Birth As Trauma
I was the type of person who said she wanted to feel the “raw pain” of an unmedicated birth. I imagined the birth of my child would take place in a dimly lit, lavender scented room, producing primal moans and feeling like an earth goddess fulfilling her female destiny. For some reason, Phil Collins’ “You’ll be in my Heart,” was to be the soundtrack for this trippy experience.
I did all the groundwork- I got a doula, I read a book about the inner life of the fetus while in the womb (and proceeded to freak out when I was freaking out because according the book I was stressing out the baby), I brushed up on my Gentle Parenting knowledge, and mainly - I trusted that I could take this on. Unmedicated.
In reality, my water broke twenty minutes after my husband left for a bar mitzvah. Turning the car right around, he came back to our one-bedroom apartment, and practically ran through the front door, like a blue-suited yarmulke-wearing Kool-Aid man. He collected our things, mumbling, “This is fine. Everything is fine.” I put on my finest postpartum absorbent panties, and thought to myself…
“So far, I can take this.”
Well, define this.
We were at the hospital all of 15-minutes, when the only doctor I prayed would NOT deliver me, waltzed through the door, obnoxious bedside manner in tow. He quickly told me, gesturing strongly with his shish-kebab fingers, this was looking like an emergency cesarean. This was compounded with my doula being two hours away and sending a mysterious backup, the baby struggling to get enough oxygen, and to top it all off - it took three residents, and then the doctor I most definitely didn’t want, to validate that I was indeed not dilated enough.
Zen was officially out the window.
Screw Tarzan and his sappy soundtrack. This required an angry Limp Bizkit song to serenade this shitshow. If babies do experience emotions in utero, she and I were in the midst of a heaving panic attack.
This is not a story about a disappointing birth experience. While everything initially went wrong, I was able to birth a sweet healthy baby girl 18 hours later. Medicated. While the Tarzan soundtrack played on repeat and the doctor-I-didn’t-want (who eventually saved the day), made fun of my musical taste. It was not what I had in mind, but it was what was. It was my story, even though I didn’t choose it. Even writing this, I am tempted to jump right into what an amazing toddler she is now. Observing the experience, even in retrospect, is challenging. I mean, she and I are healthy, we made it, what is there to talk about? My trauma resume is full, thank you very much, and coloring this experience with any shade of negative feels like I am committing a moral crime. We came out of it ok.
“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then, it's the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people,” writes Bessel van der Kolk. He continues to define trauma as an event which overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories. If there was anything which has the potential to jolt the nervous system, and to absolutely change the way we process memories, it would be childbirth.
In trauma terms, the mere fact the birthing person contains two or more nervous systems in her body, is already a dramatic shift in her own ability to regulate her own central nervous system. One just has to add in the physical trauma of the actual birth, and it’s an internal hurricane. People do it everyday, and yet - it is monumental.
Trauma changes us. Birth changes us. We emerge from it altered, forever different. Pregnancy, delivery, and child-rearing leave an imprint on our bodies and psyches. Fear takes on a new meaning when there is a new life to protect. Birth. Is. Trauma.
Trauma is also what happens after the traumatic event - how we are cared for, and enabled to digest the experience. After giving birth, the attention and focus tends to be on the infant, which of course makes sense given the vulnerability and high need they have, but can take away from the mother’s need to process her own experience. It can feel like there is simply no time to process when there is someone smaller with more urgent needs to be tended to. It is a tightrope to navigate being in need of care and also being the most needed you have ever been.
If you are in the phase where you are still wearing postpartum diapers, you should be treated like the fragile, recovering warrior you are.
I will die on this hill.
A mom can forget herself in this process, which makes her surroundings forget she had just undergone a massive experience herself. This is especially true if the birth experience itself was traumatic, which can be due to many reasons such as complications, not going as planned, previous birth trauma, and in some cases neonatal loss and stillbirth. Or a poor soundtrack choice like yours truly.
Though there are no ways to safeguard ourselves from life events, there are ways to set yourself up for support in the postpartum period. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- It’s great to have a birth plan, but it’s even better to be flexible - hold in mind there are factors which may not be in your control. The script you had in mind? That’s cute, but this is improv.
- Have your support team lined up. This can be a partner, friend, family member, or even a therapist. They have to be able to hold space for you. Birth is not a process to be experienced alone. Let the people you trust in.
- Honor your physical needs. You will still need to eat, drink, sleep, and do the other human necessities you did before giving birth. However, time will be limited, so plan with meal trains, frozen meals, or other planned methods of keeping yourself nourished. We need you full. You need you full.
- Outsource as much as possible. You will need help with this transition, so offload what you can, be it through financial means or through your support network. If it is feasible to pay a cleaning person, do it. The more household tasks you can take off your plate, the more room you will have to be present.
- There is no perfect way to have a baby. You can read all the books, attend all the webinars, and subscribe to every single newsletter on childbirth that exists. When it comes to it, you will improvise your way through it like the rest of us. What you have at the moment is going to be enough. You have managed to get through every single obstacle to reach this moment. You will get through this as well.
Becoming a parent is a radical shift in life roles. You are not expected to come out the other side without bruises, physically or emotionally. The more you allow yourself to be in your humanity, the more your child will learn that being human is quite great.
The ideal mom who lives in your head or on the internet? She is hiding a staff of nannies, stylists, chefs, and understudies, and she still finds herself pumping milk in the middle of the night, wondering if this is how cows feel.
No one has got it and that is the beauty of it.