Here in the United States, pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood are often treated as magical and blissful experiences. But that’s not everyone’s experience, particularly when it comes to giving birth. Birth trauma is common — some research suggests that between 25-34% of birthing people experience it in some way.
Trauma can happen in response to a myriad of situations, from health complications with you or your baby to outright obstetric violence. Unfortunately, our culture has very little compassion or support for those processing through their experiences. We’re told to just be happy we have a healthy baby, to move on, to be glad it wasn’t worse, to be thankful we were in a hospital setting...or any other combination of comments and attitudes that profoundly discount people’s lived experiences of a hugely life-changing event.
ImprovingBirth believes that support, information, and action are vital to help families understand and heal from their births. Here are are eight suggestions for ways you can begin to heal from a traumatic birth, including our own tools to help with healing.
1. Feel your feelings: Your feelings are valid, no matter what they may be. There’s often a hierarchy of pain (“Oh, you had a C-section you didn’t want? You have a healthy baby, so I don’t know why you’re upset. My friend had a stillbirth at 23 weeks, so…” “Someone yelled at you while you were in labor? At least you had a vaginal birth…”) when it comes to emotionally-difficult experiences, but trauma is not a contest. If you feel that what happened to you while giving birth was traumatic, it was. Feel those feelings. Believe yourself. Recognize your trauma. Don’t let anyone diminish your very real thoughts and emotions. This quiz, developed by Penny Simkin and Phyllis Klaus (two of the founders of DONA International, the doula organization) might help you further develop your sense of what happened to you during birth.
2. Find community: You are not alone. Today, birth trauma is coming out of the shadows and parents are finding community in groups of people who have had similar experiences. There are a myriad of online communities and Facebook groups that offer support to people who have experienced traumatic births or experiences surrounding birth, like home birth transfers, NICU stays, and more. There may also be local support groups you can join, like those offered through ICAN (for those who had a traumatic Cesarean birth). Organizations that offer information and support include Solace for Mothers, the Birth Trauma Association (UK-based), and PATTCH (Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth). ImprovingBirth maintains its own list of resources, as well.
3. Write it out: When you feel ready, writing your birth story (or even just some notes, feelings or reactions) can be very cathartic. You could even try writing a letter to your care providers, support people, or to your baby. And no, you don’t have to be a “good” writer to get the benefit of getting your feelings down on paper. The purpose is in the process, not necessarily the end result.
4. File a complaint: If you feel your treatment by your care providers or at your birth place contributed to your birth trauma, you have every right to file a complaint. ImprovingBirth maintains a complaint toolkit that can help you make decisions around when and how to file a complaint. If you had an out-of-hospital provider, like a home birth or birth center midwife, you may have to take your complaint directly to the provider. Many people find solace and justice in complaining, as it may help future birthing people have a better experience.
5. Get therapy: If you have access to mental health services, the benefits of therapy and processing with a professional cannot be overstated. You can look for therapists or other mental health professionals who specialize in working in the perinatal period. Therapists with lots of experience with postpartum depression might be appropriate too, even if you don’t feel you’re depressed. Of course, many therapists don’t have a lot of experience with birth-related trauma, so if you can’t find one in your area, you might look for therapists who offer online sessions. Birthing From Within offers Birth Story Medicine sessions to people around the country via phone and Skype, too.
6. Practice self care: Whatever self-care means to you, find a way to practice it. It’s often easier said than done with a needy newborn or infant, but you need to prioritize your own healing. Whether that involves going to therapy, a massage every once in awhile, hot baths at home, a yoga class once a week, time with friends, or anything else that will make you feel happy and rejuvenated, try to find the time and space to do it. If finances are a factor, focus on low-cost ways you can nurture yourself, like taking a walk or making extra time for rest. Enlist family and friends to help with other aspects of life so you can take care of yourself.
7. Find the positive: Often, an experience gets overshadowed by the negative aspects. But it may help you to reflect on the positive aspects of your birth, if you feel able and ready. Perhaps your partner surprised you in how well they supported you. Maybe you had an extremely kind nurse who took the time to explain everything that was happening. Is there anything you can find that feels safe and positive? Let it in, and reflect on it.
8. Consider a rebirth: For families that have had a difficult birth, a rebirth ceremony can be a powerful way to reclaim the experience. These types of ceremonies are becoming more popular around the world, often involving a gentle herbal bath. They can take any form you wish, but most often focus on bonding and recreating the first special moments after birth.
ImprovingBirth’s own trauma toolkit has been a powerful resource for many families since its creation in 2014, with information for parents, families, professionals, and more. We believe that you have the right to loving support and respectful care in your journey of healing.