Writing my birth story gave me my birth back. Somehow, knowing the order that things happened in, and what was going on beyond my own experience, and expressing fully what was going on for me, worked together to give me the feeling that, finally, it was ‘my’ birth. At last. Such a massive leap forward, without even knowing that I needed it! Melissa
I have been writing my birth story slowly but surely and it’s really helping a lot; there are some emotions that I am discovering for the first time by writing it down. Jodie
A daunting task?
The act of writing down a birth story can initially seem like a daunting task, especially if you have had a traumatic birth. It can feel too hard to take yourself back into that scenario, to recall the happenings of that day, and as though it might make things worse to dredge up painful memories. We understand – yet we also know that this process has been a powerful healing step for many women.
Why write my story?
When women attend Birthtalk for the first time, they are often a swirling mass of emotion, struggling to figure out where to start with their healing, and trying to understand what has happened to them. Often the details and the order of events at their birth can feel hazy, with confusion about timings and when certain things occurred, even uncertainty about what was said and by whom.
Part of the healing process is to pull apart the birth to separate the emotions and the events, but it’s hard to pull apart something that has not yet been ‘put together’. So we often encourage women attending their first meeting to consider writing their birth story, as an important early step on the path to healing. The process of putting together the factors that make up their birth often provides a new clarity that can in itself ease some intensity. The exercise also means that the woman now has her own documentation of ‘what happened’, and this document can act as an important tool for further understanding her experience.
The process of putting together the factors that make up their birth often provides a new clarity that can in itself ease some intensity.
How do I start?
In the first instance, many women just write the story as it happened for them. They might start their story from the moment when their labour started or when their waters broke, or when they were hospitalised for high blood pressure in the last weeks, or similar. This can present itself as a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ type of writing, where the woman just begins, and follows the story where it takes her, not worrying about punctuation or grammar, just allowing the story to unfold.
Sometimes, it can be tricky to know where to start, so below are some questions to kickstart the process:
Questions to help you get started:
- How did your labour start? Where were you? Who were you with? How did you feel? Did anyone say anything that stands out to you? What were your thoughts?
- Did your birth start with a complication that involved hospitalisation? Maybe you can begin by writing about the complication, the options suggested to you (if applicable), your thoughts as you negotiated this, and the events once you were admitted to the hospital.
- What was the series of events that led to your baby’s arrival, once labour had started, or a decision had been made about how your baby would arrive?
- Who was there? What do you remember feeling about the people present? What stands out to you about that part of the birth?
Even if you are not sure of the order of events, just write it as you remember, as those details can often be checked up later and the story amended. For now, it is just an opportunity to get it all out ‘on paper’.
I still can’t start
If some aspects of your story feel to ‘big’ to tackle just yet, that’s okay. Maybe beginning with another part of your story might be better for now, until you feel able to write about anything that was particularly traumatic or intense. You might find it helpful to seek the support of a friend, your partner, a birth worker or counsellor to be there for you as you recount difficult events.
Maybe you could just write about the part of the birth that is playing on your mind right now…
If you are having trouble getting words down, maybe you could just write about the part of the birth that is playing on your mind right now. It may be that the act of writing down this part of the birth that is really troubling you may open the gates for the rest of the birth story to flow out once you’ve started. You can focus on the pertinent part of your story for the moment, and write the rest of your story around it, perhaps at a later time.
If you feel that writing anything is too difficult, you could consider perhaps using a voice-to-text tool, where you talk and the device translates it into the written word. There are apps that have this function, such as Dragon Dictation, a free voice recognition iTunes app available for iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. It may be that when you are free of the writing process and can just talk, the words may flow more easily.
My story as I remember it
The written story of your memories of the birth is incredibly important, as it is a representation of your experience of your birth. It provides important information about how you have recalled the experience, and what stood out to you. It may reveal your interpretation of snatches of conversation or your understanding of reasons for decisions of health carers. It may include your emotional response to events happening to you, and events going on around you. This information can be a vital clue for you and those supporting you, in understanding more about your experience. This raw version of your story now is available to you for use in exercises to deepen your understanding and shift you to a new place of healing.
Using your story for further healing
Writing the birth story in freeform is actually just the starting point to this exercise. Once you have a basic outline of the events that occurred, it’s time to ‘colour in’ the rest of the story. This step involves getting very clear about the order of events, and finding out more about what was happening in the birth outside of your own experience.
Reclaiming your birth
After a traumatic birth, many women express feelings that the birth was not ‘their’ birth – that it belonged to the doctor, or the hospital, or the midwife, but not to the woman herself. This can be hard to express, as it sounds strange, yet really, it makes a lot of sense. Writing your birth story can be an important part of ‘returning the birth to its rightful owner’ – you! We call it ‘reclaiming your birth’ and it’s important to know why this step can be so helpful.
My birth was ‘done to me’
Often, women describe feeling that their birth was ‘done to them’, rather than it being a case of them ‘doing it’. This is an important distinction, as we have found both of those feelings have outcomes postnatally.
Having things ‘done to you’ in birth can be a disempowering experience. It does not instill confidence in your capabilities or in your body’s capabilities. It also does not acknowledge that you are the mother – the most important stakeholder in this birth.
However, when the woman is ‘doing it’, she is the key player in the team, she is making decisions, working with her health carers and support people, being involved and owning the birth. This is how nature designed birth to be…but it is not how our health system or even our culture sets women up for birth. Most women don’t know the impact of all this before they have babies.
Birth was designed for us to be ‘doing it’ in order to gather the gifts that nature intended from birth. These gifts enhance the discovery of our strength (physical and mental), our patience, the ability to be flexible and to surrender to the moment – all important skills to have with tiny babies and toddlers.
Unfortunately, having a birth where things were ‘done to you‘ – even if they were life-saving things – can result in a woman feeling out-of-control, confused, frightened or even just like she wasn’t important in the process. And we have found, for the women we work with, this can have implications postnatally, resulting in women experiencing disappointment or emptiness, a lack of confidence with mothering, being hypervigilant in the care of her baby, and feelings of failure.
Returning the birth to the woman
If you felt that the birth wasn’t yours, then you are certainly not alone. Most importantly, there is something you can do about it. The process of writing your birth story can become the process of reclaiming your birth…which really means returning the birth to the woman. This can occur when a woman understands:
- exactly WHAT happened
- exactly WHY it happened
- exactly WHEN it happened.
This process can have a powerful effect on your healing process; suddenly, the birth becomes yours and it often seems to somehow mend the broken timeline and restore the natural order of things.
Suddenly, the birth becomes yours and it often seems to somehow mend the broken timeline and restore the natural order of things.
Steps for reclaiming the birth
- Write the birth story from memory, as outlined above.
- If possible, ask your partner or others who were at the birth to tell you their version of events, in the order that they occurred. Either take notes as they talk, or ask them to jot down the events that they remember occurring. If they are open to it, perhaps ask them questions to try and fill in any gaps in your story’s timeline, for example, ask them what the doctor said to them before a particular decision, or ask them if they know where your baby was when you awoke in recovery, or ask if they remember why you needed to have a certain procedure. (If your partner struggles to understand why you want to ‘go there’, or feels too traumatised himself to be able to assist you, this may not be the right time to ask for their help here. We have an excerpt from our book, ‘How to Heal a Bad Birth’ about dealing with partners here that might help.)
- Retrieve the birth notes from the hospital, doctor or midwife. See another excerpt from our book, ‘How to Heal a Bad Birth’ : Retrieving your birth records: how and to get them and what to do with them .
- Review the notes with a midwife who ‘gets it’. Finding this midwife may take some searching – we recommend looking for an independent birth worker, working outside the hospital system. (Debby from Birthtalk.org, a co-author of this article, offers consultations for going over your notes.)
- Write the birth story again using the birth notes as a chronological guide, and the notes from your support person or partner as an extra tool to try and get the wider version of your story as accurate as possible.
Steps towards healing
Each of these steps has its own healing aspects, and can bring new revelations, new areas to grieve and new understandings about the event. Combined, these steps have the potential to enable you to arrive at a new relationship with the birth. It can become ‘your’ birth at last.
I remember writing my story, again, when my son was around three-years-old. This was not the first time I’d sat down to write on this subject, but I’d learned so much between sittings. This time, I worked with papers all around me – it was like doing an assignment. I had my original story written at three-months post-partum, plus my support person’s notes from the birth, as well as my hospital records and labour progress chart. And what a valuable and empowering process it turned out to be. Bit by bit, I pieced together the true story of my birth, the one I had not fully known until now. As it fell into place on the computer screen, it somehow fell into place in my mind. And it became mine. I was not a helpless victim who had things ‘done to her’ quite so much. I knew what happened, and that was very powerful. Melissa
Postscript : Birthing again?
The good thing is you will likely find nuggets of information during the process of writing your story that will help you know more about what you do and don’t want for any future births. You can reflect upon the kind of person you want to have as a health carer next time. You can reflect upon the kind of support you believe you might need in another birth. You can gather ideas about what worked and what didn’t at a time when you were your most vulnerable. And most importantly, you can then communicate this new understanding of your emotional and physical needs with your partner and health carers for your next birth, and work to find ways to get these needs met. You can read more about some tips for an empowering subsequent birth in this article of ours titled The Pitfalls of Going with the Flow in Birth.
Adapted from a chapter in 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. This ground-breaking self-help book takes the reader on a ‘Choose your own adventure’ style of healing journey… because every woman’s path to healing will be different. The pages are filled with heartfelt quotes from women, facts and insights about birth trauma, and ideas for dealing with common emotions that arise such as sadness, guilt, feelings of failure, anger and partner issues. There are step-by-step tools for healing, and profound support and compassion contained within these pages. Say the authors : “For the past 15 years we’ve been working with women after a traumatic birth in our ‘Healing From Birth’ support sessions. Because we’ve see the impact birth can have, we are gentle with women’s hearts as they step forward and acknowledge that they are ready to take the journey to healing. And we are with you all the way.” Go to howtohealabadbirth.com to learn more