I was 14 when my little brother was born. One day he fell down, like kids do 800 times a day, and he began to cry. I said, "You're fine, stop crying." My mother replied to me, "You don't know how he feels." And you know something? She was right. Ever since that situation it has stick with me: I don't know how others are feeling, why do I feel the need to tell them? I believe this also applies to birth trauma. When we tell women they should just be happy with their babies, no matter what she experienced during birth, we are telling her how to feel. And guess what? We don't really know how she feels. But something we need to realize: her feelings are appropriate and authentic, and they are not wrong. Allison's insight into this world of loss and grief might be difficult to read, yet I am hopeful we can begin to change this.
So here it is, my first blog. I’m writing it from my gut, my heart and my mind last. It comes from the words “Well at least you have a healthy baby,” and the response from women, “I guess I just have to get over it (birth that is)”. Writing those words, let alone hearing or speaking them is like the thunderbolt out of nowhere. There is no silver lining to that thunderstorm. Those words have trauma and loss written all over them as well as an absolute lack of empathy. Where has this notion come from? How on earth has society become so warped in its beliefs about birth and the well-being of women who birth our next generation? Words may be transient but their impact is not, the impact hits hard and over time, women believe such words to be true. Such words could not be further from the truth, yet the truth lies in their devastation.
Birth is a forgotten rite of passage. Women come face to face with their raw vulnerability, strength and power as they walk through the gate of maiden to mother, yet somehow the significance of this experience has become lost and is dismissed within our society. Since having my babies I birthed a new life motto that completely throws this notion out with the bathwater – “Birth has the power to make, break and save our soul”. This I know to be true as I have lived all three. The words of women I have walked with through my birth work also resonate with this belief, yet they are silenced. They have a healthy baby. For some, behind their smile they hide a turmoil of feelings, thoughts and emotions screaming to be let out – their baby may be healthy, but their mind, heart and soul are not. The way in which a woman FEELS about her baby’s birth is as significant, if not more so, than the way in which her baby was born. The latter of course is important too, but that’s a whole other blog.
Birth trauma and loss, the Pandora’s Box of the birth world. A box that I feel ready to open, pull apart and challenge. So, what is birth trauma and loss anyway? It is way more than the devastating obvious physical pain, the flashbacks, anxiety, depression or the birth that required emergency or medical intervention. Look deeper inside the box. Birth trauma and loss lies in the eye of the beholder. It has many faces, often subtle and hidden in places too often overlooked, with even the birth that appears “perfect” hiding a life changing unspoken secret. It is the insidious nature of the maternity care system (for those that work within it and those who receive its services), the complex politics, the “one size fits all”, the outdated policies, the power imbalance, the conformity, choices that are not informed, the loss of control, the maternal request that provokes anxiety, the bullying, the care provider or mother who is silenced, the scaremongering, the withholding of information, the coercion, the words that are said or are never said, the disapproving glance, the tut or the sigh, the tick-tock of the birthing clock, technology that replaces instinct and interaction, the medicalisation of birth that interferes with mother nature’s birth dance, the thinking brain, the fear, the adrenaline and the “cascade of intervention”. The list is endless, the contents of the box different for every woman, creating a picture that is etched within their soul, changing over time through varying shades of darkness and light.
Birth trauma and loss is a journey of self-discovery, grief and ultimately I hope, strength and transformation. So for all women, “getting over it” is not an option. Living, exploring and releasing themselves from their birth experience with forgiveness is a very real and necessary option. So instead of “Well at least you have a healthy baby”, next time you are in the presence of a new mother, listen instead of speaking. Show compassion not sympathy. By listening and watching we hear a thousand words. I end with another motto –“Birth is all encompassing, physical, emotional and spiritual. It imprints on a woman’s soul and from the moment it occurs, a woman is forever changed”.
So who looks after the maternity system that looks after the care providers who look after the women who birth our next generation? The answer is ALL OF US. It is time to challenge society, to choose our words wisely and to bring birth back to women.
Dig deeper into the box.
Allison Tate is the mum of three boys, a birth and bereavement doula, and a childbirth educator serving families in the Edinburgh, Scotland area. She co-facilitates the Positive Birth Movement Group in Edinburgh and the Lothians, and is a member of the Lothian NHS Maternity Services Liaison Committee. She is a volunteer buddy with Bliss Scotland, and works closely to support bereaved families with SANDS Lothians. Allison celebrates and recognises birth as a physical, emotional and spiritual experience and by empowering women through access to information, nurturing their innate wisdom and inner strength to make their own informed choices about their pregnancy, birth and early parenting (without fear of judgement, bias or misinformation) birth is rightly owned by each mother. Back to Birth is her website -- also look for her blog.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)