At Birthtalk, we often hear traumatised women describe their birth as a car crash, or a train wreck. You might say, “But that’s just birth”, and dismiss these women as especially ‘sensitive’ or ‘over-reacting’. But perhaps, could it be an entirely accurate analogy, to compare ones traumatic birth to a vehicular disaster of epic proportions?
Remember a year or so ago, when that QANTAS jet had a gaping hole in it and performed an emergency landing? The TV news footage showed the passengers arriving in Melbourne on another jet, and embracing their loved ones. Most were crying, some were shaking, and all were visibly affected by the experience.
Passengers told of the few minutes when they wondered if they would die, as the plane plummeted 19, 000 feet, their voices choked with emotion as they recalled their extreme fear, panic and anxiety. And I imagined these people going home with their families, who welcomed them at the airport with outstretched arms. They would likely be cosseted and fussed over, offered comforting food and drink, and their moments of terror openly listened to with shock and interest and appropriate “Oh My God’s” from listeners as they talked about their experience.
But would anyone say to them, “At least you didn’t die.”, and try to shoosh them up if they tried to talk about it? Would anyone tell them, “Well, I understand that plane trip didn’t go quite how you’d planned, but all’s well that end’s well, hey?”. Of course not. And would family understand if these people were a bit shaky for a while afterwards, and needed to feel safe? I’d say they would.
But imagine the same scene after a woman has a traumatic birth. Is there anyone waiting for her with outstretched arms? Generally not. Women after a traumatic birth are usually not cosseted and fussed over, or comforted beyond a perfunctory ‘there, there’.
As a community, we seem quite comfortable with telling a woman traumatised from her birth, “At least you have a healthy baby.”, and placating her with, “I understand that birth didn’t go quite how you’d planned, but all’s well that ends well, hey?”. And then she has to learn how to look after a child, cope with sleep deprivation – usually without the hormones designed to support her with this due to the trauma of the birth – and tackle a mountain of laundry, cooking and home duties. Welcome to motherhood.
So how can we compare the possibility of death by plane crash to the meeting of one’s healthy child through birth? Best thing to do here, is look at the definition of a traumatic event, and what response warrants a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
According to this Manual, the stressor or event that causes PTSD should involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or damage to self or others. And the person’s response should involve intense fear, helplessness or horror. Note that it says “actual OR THREATENED”.
So,,,and this is really important… even if everything SEEMS completely ok to an outsider during the birth… if a woman PERCEIVES that she or her baby is threatened with damage; or FEELS horror, fear and helplessness at a procedure…even if this procedure is ROUTINE to medical staff; she can experience that as a traumatic event.
This is REGARDLESS of her level of pain relief at the time.
It is REGARDLESS of the fact that she and her baby leave the hospital alive and physically healthy.
The truth about birth, traumatic or otherwise, is this : we do not just leave our birth at the hospital. Birth’s impact has a ripple effect on a woman’s whole life. If it was a positive experience, then that radiates outwards like warm sunshine on everything that happens postnatally. But if it was a negative experience, then it can feel like a domino effect – the woman keeps getting knocked down with every challenge. She is ‘behind the eight ball’ to start with, and that ripple effect means that the birth’s impact spreads to all aspects of her life.
But this does not stop people telling a woman to just ‘get over it’. Why?
Perhaps we need to look again at that dramatic plane flight. The big question is…why it is understood by virtually everyone that those passengers might need some time to process that event? The answer is : because we EXPECT air travel to be safe, easy, simple, and uneventful. And when it is NOT those things, we understand that it might have an impact.
But with birth, most people EXPECT it to be painful, horrible, unbearable, out-of-control, and unpleasant. That’s what it’s like in the movies & TV shows, and often in the stories passed down through generations. So when a woman expresses that her birth was difficult, or traumatic, our culture’s response is : so? Isn’t that just birth?
And that’s the biggest myth of all – that birth is bad. But that’s just not true. The way most women experience birth in our culture IS bad…and that’s not their fault. But birth itself is not bad. Unfortunately, most people in our culture have either had bad births, seen bad births, or been birthed in a traumatic way themselves and had the story regaled to them for years.
Birth can be good. Which can be a hard thing for a woman traumatised by her birth to hear. But really, it explains one of the reasons that it hurts so much emotionally when a birth is traumatic…because IT’S NOT MEANT TO BE THAT WAY. Nature didn’t intend it to be that way. But because most births in our culture ARE that way, it is very difficult for most people to ‘come to the party’ and admit that maybe your birth COULD have an impact on you. Because then they’d have to face the multitude of myths and misconceptions thrown their way by the media and family horror stories over the years. And that’s too hard. A woman’s distress post birth can cause massive discomfort in others who need the myth to continue.
If we return to the plane flight analogy again…imagine the passenger’s family and friends perhaps NOT acknowledging that the experience was tumultuous and fraught with potential disaster. Imagine if you had lived through that flight, and a few days later the people around you are saying, “Are you STILL going on about that? Can you just move on? You’re fine, you’re healthy, so what’s the problem?”, and meanwhile you are struggling with flashbacks, anxiety, and a need to debrief and talk about what happened, to try and make sense of it…but no-one would acknowledge your situation. Sound isolating?
The truth about traumatic birth is…validation is difficult to find in our culture. The experience of trauma after birth can be intensely isolating if it goes unacknowledged. So it is up to us to re-educate ourselves and those around us, so they are able to support women in the upheaval and aftermath of birth trauma.
If we do not just leave our birth at the hospital, if we take it with us into our postnatal life, then it matters when it’s not right and it’s not good and it doesn’t feel safe.
Just this simple acknowledgement can be the beginning of a healing journey for a woman impacted by her birth. It may be her Boarding Pass to feeling supported, validated, and understood. And it may lead to her maiden flight of embracing motherhood as she had always wanted.
©Birthtalk2008, Updated 2010