I spent a good portion of my early time as a mother being told not to talk about birth trauma. I came through birth alive and so did my daughter, so that made me luckier than my foremothers who died because an emergency C-section wasn’t an option for them. My daughter was healthy, so that made me more fortunate than the mothers who came home from the hospital with a baby who had a disability or whose little ones never came home from the hospital at all. Essentially, I came to understand, my daughter and I survived her birth, so the only feelings I should have were misty-eyed joy and a bit of gratitude.
I tried to tell people how my heart was broken and my body had failed me. I tried to make people see how being told the OB was going to “take the baby” and waking up alone in a surgery suite unable to move or speak had me questioning whether my baby was even mine. I tried to articulate how feeling that I couldn’t even keep my daughter safe when she was inside my body made me question my ability to be her mother. I tried to get people to understand how I had done everything “right” and still ended up with a C-section.
I told my story over and over in an attempt to make it real for myself, but more often than not, I was silenced by at leasts. At least you had a healthy baby. At least you’re alive. At least you live in a place and time where the doctors could rescue you.
Over and over, people questioned whether it was “really that bad” and why I was “still talking about it” months after the birth itself. My husband even tried to comfort me by telling me that it was “only one day” and I “had the rest of my life to be her mom.”
Most of the comments came from people who were generally well-meaning and just trying to give me perspective. But I didn’t need perspective then. What I needed was someone to listen to me and validate what I was feeling. I needed someone to acknowledge that my whole world view had been turned on its head. I needed someone to name what I had experienced, to call it out as trauma. I needed someone to reassure me that neither I nor my body had failed at anything.
I finally found people to give me what I needed, because I refused to be silent in spite of all the voices trying to shush me. I found a massage therapist who encouraged me to tell my story as many times as I needed it and helped me see what I viewed as victimhood as heroism. I found friends who would allow me to cry when triggers came up. I found a therapist who helped me imagine myself out of the sterile OR and into the room where my tiny baby daughter was greeted by friends and family. I searched for and found Facebook groups, blogs, workshops, and countless modalities for physical and emotional relief. I found healing, and I found my voice.
Through the process, I realized that there is something wrong in a society that only welcomes the birth stories that end in, “...it was love at first sight” and asks those of us with a different experience to kindly be quiet. The truth about birth is that each birth is different. Each birth is a maelstrom of conflicting experiences and emotions (joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, love and fear) that sometimes combine to form the best/worst day of one’s life.
We need to talk about birth trauma, because, like the other darker sides of motherhood, it is real and it exists. Silencing the stories won’t make them any less real, and hiding the truth keeps us from examining it and changing it. A baby’s birth day is, in fact, just one day, but it is a day that sets the stage for the rest of a family’s experience. It can create a mother who is strong and assured of her own power or a mother who feels inadequate to meet the rest of the challenges that parenthood will bring.
We need to talk about birth trauma, and we also need to learn to listen, quietly and without platitudes, when someone is brave enough to speak about it.
Kendra Atkins-Boyce is a mother, doula, and writer living in Oregon. She believes wholeheartedly in the beauty of birth, and in the comfort of family. She is always ready to support those who need her in any way she can, and you can find out more about her services here.