Coping with birthdays after a traumatic birth : why it’s hard, and what helps

Photo courtesy of Nurtured by Jen Photography

Photo courtesy of Nurtured by Jen Photography

For a woman who has experienced a traumatic birth, the anticipation of her child’s upcoming birthday can be intense. When there is an event looming that threatens to take her back to the feelings of the birth, which she often has not had a chance to process, it can feel like being held captive on an out-of-control freight train.  Birthtalk.org explores this challenging situation, and offers 5 tips to support you in preparing for an upcoming birthday after a traumatic birth…no matter how long ago the birth was.

A child’s birthday can be a confusing event for a mother when the birth was difficult, challenging or traumatic. It can trigger a roller coaster of emotions ranging from joy that your child is a year older, gratitude that you have made it through another year, relief that you are further away from ‘that day’ of the birth, and sadness that you still feel so bad, even though another year has gone by.

As one mum says:

The party was meant to be about celebrating my son’s first birthday, but how could I -  when I hadn’t actually celebrated him for myself? It was just a reminder that one year ago I felt confused, violated and traumatised by his birth.

The countdown to a crisis?

Turbulent feelings can begin in the days leading up to the birthday, as the anticipation of getting to ‘that date’ rises. This  can be made more intense if the early labour or prelabour time was traumatic too.

The lead up to my son’s birthday started getting hard from nine days before his birthday, as this was when I was admitted to hospital, and my whole traumatic experience really started from that day. Each day for the nine days before his birthday, I would catch myself looking at my watch, thinking: “This time last year I was lying in the hospital bed.” ”This time last year they told me they wanted to induce me.” ”This time last year they told me…” and so on, even waking up in the middle of the night recalling memories of what had happened ’this time last year’. Kate

Cultural void

This situation is made even more confusing by the fact that our culture does not tend to recognise any negative emotions in relation to a birthday, except maybe a tinge of sadness that the child is growing up, with comments such as: “We’ll have to put a brick on your head to stop you from growing up so fast!” To most people, a birthday is a chance to celebrate the child reaching another milestone – which of course it is. And which, of course, deserves to be celebrated.

But because the majority within our culture does not understand the importance of our birth experience to everything that comes afterwards – because they do not know that birth matters – our culture does not have a place within the celebration of a birthday to honour that it is the mother’s day of birth, too.

Is it bad to feel bad about this special day?

A lot of the distress around a birthday can come from the feelings of confusion and guilt about feeling so bad on what is supposed to be a day of celebration. So it is important, firstly, to understand and separate the feelings.

Contrary to what you might hear, a woman’s acknowledgement that she feels bad about her baby’s birth does not make her a ‘bad mother’. It is not a reflection of her love for her child. It is simply a statement of fact – she found the situations surrounding her baby’s arrival distressing.

Understanding this is so important, yet can be so difficult to grasp, as we tend to assume the ‘good feelings’ of birth come from actually getting your baby, and nothing else matters. And that if you get your baby, you must be happy. But that is only part of it.

The other part involves how we feel while we are meeting our baby, which depends, not only on what happened during the birth, but also on factors such as: if we feel cared for, how safe we feel, how we are being treated, whether we feel we are being listened to, what information we are given. Feeling safe, acknowledged and respected is important for us to feel good about any major life event (think first day of school, first foray into dating, first sexual experience). Yet these feelings of safety, acknowledgement and respect are often lacking or absent in birth within our culture.

It actually is possible for a woman to celebrate her child’s birthday milestone, at the same time as acknowledging she doesn’t feel good about what happened during the baby’s arrival. But only if she is supported in understanding that they are separate issues and that birth does have an impact.

Are you still upset about that?

It is unlikely that a woman will receive the understanding and nurturing required from the people around her, who may not realise that she ‘still’ struggles with her birth. We find that most people expect that by the time the baby is six months old, any grief around the birth will be forgotten, and that a mother will have ‘moved on’. This is rarely the case when there has been a traumatic birth.

We find that once the baby is older, that’s actually when the feelings of trauma can arise. It makes sense, as there is more emotional ‘space’ when the baby is no longer a newborn with such high needs. Many people respond with surprise to hear that a woman is ‘still’ recovering emotionally from a traumatic birth – even the woman herself may find it surprising. This can make it hard to access appropriate support to deal with an upcoming birthday. One woman reveals:

My husband was supportive when I spoke with him and relived the memories with him, but I didn’t really feel comfortable telling anyone else what I was thinking; I knew they would all tell me that it was a year ago and he was here and healthy so it was time to forget about all that!  On my son’s birthday, nobody acknowledged my birth experience or any of the things I had experienced in the lead-up and post-birth. Family and friends seemed to just want to ‘celebrate’ and nobody mentioned his birth at all.

However, the anniversary of a birth – any birth – is worthy of reflection and pause. It is a mighty event in a woman’s life for herself, not just in terms of meeting her baby. Understanding and honouring this is essential in the journey to healing.

When the impact of birth is understood

Through our work with Birthtalk, we know many women within the birthing community who have a very different view of birthing than the mainstream. They have access to information about birth that is not readily available to most women…information that enables them to understand the importance of birth to what follows, and as a result, tend to see birthdays differently.

Even before the baby is born, they are treating the mother differently. They often do not have a baby shower, where the baby is the focus, and showered with gifts such as nappies, musical mobiles and blankets. Instead, they often opt for a ‘blessingway’, a celebration where the focus is on the mother, and the mother’s journey through birth to meet her little one is honoured. The gifts are symbolic, usually beads or trinkets to signify strength, courage, determination, surrender – qualities needed for labour, birth and postnatal parenting. The mother wears these beads during labour, to remind herself of the emotional strength she has for this task, and of all the women who have taken this journey previously.

We have noticed that when these women announce a child’s birthday on Facebook, it is often accompanied by a brief account of their birth experience. And their friends on Facebook usually make two comments: one for the child to wish them a happy birthday, and one for the mother, in acknowledgement of her anniversary of her birthing day. And if these women have had traumatic births, then that is acknowledged too. There is understanding and compassion that it might be a difficult day, as well as talk of the woman’s strength and determination.

When birth is seen as the woman’s rite of passage, there is space to understand the gravity of the situation if that passage is traumatic. Sadly, in our wider culture, this is not usually the case.

Unwanted questions

One young mum, Ainslea, came to our ‘Healing From Birth’ support group nervously anticipating her child’s first birthday in a week’s time. She shared with us that she had thirty-five people descending on her house for birthday celebrations, and she was feeling overwhelmed. Her biggest worry was two-fold: that she would get questions about when they would start trying for another baby, and that she would get jovial comments about her birth experience, which, unfortunately, took place quite publicly during a natural disaster.

She worried that she wouldn’t cope with the questions, as she truly wasn’t sure if they would have any more children after the trauma of their firstborn’s arrival, and felt too vulnerable to share ‘where she was’ with that issue. She worried that she might ‘fall apart’ at the party, which was not at all what she wanted to occur.

She did manage to get through the day unscathed, partly due to the healing path she was already on, after attending our sessions for a few months and partly with the help of some set answers prepared that enabled her to feel she was staying true to herself, without putting her heart on her sleeve. We share more about Ainslea’s experience in our tips section below.

Dealing with ‘that’ day

The birthday was a big ’celebration’. Nobody mentioned his birth at all. I got myself as busy as possible decorating, cooking, setting up and cleaning so that I tried not to give myself too long just to sit and think about it. I did have a lot of flashbacks that day, and was staring at my watch a lot, remembering every single thing that had happened and reliving some of the experiences in my head. Kate

So how can you manage any growing feelings of dread and panic that arise as a birthday approaches? How can you deal with the people around you, who likely will not understand that this is a difficult day for you? And how will you deal with the actual day?

Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to pave the way for an easier birthday period, and working through them can actually be extremely helpful in the overall healing process after a traumatic birth.

As Ainslea found, it can be really helpful to take steps to actively prepare for the birthday itself. There is also much value in using the strong emotions arising as an opportunity to process aspects of the birth, and gain new insights about what happened to you. It can be a chance to take a few more steps along the path to healing.

Tips for a better birthday

1. Acknowledge the situation

It is important to acknowledge that you are dreading or feeling uneasy about an approaching birthday, and also that you know why. It is not because you are a bad mum; it is because you have unresolved feelings about the situations surrounding your child’s birth.

2. Separate the issues

It’s important to remember that you are dealing with two different things: firstly, your feelings about the birth and secondly, your feelings about your child. You feel bad about what happened at your child’s birth, and don’t want to celebrate the experience of that. This is understandable, and reasonable considering your experience. But that is separate to how you feel about your child.

If you feel that you can’t separate your feelings about your birth from your feelings about your child, this is okay, too. It is just an indicator that you have some work to do in your healing journey, to unravel your birth experience so you can separate the issues.

3. Honour yourself

You may not find the support you need, or the understanding of the magnitude of the birthday for you, from the people around you. So it may be up to you to honour your own milestone.

You’ve made it through a whole year. You’ve been through so much. Honour the birthday as your birth day. It is special, not just because it is the day your child arrived, it is also the day you, as a mother, arrived. This is important, and worthy of honoring.

Can you give yourself something symbolic to represent an honouring of how hard you’ve had to work to overcome this birth? Maybe a little potted plant to symbolise new growth, or a smooth shiny precious stone that symbolises strength and determination, or a fresh journal to document your healing journey … or even a new dress!

One woman honoured her experience by acknowledging that there were very valid reasons to grieve:

I also re-watched the video of my son’s birth with my husband the night before his birthday – we cried a lot and saw all the things we had been trying to forget had happened. But I think watching it again helped us grieve too, because it reminded us that all the grief and sad feelings we had felt from time to time in the year since his birth, they really all had been legitimate reasons to grieve. When we went back and watched the birth video with all the knowledge of what birth could and should be that we have gained from Birthtalk since, it was a huge step for me to realise that night that I wasn’t crazy, I really did have these reasons to be sad.

(Note – this woman had been attending Birthtalk for a number of months before this, and had explored her experience intensely.  She had released feelings of failure, guilt and grief, and had attained more information about what had taken place in her birth.  Her husband had attended Birthtalk as well, and had a clearer understanding of his wife’s experience, and his own. It was due to this that she felt she could look at the video at this time.  It may not be right for other women to look at their birth video until they have reached a certain place in their healing, and have appropriate support.)  

4. Take time to grieve

The birthday party is probably not an appropriate place to debrief the birth, so if you have not already, it might be helpful to write an account of the birth, to just clear it from your head enough to get through the party.

Perhaps this also might be time to write in your journal, maybe some exercises such as writing a compassionate letter to the woman you were one year ago, on the day of the birth.  What would you say to her?  How do you wish she had been supported?  What does she need? The process of answering these questions may give you more insights into how your birth has affected you, what feelings you have about yourself and the birth now, and what you have learned.  It can also offer some ideas on where you need to focus your attention in the healing journey. (Keep in mind you might need some emotional support to undertake this exercise : from a counsellor, or your partner if he is open to this, or a good friend, or an understanding birth worker…and go gently with yourself.)

At Birthtalk, I learned about the power of journaling, and letter-writing, and used this skill to deal with my feelings in the lead-up. Then, on my son’s birthday, when I got home from the party, I wrote him a big long letter telling him what I wished his birth had been like, and what I wished my memory was full of instead of what I did remember. This was so helpful! As I wrote to my son of the birth experience I had wished for him, I felt such a release of all the grief I had felt all day. Kate

5. Prepare for tricky questions

While your birth may not have been empowering, you can certainly now plan for an empowering birthday event. As Ainslea discovered, thinking ahead and being honest about what you fear can give you insights into what you will find helpful on ‘the big day’.

Ask yourself: “What am I most afraid of being asked/people saying?” When trying to compose a ready-made response, focus on the love you have for your child as a way to deflect an unwelcome comment, as Ainslea did, below. When she brought up her fears at our ‘Healing From Birth’ session, we did some troubleshooting as a group, coming up with some ideas of ‘what to say’ to fend off unwelcome prying questions that she did not feel comfortable answering.

Ainslea reported back that she ‘survived’ the party, and only had to fall back on the answers she’d prepared a couple of times. She was able to answer a comment of: “I bet you’re wanting another one!” with a casually-delivered: “Actually not really … we’re just enjoying watching him grow at the moment.”

To survive the party and family themselves, I went for an in-between of the two extremes of ‘grinning and bearing it’ and ‘being upfront that I wasn’t completed happy/satisfied’. I came out and said to a few people that I hadn’t really seen since the birth that: ”My son’s birth wasn’t at all how I imagined it, I wasn’t planning a c-section and I felt ripped off having one. I may have a happy and healthy baby but I am not happy and healthy yet.” Ainslea

Ainslea’s new understanding about traumatic birth is evident in her answers, and, importantly, she knew that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with her for having mixed-up emotions about the birthday. Her healing journey continues.

A personal account

Melissa, one of the co-founders of Birthtalk, shares her own difficulties embracing the birthday of her child as a celebration:

I experienced the lead up to my son’s first birthday as a confusing mish-mash of emotion. At this stage I did not know I’d had a traumatic birth – I still thought I had just ‘not coped’ with birth and had failed. I did not recognise a connection between how I felt about the birth, and how I handled the first anniversary of such a challenging experience.

After planning a big party carefully, I worried unnecessarily about trivial things, and really worked myself into a ‘tizz’. I felt nervous about being the centre of attention, and felt a lot of pressure to display my mothering success. I found myself focusing a lot on my appearance – it felt incredibly important to ‘look good’ and, I realise now, to display the semblance of ‘a coping mother’. On the day of the party, I changed my outfit feverishly a number of times before everyone arrived; I was as stiff as a board with tension and stress, with my mind whirling the whole day. I was saved only by my son’s sweetness, my husband’s patience, and a fair bit of cake.

It really does get easier

Melissa continues :

I can speak from experience – it really does get easier over time as each birthday approaches – and it gets even easier if you do the work. It can be so hard to ‘go there’ and begin the healing journey, but the benefits can be far-reaching.

After the debacle of the first birthday, I felt so much guilt, and sorrow, and even embarrassment that I was so ‘messed up.’ Until I began the healing journey, with much support from Deb (my sister-in-law, midwife and co-founder of Birthtalk). The process of exploring my birth, and beginning to understand the notion that my birth was having this impact upon me and my family, really helped pave the way for some much better birthdays.

I became able to focus on the celebration this day was – the day my child arrived. I could join other people in truly enjoying the day as his birthday. It became a day of joy.

In private, I would also reflect, and honour, and take myself back over the years since his birth. There was acknowledgement from myself, and my partner, and other women I had since met who understood that this birth was significant for me for reasons beyond presenting me with this gorgeous son. But these reflections no longer overshadowed the day. They were simply an acknowledgement of who I’d become, of all the gifts my son’s arrival had given me for the journey of being his mother. I couldn’t see them until I’d begun to heal, but they were there.

It was a birthday gift to me; a Happy Birthday at last.

©Birthtalk.org 2013

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Excerpted from “How to Heal a Bad Birth – making sense, making peace and moving on.”, a new book by Melissa Bruijn and Debby Gould from Birthtalk.org.

With thanks to Nurtured by Jen Photography for the kind use of the image in this blogpost.

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6 comments

  1. A wonderful article, so very helpful. Even though you have helped me so much heal after my daughters birth, it did take until she was 8 for me to celebrate her birthday where I felt peace. And it was amazing! All these points are so helpful, as it is So very confusing how powerful and painful your child’s birthday can be. In fact Melissa was the first person I contacted who understood this, because most people, even Psychologists I had seen couldn’t understand why I was making my child’s birthday about me. Which was even more unhelpful and hurtful at the time. I now understand that back then 9-10 years ago so few people understood birth trauma. I now know it wasn’t me trying to make the birthday about me, it was about the fact that my feelings about her birth had never been acknowledged.

  2. Oh, thanks so much for your comment, Erin – it’s Melissa here. I’m so glad you have felt supported by Birthtalk, and that you have begun to have some positive birthday experiences with your daughter – that’s so wonderful. Really appreciate your comment x

  3. On my eldest son’s birthday I was re-living hour by hour what had happened on that day the year before and I was still in the process of working through the trauma. It was a subdued day for me but I had already done a lot of healing work at that point. I had my hospital notes with me and I understood them after going through them with Deb and I took time out on his birthday to revisit what had happened to us. Even though it was difficult to revisit it I’m glad I took the time to acknowledge what had happened and how far I’d come. I gave myself permission to have sadness about the events surrounding his birth, it was liberating and a big milestone in my healing journey. As I write this I realise its his birthday tomorrow and he will be 6! and I am very much healed from the trauma of his birth (with much thanks and gratitude to Birthtalk!).

  4. Thank you so much for sharing, Arwen. For sharing how it was on his 1st birthday, what helped, the challenges and gifts that arose, the work that you did and mostly the place of peace and healing you are at now! Happy Birthday to your little man, for tomorrow, and congratulations on both of your journeys. Wishing you all a beautiful day. Deb x

  5. I am so glad you have written this, Mel and Deb! As a culture, we do quite poorly at juggling this milestone and its meaning for both mum and child. Sadly, as generation after generation experiences this kind of birth, I guess this becomes the self-perpetuating cultural norm – there is often no room to think reflect about your own experience of your child’s birth on the day without appearing selfish, and the people least likely to want to hear it are the other mothers in your family who are also dealing with their own traumas… I now have three generations of women in my family who spend birthdays busy so as not to be caught out with time to reflect – I only realised this once I became that third link in the chain.

    I wish I could have read such an article three years ago when I was preparing for the first ‘birthing day’ after a traumatic birth – I know many will appreciate this practical advice and the knowledge that they are not alone or selfish for needing this time of personal reflection on the birthdays of their children. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much, Tessa – really appreciate your feedback, and insights about your own family. It’s amazing, isn’t it, looking back, once you become a mum yourself and realise so much more about the impact of birth. Thanks for sharing x

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