The Mental Health Toll of Birth Trauma on Women
From my years of practice, I've seen the anticipation that envelopes expectant mothers as they await the birth of their child. They harbor dreams and visions of that transformative day. However, sometimes, reality deviates from these dreams. Birth trauma, a topic that is often delicately treaded upon, spans from immediate medical emergencies to the more elusive, enduring feeling of powerlessness. It's a journey that doesn't merely leave physical scars but deeply ingrains itself onto a woman’s psyche.
Understanding Birth Trauma
Each woman, during her pregnancy, envisages her childbirth. They spend nine months, sometimes more, preparing for the culmination of that 40-week journey. Trauma, however, doesn't send an invite. Even women with high-risk pregnancies can sometimes experience a supportive and uncomplicated childbirth. But birth trauma isn't solely about those vivid emergencies. It can manifest as the suffocating feeling of not being listened to, the burden of relinquishing control over their birth narrative, or the echoing silence when things veer off the envisioned path. These instances, whether glaring or subtle, remain in a mother's psyche, underscoring the idea that every experience, irrespective of its nature, has a lasting impact.
Unfortunately, many women find themselves grappling with postpartum depression, anxiety, or postpartum PTSD. They describe difficulty connecting with their beautiful baby, or feel robbed of the beautiful birth story they never got to experience. Their joyful moments with their infants are often overshadowed by lingering guilt or a self-imposed sense of inadequacy. Sometimes these experiences can make women hesitant to go to follow-up doctor appointments (for themselves and their child). Thinking about interacting with a medical provider, even one that was un-involved in the birth story can cause a significant heightened nervous system response and potentially even take the mom right back to the delivery room. This isn't mere memory recollection; it’s an intense, haunting reverberation of their trauma. Therefore avoidance is the easier choice. There are also those who, despite their outward confidence, reveal how their traumatic experience has made them question their every decision, from mothering styles to professional choices.
Intimacy and Relationships
Birth trauma can impact other areas of life including your intimate relationship with your partner. After having a baby, intimacy is the farthest thing from a woman's mind. However, with birth trauma, some of the symptoms are not as obvious and are delayed (show up months or even years following birth). Depending on the type of trauma endured there may be trauma to the pelvic floor, which can require rehabilitation and special intervention from a pelvic floor physical therapist. But birth trauma can also impact the psyche. Shying away from physical touch or the thought of intimacy, especially when it was not initiated by the woman, could be a sign of an underlying trauma, potentially from a negative labor and delivery experience. This protective shield, however, can be a source of discord with partners, making the path to shared understanding a complex one.
Looking Ahead: Future Pregnancies
The effects of trauma linger, influencing thoughts of future pregnancies. Even a casual mention of having more children can stir past fears, and in some instances, dissuade women from expanding their families.
What can you do?
Birth trauma intricately interlaces itself in a woman's life narrative, influencing numerous facets. It's imperative that we give voice to these tales, ensuring every woman recognizes she isn't isolated, her pain is acknowledged, and professional support is available. Recognizing the pain, vocalizing stories, and striving for understanding are pivotal steps toward healing.
If this topic resonates with you, please know that it is ok if you're not ready for therapy or to process your experience. In my e-course "Restored: Healing and Growth after Birth Trauma," myself and my colleague Dr. Pickering, provide the education, tools, and resources to take back your birth story at your own pace!