Birth Trauma: Changing the Discussion
I read and shared a post recently that said: “The Birth Plan. This is your client’s attempt to communicate with you. The longer it is the more likely it’s based on their trauma history. After trauma, nothing is safe. Be their safe place. Read the plan. Listen and ask questions. There’s more to birth than a living baby.” This quote resonated so strongly with me and with the purpose behind the new Fort Worth Birth/Postpartum Trauma Support Group that it bears repeating and further discussion here in this post. The concept of a Birth/Postpartum Trauma Support Group appears to be a relatively new one in our community, although the need is certainly anything but new. The need has been strikingly noticeable to me in my practice for quite some time. When we discuss birth trauma, the scenario that springs to mind for most people is one involving a medical emergency in which the baby and/or birthing person are seriously injured or death is involved. While such a scenario certainly has the capacity to be traumatic, this is far from the only type of circumstance that has the potential to cause trauma. One of the working definitions of trauma that is often used is “anything that overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope,” and we can see from this definition why trauma is not limited to a medical emergency, and why it can be so subjective and individualized. What is traumatic to one person may be routine to another, and what is a desired outcome for one person may be traumatic for a different individual. We need to expand the discussion of trauma surrounding pregnancy and birth beyond the medical emergency narrative, while still holding space for those whose trauma arose due to a medical emergency. Trauma can occur when a pregnant person encounters racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia during the course of their prenatal care.
Some people experience trauma as a result of a provider performing a non-emergent procedure such as an episiotomy or a cervical check without their consent.
Circumstances surrounding the termination of a pregnancy, such as an unfavorable medical diagnosis, sexual assault, harassment from protestors, or complications with the procedure itself can also be sources of postpartum trauma. Another overlooked source of trauma surrounding pregnancy and birth include previous physical, sexual, and/or emotional traumas being re-triggered, or even surfacing for the first time, during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Additionally, a topic that deserves more nuance in how it is discussed in the arena of birth/postpartum trauma is the natural birth that is often held up as the “ideal birth.”
An unmedicated birth surrounded by friends and family in a home-like setting can certainly be an empowering and beautiful experience for many birthing people. However, this exact experience can be traumatizing or re-traumatizing for others. People who desperately needed pain relief during labor and had a fast labor and ended up “going natural” are not “lucky” for ending up with a natural birth, as they are so often told. A person who had a “picture perfect” home birth and feels traumatized by the experience is just as valid as a person who had an emergency cesarean and nearly lost their life and who feels traumatized by the experience. By the same measure, just because someone had a high-intervention birth or a cesarean birth does not make them obligated to feel traumatized by those circumstances. Trauma, in any setting, is not a competition, and it is unique and individual. No one gets to dictate to you whether or not your experience was traumatic. If you survived trauma, from any source, you deserve the space to unpack that trauma and begin healing. If you’re reading this and you feel that twinge of truth resonating with your experience as a traumatic one, your next step should be to seek help. The symptoms of trauma reactions which include but are not limited to, flashbacks, nightmares, avoiding talking or thinking about the experience, obsessing or ruminating about the experience, and feeling disconnected from the experience or from one’s body are best managed by a mental health professional who specializes in trauma. The Birth/Postpartum Trauma Support Group can be a great first place to start experiencing support, validation, and healing, and can connect you to further resources for your healing experience.