“Just be thankful you had a healthy baby”
“Just be thankful you could even get pregnant, some women would kill for that”
These are things women who have experienced traumatic births hear all the time. This is not to invalidate feelings associated with infertility or loss, by any means. However, it should be understood that childbirth trauma is very real, and what mothers experience in going through a traumatic childbirth is just as valid a feeling as experiencing loss or infertility. But what, exactly, is birth related trauma? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that results from childbirth. This also includes many women who don’t meet all the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, but who exhibit many of the symptoms. Generally, when you think of PTSD, you might think of soldiers, rape, or natural disasters. PTSD results from a life-threatening or serious injury-threatening event to you, or a person close to you. Women with birth trauma often have intense fear or anxiety when reliving their experience, flashbacks, nightmares, and persistent re-living of their birth. Experiences which remind them of that event, including television, other women’s stories, and more may give them anxiety. Sufferers of birth trauma may not want to talk about their birth at all, or they may find it healing to talk about their experiences. Many women will have difficulty sleeping, concentrating, eating, and doing other day-to-day activities. It’s also very common to be angry, depressed, irritable, and hyper vigilant.
Some women experience clear-cut events that you’d not doubt they’d have some type of emotional trauma related to the experience. But there are even more women who do not experience some type of dramatic event that triggers childbirth trauma, but other factors such a loss of control, loss of dignity, a feeling of not being heard, lack of informed consent to medical procedures being performed on themselves or their baby, or negative/hostile attitudes of those around them (including doctors, support persons, and nurses). According to The Birth Trauma Association, there are many risk factors for Post Natal PTSD which include both objective (e.g. type of delivery) and subjective (e.g. feelings of loss of control) factors such as:
- Lengthy labor, or short and very painful labor
- Poor pain relief
- Feelings of loss of control
- High levels of medical intervention
- Traumatic or emergency deliveries (e.g. emergency cesarean section)
- Impersonal treatment or problems with staff attitudes
- Not being listened to
- Lack of information or explanation
- Lack of privacy or dignity
- Fear for baby’s safety
- Birth of a damaged baby (a disability resulting from a birth trauma)
- Baby’s stay in NICU
- Poor postnatal care
- Previous trauma (for example, in childhood, a previous birth or domestic violence)
Women, and even their partners, can experience PTSD or symptoms like long-term distress after traumatic birth. These symptoms are very real, and the biggest problem is lack of support and understanding. Many women who have experienced birth-related trauma, like myself, find themselves isolated from other mothers. It can be difficult to connect with other women who do not understand the lasting effects of trauma. Many women find themselves without a voice, in a world which doesn’t understand and expects mothers to get over it very quickly. These women find themselves with no one to turn to for help or support, because those who have not experienced trauma related to birth find it difficult to understand just how real these feelings are. I, personally, have been made to feel guilty, lonely, weak, and depressed because I just could not shake the feelings I have about the birth of my son. I also feel torn between wanting more children, and fearing pregnancy and childbirth again. Some women are so fearful that they lose interest in sex completely, burdening their marriages.
According to ImprovingBirth.org, 36% of women surveyed reported that they’d describe their births as traumatic. Thirty-six….
As I sit here at my laptop, the tears have begun to roll down my cheeks. I have spent months (11.5, to be exact) feeling guilty for “not letting it go”. I have spent hundreds of hours telling myself to “stop being so dramatic” and that “he is healthy, who cares how he got here?” I have felt incredibly guilty for my inability to shake my feelings associated with the birth of my child, despite therapy, group, church, meditation, writing, and medications. But the reality of it is, that I am doing everything I can to overcome this trauma. Maybe time will heal me, maybe a healing birth will “fix” me. But to those of you who do not understand, just know that “at least you have a healthy baby” or “it’s been __ months/years, just move on” can feel incredibly cruel and dismissive. Moms who have experienced birth trauma have real feelings, that, trust me, they DO NOT want to have. Try and find it in your heart to validate those feelings, or to just not comment on them if you do not understand.
Resources for moms who’ve experienced birth trauma, or for those willing to learn more: