your experience(s) of what happened.
Process your experience: Write or journal about it, connect with a support group, and absolutely consider individual therapy, particularly with a trauma informed therapist or one who has received training in maternal mental health.
Forgive and don’t blame yourself: Remove the “what if” scenarios and grant yourself permission to recognize that you did the BEST you could under the circumstances.
Don’t compare your experience to someone else’s experience: You are uniquely you, and your situation was uniquely yours. Don’t minimize your pain by comparing it to some one else’s pain, and don’t compare your perceived failures to someone else’s success story.
Reclaim your birth story: Write about your birth story. The process of writing about it can become the catalyst for reclaiming your birth story. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order, write it as you remember it. This also doesn’t have a timeline. Reclaiming your birth story in conjunction with processing your experience may help to provide some clarity to the who, what, when, why, and how.
(re)Discover your love for your body: Engage in prayer, meditation, and exercise as you are able, or spend time in nature. Engage in activities that help you (re) connect with and regain strength in your body that has been through SO much.
Be mindful of anniversaries: This may include the day you went into labor, the day you brought your baby home, or even your child’s birthday. Take extra care of yourself during this time; it may bring back some incredibly difficult memories.
There is power in support, and I encourage you to speak up, share your story, and reclaim it.
Alice Pickering - Psy.D.
Dr. Pickering is a licensed clinical psychologist who has a passion for writing, encouraging mothers, and offering education and insight
around mental health and wellness. She brings awareness to the limited focus on maternal mental health before, during, and after pregnancy.
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