At least you have a healthy baby!
It’s just a C-section; it happens all the time.
But everything turned out fine in the end.
Our culture aims to make labor convenient and safe, for obvious reasons. We make birth plans and take hospital tours and sit through prenatal classes; we check boxes off checklists; we read step-by-step guides written for the masses; we put total faith in our doctors and do as we’re told.
But none of that takes away from the very basic truth of birthing a human: It’s an intensely vulnerable, life-and-death experience.
We have to open ourselves on every level — physically, metaphysically, to our very core — in order to give birth, and sometimes we do this despite scary situations. Sometimes we go into hospitals expecting pain and pushing and end up feeling violated. Sometimes we’re dealt a traumatic birth experience — up to 34 percent of women are, according to ImprovingBirth.org. And about one-third of those women meet the diagnostic criteria for Postpartum Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
And of those women, many are still left wondering, “Was my birth traumatic enough to be labeled as birth trauma?”
I mean, everyone’s telling you that things worked out “fine,” and they did. But then why are you left unraveling a tangled knot of emotions, tightly wound with things you’re not “supposed” to feel, like anger, confusion, and deep, nagging sadness? Shouldn’t you really be over it by now?
That’s not the way my labor was supposed to go, you might think. Why did that have to happen to me?
When Liann’s midwife crouched down to her side mid-delivery and said the word “C-section,” she felt relieved. She knew it needed to happen. Her baby wasn’t moving down as she pushed, she could feel it. And so she eagerly waited for the anesthesiologist to get the show on the road, fully on board with the procedure. And yet, in retrospect, that’s not at all the way she expected her birth to go. She walked in thinking, “I’ve got this.” She wasn’t prepared for a 10-pound baby, two weeks late, who wrangled himself into a posterior position. She didn’t even entertain the idea of a C-section. And yet …
When she thinks about that day, three years ago now, it still brings her to tears, and certain images stuck with her:
The feeling of being jostled aggressively on the table.
Seeing red reflected in the overhead light and thinking, “That’s my blood.”
The way visitors were very cautious and borderline patronizing about the C-section, unsure what to say.
She remembers how painful it felt — not just during labor, but after. For the year she spent suffocating through sleep-deprivation and her darkest thoughts, with a deep pit of sadness for how the birth played out.
“I know it needed to happen — so why do I feel this way?”
I reached out to Marnie McKnight, owner of Dragonfly Holistic, which helps counsel women through the healing process of birth. “The definition of trauma is anytime a woman is in her birthing environment and things go drastically different than her plan, and if she feels threatened, unsafe, or violated,” McKnight says.
“We can have all kinds of births and birth experiences, and there are many women who go into a Cesarian section supported, consciously aware of what’s going to happen, and at peace with it. And even if the baby was ‘healthy’ and the mother was ‘okay,’ those kinds of statements can be invalidating to women who don’t feel aligned with that,” she says, pinpointing that particular shade of guilt that tells us how we should be feeling, rather than accepting how we actually feel.
“It’s perfectly fine to be happy about the fact that your baby is safe and you’re safe, and be mad about the fact that your body had to undergo something that you weren’t anticipating. It’s okay to recognize that there may have been a medical need for an intervention, and also mourn the experience that you’d planned for. It’s okay to be mad that it happened, while you’re in the process of mourning.”
In other words: It’s okay to feel how you feel, even if those feelings are confusing and overwhelming, even if you don’t think you deserve to feel such things. “For women to go into their birthing environment with a certain perception and sense of safety, and then have that violated, changed, or shifted, can be very jarring,” she says.
And new moms who are grappling with the aftershocks of birth trauma look awfully similar to new moms who aren’t. Your doctor might think it was a totally routine procedure, and your friends and family can’t see any visible trauma, so it’s easy to suffer in silence.
It’s important to remember that trauma is subjective.
Trauma is not a black or white issue; it depends on what we’re bringing to the (birthing) table. Even today, Liann doesn’t fully understand why that birth memory is such a tender wound. McKnight explains:
“There are different causative factors for trauma. Some women come into the birthing experience with unprocessed or unresolved past traumas, and so if a woman has had a previous trauma — which could be sexual assault, or other physical violations — if that’s unresolved, then the birthing environment can be a trigger right there to not allow ourselves to open on all the levels we need to open. And so layer on top of that people intervening with the birth process, necessarily or unnecessarily.”
The link between sexual trauma and birth trauma is undeniable — and pretty logical, if you think about it. It involves the same body parts, and the feelings that often swirl around birth traumas can mirror those of sexual violation: feeling disempowered, pressured, unsafe, like your voice was censored or shut down.
According to Improving Birth, a group of birth advocates who recently collaborated to make the stunning “Exposing the Silence” birth trauma photo series, past abuse is absolutely a factor. The site claims:
“Between 25 and 40 percent of women have a history of childhood sexual abuse, 1 in 4 experience domestic violence, and 1 in 5 are sexually assaulted. Many of these women and their care providers don’t realize how a history of trauma can trigger emotions and behaviors during pregnancy, labor, and birth.”
Not everyone who experiences birth trauma has a history of abuse or mental health issues, of course. For some women, like Liann, birth trauma serves as a trigger for future events.
Many women don’t begin to process their experience until 18 months later.
Liann didn’t know she was dealing with postpartum depression until her second baby was almost a year old, as the fog of extreme sleep deprivation started to clear and she wasn’t feeling any better. And then the news came that a good friend of hers had her second baby — a quick, magical, perfectly easy labor — and Liann collapsed on the floor, sobbing, crushed. Crushed at the unfairness.
That inconsolable, uncontrollable emotional outpour was the first time she realized, maybe I need help. That’s not a normal reaction when your friend has a baby.
When I brought this up with McKnight, she quickly said, “They call it the ’18-Month Cry’ — when, approximately 12 to 18 months after a woman gives birth, she’s able to really start unpacking the experience.” That timeline aligns with Liann’s turning point, when she finally opened up to a therapist and said, out loud, that she was struggling and confused and in need of help. The color came back to her life, and she wondered what took her so long.
Trauma needs to be addressed — not ignored — and it needs closure.
You don’t need to carry the trauma for decades — it’s too heavy. You need to address it. That’s what McKnight does: she helps guide women to finally address their feelings, regain a sense of safety, and ultimately know that they’re okay.
“They need to be held and supported, almost like how a doula would do during the birth process. They need that for the birth integration process after the fact, if things need to be processed. Even in uncomplicated births, sometimes women need to process their birth experience. Sometimes it’s bigger than they can encompass at the time. But it’s important that women are given the space to acknowledge that things didn’t go the way they expected, and things may have been challenging or even aggressive.”
Not only does she see clients in person (and more recently via Skype, too), she also runs a birth circle where women can share their birth stories and, perhaps more importantly, hear others’ stories. It helps them realize they’re not alone — that women all over their community have similar emotional scars from labor.
You’re not alone, either. And seeking out something similar, like a local birth story circle or support group, can help the healing process. Lending your help to someone else who’s struggling — even if it’s just to give some solidarity — can help you heal, too. That, combined with therapy and self-care and perhaps some integrated energy healing, can help pull your head above the surface again.
You deserve it, and so does your baby.