Should Women With Traumatic Birth Experiences Just "Accept and Move On?"

I am appalled at this article on the Huffington Post entitled, Recalibrating Our Expectations of Childbirth.”

You don’t really need to go and read it, I quote the appalling parts below, but if you are interested here is the link: 

pregnant bellyThere are some good points in this article about preparing for birth and how to deal with unexpected outcomes that I wholeheartedly agree with. My opinion is that not enough emphasis is placed on really being ready for the intensity of birth physically and emotionally. Not enough women prepare for unexpected outcomes and more would benefit from independent (non-hospital based) childbirth education and mentoring.

Beyond that, this article is highly offensive on so many levels, even for someone like me, who had three ‘perfect’ births that went according to ‘plan’.

Here is where the article starts to go wrong:

“A good place to start with recalibrating beliefs and expectations of childbirth is with the image of an ideal birth with little pain, no complications or medical interventions, dim lights, and soft music. It’s a lovely and inspiring conception of birth, but we should also acknowledge that absolute perfection is rarely a reality. Most births don’t have complications but some do, and it is unfortunate when women feel they or their births are failures for failing to meet their preconceived notions of success. Women should strive for a birth that is manageable and meaningful, but without a sense of entitlement that it must be fast, painless, and stoic. Holding unrealistic expectations of childbirth can set women up for disappointment.”

I have worked with hundreds of mothers and I don’t know anyone who thinks they can dictate that their birth will be “fast, painless, or stoic,” or feel entitled for the universe to provide them with that type of birth.   It is not women’s expectation of the birth itself that is causing most of birth trauma in people I have spoken with.  It is that they are not expected to be emotionally or physically abused through the process. It is because we have grown up in a society where we understand that we have autonomy over our bodies. We have been taught that it is not appropriate for someone else to control, touch, or alter our bodies. The women’s movement has clearly outlined that we have rights over our bodies.  When someone tells a woman she has no choice over her body, having procedures done to her without her consent or against her refusal, she is threatened, yelled at, emotionally blackmailed or physically assaulted, she has every right to feel traumatized. It is how women are treated in birth that is often the source of the emotional and physical trauma, not the birth outcome itself. Yes, women all need to be prepared to make the best choices with the particular circumstances that present in their birth and understand that like everything else in life flexibility give you power but women do not need to lower the expectations of how a human should be treated.

Women need to actually raise their expectations and expect that they are seen as the only authority in their births and act in a way through prenatal visits that commands the level of respect they deserve. The same level of respect you would except when a service provider is providing you a service in any other life situation. You wouldn’t expect your hairdresser to verbally abuse you, threaten you, or physically force upon you a style of haircut you didn’t want. If that happened people would understand that you would be upset and bitter. You also don’t expect your date to threaten your life or your child’s life, yell at you, blackmail you that he will steal your baby if you don’t comply with him, or touch or cut your genitals without your express consent. We should expect no less in birth. I think the person who wrote this article has no idea the type of trauma that happens in labor and delivery rooms every day. Women giving birth should be treated with the same it not more respect and reverence than a woman in every other situation in life. She is the authority and the only one who has the legal right to make choices in labor. When those choices are stripped from her or pushed on her after her refusal of consent she has been violated in a manner that can run deeper than other forms of bodily invasion. She is in a hyper vulnerable state, she is having a transformational experience (regardless of what the birth looks like), and it is the day of her child’s birth marking it as a day that will stay with her forever and celebrated annually.

The article goes on to say:

“Nevertheless, the backlashers do bring up an important set of questions for women with traumatic birth experiences: How long do you want to dwell on the past before putting it behind you and enjoying the present? At what point do you celebrate the birth that gave your child life instead of mourning the way you experienced it in the moment? And if you have diagnosed yourself with PTSD or post-partum depression, then what are you doing to seek treatment?”

I am all for not living into the archetype of the victim and dealing with the underlying causes of our emotional challenges, but expecting women to just get over their birth trauma, or expect that all women have access to services that actually understand the depths of the wounds that are created with a traumatic birth is just plain ignorance. When we have women who do choose to seek care for post partum depression have children’s services called on them, how can they feel safe seeking help. The system is what traumatized them in the first place and now the system becomes a repeat offender. How can she feel safe to seek help, when it’s the very group of people who traumatized her, that hold the keys to her recovery?

The author shows even more ignorance and disrespect for women when she goes on to say:
“Most women recover from traumatic birth experiences within a month of giving birth. But for the women who don’t, there is no merit badge for living with birth-induced PTSD, just as there is no merit badge for an all-natural vaginal birth. PATTCh provides a list of treatment options to help women recover from their traumatic birth experiences, and I think that a comprehensive conversation of traumatic birth experiences cannot be complete without discussing the responsibility mothers should accept in seeking a way to recover.”

Old Romanian Woman

Most women are not over their births in a month. Those experienced in working with birthing and postpartum women understand it takes about 3 years to fully process and integrate even the healthiest births.  It is also well known and documented that the day you give birth, and most importantly how you were treated on that day, will stay with you, vividly, through old age.  Here is an example of how women are taking their human rights violations in birth to court.  Even seventy years later, the effects of birth real and life altering.  Read their stories and tell them they should just accept and move on.  Women living with long term physical ramification of their births that effect their daily quality of life, especially when things were carried out against their will, are going to have a lifetime of processing their trauma.

Tell me again how we should get over our births in a month, when we haven’t even yet completely established breastfeeding and may be dealing with a whole new set of traumas from bleeding and cracked nipples and a baby you love looking to you for nourishment and you wishing for more time between nursing sessions, dealing with isolation as your support network may not live close to you, the change in identity as you have just become a mother, sleep deprivation, caring for someone who needs you 24 hours a day, and possibly needing to return to work in two weeks? How exactly is a month enough time to process all the change and circumstance that happens in such a short and life altering time period.

“I understand firsthand that it can be difficult to process, accept, and move on from traumatic experiences. Life is not fair, and I too have had my unfair share of undeserved happenstances. But personal tragedies have also taught me that life is much too short to dwell on sadness and pain. Mothers who experience a traumatic birth and don’t heal emotionally may cause unintended emotional harm on their children if it affects their ability to bond and attach with them. With all due respect to mothers who have had traumatic birth experiences, I sincerely believe that children deserve for their birthday to be one of the best days of their mother’s life, not the worst. Therefore, I think it is worth exploring a different way to process, accept, and move on from traumatic birth experiences — if not for the mother’s own sake, then for her children.”

Yes, this does effect parenting and does effect every day of that woman, child’s, and family’s life and this is why birth matters, why women matter and it’s not only about having a healthy baby. A healthy baby is obviously the goal of pregnancy but that baby’s heath isn’t defined by it solely meeting the marker of being alive and not under medical care on it’s birth day. There are many long term health effects on that baby from it’s birth that are subtle and often unseen but make a huge impact on lifelong health which is why working towards an intervention free birth is important. Also, the long term health of that baby isn’t determined by it’s ‘healthy baby’ birth status. The health of that baby going forward into toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence and even adulthood depends on a healthy mother. One that can come through birth, regardless of the outcome in a positive light because she was the one making choices for herself and her baby. I suspect this ability to make autonomous choice in the face of a unwanted situation was the reason why the author was not traumatized by her birth. She had the tools to be the one making the difficult decision to go with an unexpected birth outcome. That same birth looks very different, emotionally, when it is forced on a woman and she is told she has no say over her body.

birth trauma accept and move on

If you don’t understand someone else’s trauma, you have no right to judge them and say it’s time to get over it. Would you say to a war vet with PTSD. “It’s time you get over your flashbacks and nightmares and think about what’s best for your family.” This article just adds more layers to the trauma. Our culture does not understand or give credence to the impacts of birth trauma. We see that every single day when we say to moms, “at least you have a healthy baby”. When we say this, we completely dismiss the woman and say she and her experience mean nothing because she is insignificant and the only one that matters is her baby. Do people seriously think that will help a woman who was potentially just assaulted and violated and had the most traumatic experience of her life? All it does is serve to traumatize her more. It is possible when someone has emotional maturity to hold two opposing emotions at the same time. We can be upset and distraught, even angry about our births, while at the same time grateful for the being who passed through our bodies into this world for us to love and care for.  There is a great article, “A Healthy Baby is Not All That Matters,” that discusses our culture’s eagerness to dismiss mothers’ experiences.  It’s worth a read and can be found here:

Telling a woman she needs to get over it for the sake of her baby is just adding a nail in the proverbial coffin. A woman was potentially told she was a bad mother while in giving birth (actually stated or implied), then told she was told at least you have a healthy baby, you shouldn’t for care about your own body, emotions and experience, and don’t have a safe space to discuss and process it and now in an effort to help with birth trauma this author is telling women they are being bad mothers because they are traumatized. (She didn’t actually say they were bad mothers, that was the implication of her words, in my opinion).

Has anyone stopped to think that maybe the retelling of birth horror stories is because women have no safe space in our culture to express that fact that are hurting because of their birth. Maybe it’s because they were shut down and told to just forget about it and get over it, that is lingers as unresolved. Birth trauma is real and the solution is not to just lower your expectations and get over it.

I agree that “children do deserve to have their birthday be one of the best days of their mother’s life, not the worst”, which is why we need to raise the bar in how we support women through pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period.

The helpful and important set of questions this raises are:  How can we make sure women are prepared to deal with the intensity of childbirth?  How can we inform more women on informed decision making and their rights during birth?   How can we have partners more prepared to protect their partners from abuse in labor?  How can we create a system that respects women and understands that they are the ultimate authority and decision maker in their birth?   How do we educate birth attendants to facilitate healthier births?  How do we create social awareness of the vulnerability and needs of women in early postpartum? How do we create support systems that actually help women process the experience of being traumatized during birth?  How do we create a culture that respects motherhood and supports women in this massive transition in their role in the world, their families, and in their lives?  How do we create a community of women who support each other from a place of love and non judgement?

What do you think?  Should women accept and move on or should the rest of us create ways to support these women and work toward making things better for our sisters and daughters?  Please leave your comments:

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2 Responses to Should Women With Traumatic Birth Experiences Just "Accept and Move On?"

  1. Jana says:

    It’s been 7 years and I’m still slowly working through my traumatic birth experience. I thought I accepted it and moved on but what really happened was I buried the trauma deep within. Giving birth is such a powerful rite of passage to motherhood that it makes sense emotional wounds will run deep. The physical recovery from birth and the physical development of the baby seem to be the only focus in the medical birthing world. We need a balance. Every aspect of a woman (emotional, mental, spiritual, etc) experiences the birth process, not just her physical body.

  2. I had a fairly traumatic birth but was lucky enough to have had good advice in creating a “birth wishlist” rather than a “plan (thank you, NCT teacher) and a supportive midwife who both read it and explained to me when we had to go a little more off-road. I really did have the best experience possible under the circumstances, but 5 years later and with a beautiful, healthy daughter, I don’t think I’m quite there yet. In the same way as having unrealistic expectations of perfection in anything parenting related is probably unwise, having unrealistic expectations of parents (not just mums) being back to normal in any defined time seems daft. After all, normal has changed irreversibly!

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