When someone says, "At least I have a healthy baby," how do you interpret she feels about her experience? Birth is a transformative experience, and women can be transformed for the better, or for the worse. How can we, as doulas, help support someone who has had a traumatic experience? Abby gives excellent ideas which remain within our scopes and roles as doulas.
When you look at the probability of trauma in the course of a woman’s life, the statistics are high. One in three will experience sexual abuse in her lifetime, one in four will perceive her birth as traumatic. So, if you’re a childbirth or postpartum professional, you are regularly working with women who have experienced trauma. And keep in mind: a woman who has previous trauma or a history of abuse has a much higher chance of being triggered in birth and experiencing trauma again.
What is birth trauma? It’s all about perception. When a woman perceives her birth as traumatic, she has felt one or more of the following in an intense and damaging way:
Birth trauma will have immediate effects on a woman and change her experience of birth, postpartum and motherhood. As birth professionals, our goals are to prevent birth trauma by providing support, information and guidance for laboring Mamas. Some of the things you can do during your time together are build trust, tune in to Mom’s behaviors to establish safety in the labor room, and speak to her in a calm, affirming voice. But unfortunately, we can’t always prevent birth trauma.
Women who have experienced a traumatic birth can develop PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). It can be misdiagnosed as postpartum depression or anxiety but the symptoms are actually different. Some signs of PTSD in a new mother are:
There are some important things to keep in mind when dealing with a Mom who has birth trauma. Your support will be critical to establishing safety, support and eventually healing from this difficult time.
Here are some things you can do to support a Mom with trauma
The exciting and encouraging thing to hope for is what’s called post traumatic growth. With proper self-care, nutrition, sleep, and exercise she will begin to feel better. Suggest to her that some women find healing through yoga, body work, trauma therapy and groups. Post traumatic growth provides women the opportunity to heal from trauma and become stronger, wiser and more compassionate because of it. With adequate support, education and care, new Moms can fall in love with their babies and leave the shame and pain of trauma behind.
Abby Bordner’s background is in medical settings, community education and entrepreneurship. She currently has many online and in person projects for the non profit sector and her private business. She is a Cappa Doula Trainer, Labor Doula, and Lactation Educator. She is a certified ICEA Childbirth Educator, as well as an author and entrepenuer, creating such projects as Yoga Born, Birthing Tree Cooperative, Relationship Based Parenting, and Modern Motherhood. She travels around the US providing certification training for future Cappa doulas, and Yoga Born Childbirth Preparation classes – trainings for prenatal yoga instructors which integrate yoga and childbirth education.
The first time as a doula I witnessed the consequences of sexual abuse on a woman's birth experience, two things struck me: 1-I was amazed at what we can carry around every day, having pretty good control over, stuffing down and away, that can come bubbling up during something as intense and consuming as labor. And 2- Who did this to her? I felt helpless in the moment, and I just prayed to help and not hurt her; I promised myself I would learn more. I am so grateful to Julia for sharing this with us. And please, add your ideas and resources if you are aware of any not listed here.
I am a survivor myself, living through an extremely violent rape that happened by knife point. I subsequently became pregnant and had the awful choice of deciding what to do, and living through an abortion procedure alone. I continue to work extremely hard to continue to process new memories that have surfaced, and live with PTSD. After my assault, my rapist moved out of state, and re-offended, his next victim being a 12 year old girl. He was prosecuted, and he served 7 years. He currently lives less than ten miles from me, and those I love, and I've seen him four times around town. Since I didn't prosecute, I can't get a restraining order, and the statute of limitations has long since run out for me. Since the rape, I've been a strong supporter of organizations whose main goals are to support survivors of sexual assault, and serving survivors as a doula... as childbirth brings up a lot of triggers for women.
Several friends have asked "how can we help" in the light of the recent sexual abuse scandals (most notably by the eldest Duggar son against his sisters, which then went unprosecuted, and of which he never received any punishment, nor rehab for.) So. Here's what you can do as an ally.
(Note: In this post, I refer to survivors as female. I do this only because I identify as female, and am speaking from my personal perspective. I only use the female pronoun for ease in this context. Male survivors especially have many more hurdles than female survivors and have a very hard time reporting abuse. Furthermore, I refer in this story to rape as the general term for the crime committed. Again, as that is my own story and for ease of not listing every possible sexual abuse category. All violations are egregious and deserve attention in the media and by law enforcement.)
Support local/national politicians looking to make a change.
One such person is Wendy Davis. She has been a passionate advocate for eliminating the statute of limitations on sex crimes. Support her. Comment on her FB wall, write a letter, tweet support, sign ANY petitions on this topic that she brings to the masses.
Learn about some of the injustices out there facing rape survivors.
Mariska Hargitay is a part of an organization called Joyful Heart Foundation. One grave injustice are to the survivors who subject themselves willingly to a rape kit, and their kits NEVER GET PROCESSED. From first-hand experience, a rape kit is an extremely violating experience, especially after living through a violent sexual assault. It involved pictures, statements, they take your clothes and do intense exams. Women who go through this should never have to wait for their kit to get off the shelf. It says "there is money to fund other crimes (most notably not sex crimes) but you aren't important enough to follow up on." I have NO idea whether my kit got processed (I didn't prosecute, nor do they have my name, so there is no way to follow up on this) but I imagine it is still sitting there. In my hometown of Portland ALONE, there are nearly 2,000 unprocessed kits. You can donate to End the Backlog. Only 39% of kits are ever submitted for crime lab processing. THIRTY NINE PERCENT. This is outrageous and unacceptable.
Find organizations that support survivors and support them.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is an amazing organization who deserves every dollar they are given. Looking to give local? Find a local organization and give of your time or money.
Know a survivor? Ask them "Would you like me to ask about your experience?"
I can't tell you how healing it has been to have people ask me questions, bear witness to my story, and not look at me with a huge pity face while doing so. Just today I was able to share with a friend about some of the details, who has taken on a very challenging role to assist me in healing and honestly, just being asked is so affirming. My (their) story matters. Sharing and being acknowledged that I went through this is healing. Don't know what to say? "I'm sorry that happened to you." Or, "That sounds like that was a really hard thing to live through." Or, "I believe you." ALWAYS appropriate. (Not appropriate: anything that starts with "at least" or "what were you wearing?" or "Why were you in that part of the building?" I mention this from direct quotes.) Remember, I (we) can always say "I don't really want to talk about it," but know, nobody EVER asks. Imagine having a transformative event in your life that nobody ever wants to talk about. Know what's worse than talking about my rape? Not talking about it.
Society blames women for rape. What were you wearing, why were you at a party, why walk down an alley, why were you drunk? This stuff is real. We need to take society from a "No means No" to a "Yes means yes" POV. Educate your children about sex. About CONSENT. Yes, teach your girls how to keep themselves safe, but teach your BOYS to respect boundaries and talk openly about consent, and situations where lines are blurred.
Seek out resources for yourself!
Need more ideas on how to support a loved one? Check this site out! Band Back Together.
Seek out trainings or resources that help you better work with survivors. A good resource book is When Survivors Give Birth by Penny Simkin. This book is a hard read as a survivor, and also focuses strongly on childhood abuse, not teen/adult assault. There is a lot of triggering material, as you’d imagine, in this book. A training that I love is A Safe Passage. They help teach birth workers, and give them tools to allow for the feeling of safety for survivors during pregnancy/birth.
Julia Schetky, SBD, CD(DONA), has been a practicing Birth Doula since 2013, and a Bereavement Doula since April 2014. Her passion is supporting families prenatally. Her main goal is to make sure that each birthing mother feels she is well prepared for birth. Julia helps families know what to expect, and how to adapt to any new directions a birth may take them. Prenatally, Julia helps clients to discover what their ideal birth would look like, and also to explore a Plan B & Plan C. This way, families feel prepared, no matter how the birth unfolds. Julia specializes in high-risk births and families expecting twins or triplets. She is confident and knowledgeable when it comes to navigating the medical system and helping families feel informed and empowered to participate and lead their own birth story. In addition to her extensive multiples experiences, Julia has a heart for serving mothers who have dealt with infertility and loss. Her Stillbirthday Bereavement training has given her additional tools to assist families dealing with pregnancy after loss, or through a difficult diagnosis. Julia is the owner of Northwest Birth Services, and a Full Spectrum Doula at Do It All Doulas, and serves the Portland area and beyond.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)