Healing from birth trauma
Healing from birth trauma
Every woman who is preparing for the birth of their baby wants things to go smoothly. The closer it gets to the birth, the more the anticipation builds, often accompanied with varying levels of anxiety.
In some ways it can be a busy time as there are certain practical details that need to be attended to in readiness for the baby’s arrival, such as preparing space for the baby within the home, buying clothes and bits and pieces in preparation for the woman’s postnatal needs and the baby’s arrival, and perhaps needing to organise the care arrangements for other children while the woman is in labour. Medical appointments are also usually more frequent towards the end of the pregnancy. Often there is a birth plan in place and the woman has made her birth preferences known to the health professionals involved and planned accordingly. The woman’s partner, if she has one, has been made aware of the role they will play during labour. At the same time the woman may be preparing to cease work and is generally finding she has slowed down considerably, partly due to the increased weight she is carrying around with the baby in utero and likely difficulty sleeping. It is also a time when women are naturally asked to focus on and nurture their body and connect ever more deeply to their relationship with their baby. There is a longing to meet and hold their baby, especially soon after the birth. But all the above is a broad generalisation and, even with the most careful, detailed planning there can be many unexpected twists and turns during or soon after the birth that change everything in the blink of an eye.
Birth trauma is something that is more commonly reported these days with an estimated third of pregnant women ending up experiencing birthing related trauma. It may be physical and or psychological in nature but what is important to hold in mind is that whether the birth experience is rated as positive or negative is entirely personal and cannot be restricted to a specific set of rules or black and white criteria that define whether or not what happened is ‘birth trauma’.
Well known physical birth trauma risk factors can include a termination of the pregnancy, especially when this has occurred for medical reasons; a premature birth or stillbirth or neonatal death; a near death experience for the baby and or mother; or complications and subsequent interventions arising during labour, for example, foetal distress leading to an emergency caesarean. Sometimes, the birthing complications necessitate a hysterectomy, which was unexpected at the time the woman went into labour. Haemorrhages and subsequent emergency surgery and blood transfusions are understandably frightening, traumatic experiences to undergo during or post birth.
Psychologically, there are factors such as an unexpected delivery location, for example a car or shower, separation from the baby immediately or soon after birth, certain aspects of a birth plan not eventuating; feeling unsupported by a partner and or family and or close friends during labour and post birth; a poor sense of connection with the baby, especially if this continues well into the postnatal period; or reactivation of previous trauma, particularly for those with a history of sexual abuse.
The above list is not exhaustive but is more than enough to highlight just how diverse women’s experiences of birthing can be and how easily the birth circumstances can shift from something that is positive and empowering to what feels like an overwhelming disaster.
Mostly the trauma is evident straight away but sometimes it does not emerge until something triggers it further down the track. Women experiencing ongoing postnatal physical concerns around urinary and faecal incontinence, repeated bouts of mastitis, persistent pain internally or externally at the wound site following a caesarean birth or from perineal tears or lacerations inside the vagina, the vulva, clitoris and or labia, or after an episiotomy, and pain in the lower back or during and or following sex, are all examples of situations frequently associated with birth trauma.
Something that I find frequently comes up while speaking with women (and their partners) in my role as a perinatal counsellor is the huge sense of loss and disbelief associated with the birth trauma context. Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood are absolutely riddled with pictures of how everything will or should pan out and there are myths, ideals and beliefs galore about the right and wrong way of doing things and what makes a good or bad pregnancy, birth and or mother. In fact, the whole concept of motherhood is closely tied in with our perceived sense of worth as women and our place in society.
We absorb so many explicit and implicit messages from the external world that we usually don’t even realise how tightly they bind us up. The pressure we place on ourselves to tick all the boxes of our perinatal internalised ‘do-it-right’ check list – or risk being a failure, is enormous.
Does this not then set the groundwork for both physical and psychological birth trauma to arise the moment reality deviates from the pictured ideal?
It is a hard for women to accept what has happened when their ideals, beliefs and expectations are unmet and their sense of self-identity has been shattered. In other words, all the mechanisms they have used to shore up their sense of physical and psychological safety and security have been demolished. The notion of having control of their life is something that is very dear to many women as it is seen as a way to keep life contained and predictable. But birth trauma destroys that belief in one fell swoop and there is nothing that can take life back to what it was like pre-birth. Anxiety, depression and other mental ill health conditions including psychosis, suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviours often slip in or escalate if they were already pre-existing.
Partners can be equally affected by birth trauma due to feeling psychologically traumatised by what they have witnessed. There is a feeling of helplessness due to being on the periphery, genuinely concerned for the safety of their partner and the baby, yet only able to watch while various health professionals are busy dealing with the crisis at hand.
Another aspect that I’ve noticed arising is that women are often reluctant to talk with and support each other when it comes to their struggles to cope with their birthing circumstances. Large amounts of stigma, shame, guilt, regret and a general sense of confusion with the loss of control and identity are common, and women subsequently do not feel it is safe to allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of others. The trust that they won’t be embarrassed, shamed or humiliated by others if they open up and share what is going on for them is not there, so they remain mute. However, the impact can’t help but manifest in other ways, for example, irritability, sleeplessness, anger, under/overeating and through physical and mental illness. Likewise, others simply do not want to hear the woman’s story as they would rather stick with the comfortable picture of both mother and baby doing fine; the ‘happy family’ image that is so successfully portrayed through the various forms of media.
Given how widely birth trauma is experienced, albeit in many varied ways, you would think that we had a wealth of information about what will assist with healing. Although some research has been untaken, the ‘evidence-based’ ways of responding to birth trauma are limited. Western medicine, including pharmacology and allied health interventions, go a long way towards supporting women and their partners, but treatment options generally fall short of providing holistic, long-lasting healing.
Healing is often believed to mean being symptom free and therefore nothing further is required. But if that was really enough for lasting health and wellbeing, why is it that so many women (and their partners) find that trauma can still rear its head at unexpected moments months or years down the track?
When the symptoms lie dormant, women breathe a sigh of relief, believing that they have ‘dealt with the trauma’ and it is now all safely tucked away in the past. But then something different crops up, and they find themselves re-experiencing the trauma as if it were happening all over again at the current time. Contemplating another pregnancy, needing to have a pap smear, re-entering hospital for some reason and certain smells, sounds or bright lights can all bring a fresh, unwanted wave of memories, physical sensations and emotions to the fore. Women then feel deeply insecure as they had felt that everything was safely compartmentalised into the past, only to find that the past has been travelling with them all along and can make its presence known at any time.
What then will support women to understand their predicament and undertake the practical steps to fully heal following birth trauma? What if healing was not referring to settling for symptom relief and instead was about learning to let go of all that has impeded the woman from thriving and enjoying life to the hilt, both prior to and after the birth? Being able to live fully participating in life and feeling empowered to meet the challenges that inevitably come up along the way with confidence and a strong sense of self-worth probably seems like a fairy tale. After all, where can we find such role models in everyday life, let alone after experiencing birth trauma?
But this is the point: holistic healing asks women to look at their situation through a broad lens. There is no disputing that the grief, confusion and sense of loss can feel profoundly intense and difficult to cope with, but it is important to also remember that the details of the birth trauma do not define a woman. She is not a failure or a hopeless case. Inside every woman (and man) is a Soul that is completely loving and does not need the woman to apologise or beg for forgiveness as there is nothing bad or wrong with her.
The woman’s Soul is always ready to communicate with her and support with increased understanding of the incident that has occurred and place it within the greater context of her true purpose here amongst humanity.
"You, as you are, are a perfection designed to help you know who you truly are. Hence, your perfection belongs to you and it comes from Heaven. Do not wish what others have but see what you have as the blessing that brings you back to the Divine true you."Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume II, ed 1, p 244
First and foremost, the mother is a woman and yet that is the very relationship that is most often neglected, except perhaps briefly for the duration of the pregnancy. But how can healing take place if a woman is loathing and blaming herself for what has happened? It is not about the ‘doing’, i.e., the busyness, the rushing around, the self-sacrifice and a list of achievements as all these aspects tend to run women into the ground with exhaustion but offer little else by way of holistic healing. It is about the woman as a ‘being’ who truly honours her sensitivity, beauty, delicacy and grace and hence has a foundation to fall back on when something like birth trauma occurs.
The starting point is for women to get to know themselves more intimately and claim their innate qualities and strengths. This is harder than it sounds as the majority of women can talk about things that they do well, but rarely can they easily list their inner qualities which are part of their makeup as a ‘being’. These inner qualities will vary slightly from person to person and can include attributes such as being kind, considerate, caring, loving, genuine etc. However, we are not usually consciously aware of them or tend to quickly dismiss them when they are noted by others due to the overload of messages we have taken on from the outside world, feeding us the story that it is arrogant or selfish to value ourselves in this way.
When we connect to our body, which is often difficult for those who have experienced birth trauma as there is usually a high level of blame and rejection aimed specifically at the body, our Soul can more easily communicate with us about what is required for healing. Moments spent on genuinely loving, caring for and nurturing ourselves all add up and help to establish a healthy, intimate relationship with our body. The more in tune we are with our body, the more clearly we can feel what it needs, be that by way of paying more attention to the basics such as diet, exercise and sleep, or something beyond that, for example, learning to say ‘no’ to others when required, rather than feeling that another’s needs or wants are of higher importance than our own. The more in sync we are with our body the easier it becomes to settle and get a sense of the Soul and its beholding love.
Baby steps are fine and as trust in ourselves and our bodies builds, so too does a woman’s confidence to delve a little more deeply into what learnings and self-growth may be on offer from the birthing experience. The further we are prepared to look beyond the surface level by using a combination of mind, body and Soul, the more we bring to the table to complement whatever Western medicine can offer. It is at this juncture that true and holistic healing from birth trauma can occur.
Birth trauma is not a life sentence; what is required for true healing will vary from person to person but there is a vast well of love, wisdom, and intelligence within each and every person that, when accessed, can provide the understanding and guidance needed to move beyond the trauma’s reach. What is presented here isn’t suggesting that there is a magic cure, but using whole body intelligence, i.e., mind, body and Soul, does offer another level of insight into what has occurred and what true physical and or psychological recovery involves. By all means, women are strongly encouraged to follow any medical advice given, but there is more that is within every woman’s power to embrace that directly strikes at the core of any self-doubts and self-recrimination.
When a strong sense of self-worth prevails and when the images, ideals and perfectionism are challenged from a true inner standard, there is a corresponding increase in confidence in women’s ability to meet life front on. Are that richness and joy not worth re-claiming?
"Accept that every day can be light, love and grand.Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume II, ed 1, p 261
And even when it is not, as it sometimes is the case in human life, it still is, for it’s you in it."