Healing From Birth Trauma

15 months after becoming a mother for the first time, I was pregnant with my second child.

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The baby I didn’t know I needed

To say I was ready for that would be a bold faced lie. Unlike my first child, this one was not planned, not even considered. I had a toddler and was still struggling with what I didn’t yet recognize as trauma from my first birth experience. I did not see a doctor until I was almost 15 weeks into my pregnancy. I did not go through my calendar and mark every week as a new week in my gestation like many pregnant women do. I went from having a few weeks of nausea with my oldest child to 18 solid weeks of all day sickness as my entire physical being protested this baby.

It’s not that we didn’t want more children - we did.

And it’s not that we couldn’t afford to have more children at that time - we could.

The problem was me.

I felt betrayed by my body and all the people who were supposed to keep me safe.

I didn’t want to labor again in fear, too afraid to get my hopes up that my baby would breathe. I wasn’t ready to be fat shamed again or have to do breathing exercises to hold off a panic attack every time I entered my OB’s office. I didn’t want to fail this child as I felt I had failed my first one.  

The moment my second daughter was born, my life changed forever. Unlike the first time, I felt more prepared, more in control. I delivered her on my own terms, the way I wanted and with who I wanted.

It is not the act of simply having another baby that aided in my healing, but rather the act of taking back some of the power I lost with my first birth experience.

A piece of me that broke when my oldest was born was lightly stitched back together. Not glued, and you can still see the crack, but all trauma involves scars, and all scars mean that a broken piece healed. The universe knew what it was doing giving me another baby so soon -  she is the baby I didn’t know I needed.

So what does healing from birth trauma look like?

Healing happens slowly and requires time; every woman must heal at her own pace. Melissa Bruijn and Debby Gould, authors of “How to Heal a Bad Birth,” state that this process is often like peeling back the layers of an onion. Once you begin to understand how much birth matters, and really acknowledge how much you have been hurt, you may do some crying and grieving, develop a new understanding, and feel better about things for awhile. Then something might happen - you see a birth on tv, your baby’s birthday rolls around, or you become pregnant - and you fall apart again, more layers start to peel.

For many women, healing is not a straight-forward process. On any given day there may be anger, guilt, shame or maybe all three at once! After months of talking and grieving, you may feel you are finally healed, only to be triggered by something else you didn’t realize you had to work through, and then you will work through that, and another layer of healing will begin.

For me, it means I no longer hate hearing the birth stories of other mothers. I no longer avoid baby showers and find excuses to do other things during family gatherings when the story moves to birth. I had a third baby 3.5 years after my second and even though I did not choose a hospital for that birth, that experience further aided in my healing. I can tell my own birth story now too, and while the last two stories are more positive, it is that first story that gave me my daughter. It is the first story that made me a mother.

What healing does not mean, however, is that you no longer feel any effects from your trauma.

My daughter will be 11 in September. This year, just like with the last 10, I will know which day in 2008 that I was admitted for monitoring, the very time that they started my pitocin drip, the exact moment I admitted defeat and cried for the epidural. The day of her birth is a joyous day...but it’s also devastating one. It is the anniversary of a trauma and even though every year it gets a little easier, even feeling healed from that experience does not mean that it is forgotten.

Perhaps what healing really means is peace. Peace with the person you thought you would be but couldn’t, peace with the doctors who treated you, peace with your partner who felt as helpless and unable to speak up as you did. But most of all, peace and understanding with yourself. Peace with the decisions you made when you had no other choice.

If you are struggling to find your own peace and path to healing, join us on Wednesdays from 6:00-7:30 at the REBIRTH: a birth trauma group designed to help facilitate a conversation about birth trauma, postpartum depression (PPD), and postpartum anxiety by exploring topics such as anger, depression, isolation, guilt, and shame. The group begins April 10th and runs for 8 weeks, until Wednesday, May 29th. Contact Erin at erin@harcomft.com or 570-689-8130 to register.