How My Trauma History STILL Impacted My "Perfect" Birth and Why It Doesn't Have to For You Too
Traumatic experiences run deep. They are cemented into your memories, even if it's something you don't think about every day. It took me over 20 years to allow myself to open the mental filing cabinet that held some of my early childhood trauma.
For most people, thinking about prior abuse is not something on their radar when they find out they are pregnant or start planning the birth of their child. More and more I'm thinking maybe it should be.
I was blessed with a trauma informed support system. My mom was a birth educator and doula, my family is very comfortable with the idea of therapy, and I was aware of the link between prior abuse and childbirth. I was ahead of the game and it STILL negatively impacted my experience.
On paper I had the "perfect" birth. It was nearly pain free (even unmedicated), and it followed my birth plan almost exactly. You can read that story here.
I saw a pregnancy specialist psychiatrist and therapist while pregnant and thought I was prepared for flashbacks during labor. When I did not experience flashbacks, I figured I was home free. What I was not prepared for, was my abuse surfacing after delivery in a very subtle way: dissociation.
Dissociation refers to a range of experiences from mild to severe detachment from your surroundings or physical and emotional experiences.
The most extreme versions are cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder (what use to be called "multiple personalities") but everyone experiences some mild dissociation every day. This would be things like mentally checking out when you're driving and all the sudden you're at your destination like you were operating on auto pilot.
So what does this have to do with childbirth?
Many people dissociate during a traumatic event like an assault. It's a survival mechanism to get through it and in that moment can serve you well. In survivors of trauma or abuse, sometimes your body will respond the same way during childbirth.
I felt very present in the moment during all of my labor. It was a beautiful and empowering experience and I felt so in tune with my body responding in the most instinctual and primal way possible. It was truly amazing...until she came out.
The second she came out, it was like someone flipped a switch and I was not there. My body was in the room and I was talking and answering questions, but I was mentally not there. I felt off but couldn't put words to it.
I had never had a baby before so it was a lot to take in and I didn't know that what I was experiencing was not normal. I felt very anxious and shaky. My heart rate was a bit high so they kept me at the birth center a little longer than most and gave me an IV (the only part of my birth plan that didn't go according to plan-I HATE IVs)
I felt dazed and confused, like I was in a cloud. I felt DISCONNECTED. The baby in my arms felt like a stranger. I could not say that I loved her that day or for weeks afterwards. She was cute and I didn't want anything bad to happen to her but that was about as far as it went.
Now adding in the normal newborn/postpartum stress of sleep deprivation, figuring out breastfeeding, hormone changes, etc and it was a lot to handle. Throw in a cross country move, starting a new job, and temporarily living with my parents; it pushed me over the edge into Postpartum Depression.
A huge part of the therapy I did for my postpartum depression was focused on trauma recovery. I had dealt with depression before my pregnancy but this was the first time I specifically focused on healing traumatic memories with a specific type of therapy called EMDR.
The EMDR Institute defines EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) as “a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.”
EMDR helped me to identify the traumas in my life that still needed healing, even though I had already done YEARS of therapy. I made more progress in one session of EMDR than in many many sessions of talk therapy.
By this point I still hadn't heard the word dissociation come up about my birth experience. That didn't happen until I found myself pregnant with my second baby and I wanted to do anything possible to prevent another round of Postpartum Depression (PPD).
I saw a therapist Rachel Rabinor to prepare during this pregnancy to do everything possible to minimize my risk of PPD. This is where I finally learned about dissociation.
We implemented a plan to deal with dissociation if that happened again. I felt prepared and ready to stay in the moment this time, and I did. I did not dissociate when my second baby was born. I immediately told her I loved her and felt SO connected. My husband describes it as night and day from the delivery of our first baby and that it was one of his favorite parts of this birth (and he even caught her when she was born! Read that story here)
I can't guarantee that you won't dissociate during birth if you have a history of trauma or abuse, but here are a few things that can help:
See a therapist during your pregnancy
Best is to see someone that specializes in trauma or pregnancy/childbirth. There are pros and cons to digging into intense therapy work while pregnant, but it's a great idea to at least establish care so you have a trusted therapist relationship already established if you need additional support postpartum
Use Trauma Informed providers
Your doctor or midwife can be a huge trigger during birth if they are not trauma informed. Ask your provider about what they can do to help support you in your concerns about your history impacting your birth experience. If you aren't comfortable discussing your abuse with your provider, perhaps a letter would be an easier option. I offer a template letter for exactly this purpose in my FREE Resource Library. Get access here.
Hire a Birth Doula
A doula can make any birth a more positive and comfortable experience. This is especially so for those with a history of trauma or abuse. Your doula can make sure your provider is asking permission before touching you for exams or doing any procedure. They should be doing this any way but a good doula can be an extra layer of security. Think a doula isn't in the budget? Check out my post "4 Ways to Get a Free or Low Cost Birth Doula"
Create a Trauma Informed Birth Plan
This is a service I offer. Click here to schedule a free call with me to help you create the right birth plan for you. When you have a history of trauma or abuse, having a solid birth plan that goes beyond just when to cut the cord can be a great foundation to a supportive birth environment.
Get my free E-Book "Trauma Informed Childbirth"
This mini e-book goes over how and why trauma is connected to childbirth, specific ways birth may trigger your trauma to watch out for, and tips for a positive birthing experience. Get access here.
You Deserve a Positive Birth
There is no magic perfect birth plan that can 100% prevent your history of trauma or abuse from coming up during birth. However, the more aware you are of the potential for it to come up, the more prepared you can be. Having the right supports in place can be the difference between a positive, empowering experience or a traumatic birth. EVERY type of birth can be an amazing experience, even when things don't go exactly according to plan. Your birth can teach you more about yourself and even help heal some of those prior traumas. The birth of your baby and the birth of yourself into MOTHER is a pretty powerful thing and I can't wait for you to experience it!