Birth is a profound experience. It can be transformative and empowering. But what about when it’s not?
What happens when birth leaves you feeling broken, angry, let down, guilt ridden, abandoned, unheard or disregarded, like a failure. Yet life goes on, and it feels as though everything becomes about the baby, but you were left broken, in the birth room. What then?
They say birth trauma is often caused by how a woman was made to feel, rather than what happened. I know this to be true, both personally and professionally, and I see it all too often.
As a Private Midwife, my ‘day’ job, a large part of our clients come to us following a previous traumatic birth or negative birth experience. I have a saying that ‘birth trauma keeps me in business, but I’d rather go bust’.
I care for women throughout their entire pregnancy, in birth, and for many weeks following birth. I spend that time in pregnancy building a relationship with them, informing them of physiological birth and birth variances, and their options surrounding bringing their baby earthside. Each woman’s care is individualised.
Even when the birth isn’t what the mother hoped for, perhaps an emergency occurred or intervention was required, clients often still tell me how empowered they felt. Why?
Because they went into birth informed of how to give themselves the best chance of their ideal birth and of the variances that could occur. They were loved and respected in labour. They felt safe, because they had their own trusted Midwife. The significance of the bond between mother and baby, and their rights as human beings were never forgotten about, no matter how medicalised the birth became. They were heard.
So much evidence has shown us that women with a positive birth experience are more likely to be confident in mothering, have lower rates of postnatal depression and higher rates of breastfeeding, and report more feeling of attachment and bond with their babe. But this isn’t to say that you are doomed if you didn’t have a positive experience.
The journey to overcoming birth trauma, grief, or negative thoughts and emotions surrounding birth is just that. A journey. There is no set goal, or outcome to achieve. And it’s totally ok if you don’t ever ‘get over it’, as many women have been thoughtlessly told to do. It’s a part of your story. But if you feel you are ready to start healing your heart, or want to work through the emotions and come to a better place, we’ve listed ten steps tried and tested by amazing, courageous women, just like you.
1 – Talk To Other Women Who Get It
Talking to other women who have experienced birth trauma can make you feel not so alone, and help you start processing the ins and outs of what happened, and why you are feeling how you do.
A dear friend is always a good place to start, but often well-meaning loved ones don’t know what to say, or how to best support you through this unfamiliar territory. It can also be very difficult to separate their own birth experience from yours.
Fortunately, there are amazing organisations such as Birthtalk.org, who have a free ‘Healing From Birth’ support group. Birthtalk’s group provides emotional support following a difficult birth, and gives you the tools to make sense and find peace, as well as giving the opportunity to be supported by other women who have made the journey. Genuine understanding and validation of your feelings is key, and at Birthtalk you will find just that.
The founders of Birthtalk have also authored a book called How To Heal A Bad Birth: Making Sense, Making Peace and Moving On, which is an incredible resource for both women, and professionals providing maternity care.
2 – Write Down Your Story
Writing down your birth story can help you make sense of what happened, put together all the pieces, help you remember parts you may have forgotten, and can open up discussion with your partner about the experience.
After a negative birth experience, it can difficult to write your story.
You may feel like it brings up a lot of emotions or unpleasant memories. It can also take a long time. Often, once a woman starts writing, the words just don’t stop.
Find a time where you feel safe and able to experience the emotions, give yourself time. It’s ok if you write a bit and have to come back to it.
Writing your birth story in the weeks following birth is ideal, but it’s never too late, even if it was over a year, or five years ago.
3 – Retrieve Your Birth Notes
Once you have written down your story, retrieving your birth notes from the Hospital can help you explore what happened, see the perspective of the Midwives and Doctors, and put together some of the puzzle pieces.
Writing your story down before seeing your notes is ideal.
You want your story to be as authentic to your experience, emotions, understanding and memories as possible, and not altered by new information or new emotions that may arise from your birth notes.
To retrieve your notes, each hospital would have a different process. Calling the hospital you birthed at and asking how you can arrange receiving all notes related to the birth admission is the first step.
4 – Access Support That Is Logistically Easy
Just as we said earlier, after you have a baby, life goes on – the sleeplessness, changing, settling, feeds, kids, work, life admin.
None of it stops.
We all know new Mums are time poor, and bloody exhausted. Finding time to fit in your own wellbeing can feel near impossible or adds to the overwhelm.
Women need to find support that is easy, quick and logistical – that is, doesn’t require clean clothing and 2 hours to get out the door.
You’re more likely to access this kind of support, and it is easier to maintain and fit around busy mum life.
PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) have a National Helpline available Mon-Fri 9am-7:30pm on 1300 726 306.
This helpline is for any woman needing emotional support following the birth of a baby, and it doesn’t matter how old your baby is. You do not need a diagnosis of depression. They can have a one off chat, or talk regularly, email, or guide you through putting a plan in place to help your healing journey.
The PANDA website also has loads of information resources and factsheets surrounding perinatal anxiety and depression.
Other options include contacting organisations such as Birthtalk for one on one support via skype or phone, and searching for online support groups which are often on social media.
5 – Reach Out To The Experts
Sometimes, acknowledging you need help is the hardest part. Seeing a psychologist can be a very positive step though, and will be a huge step forward in your healing journey.
However, just like you wouldn’t hire any tradesman to rig up your electricity, it’s best not to see just any psychologist to discuss birth and trauma.
Finding a perinatal psychologist, with experience in post traumatic stress, perinatal depression and anxiety, and birth trauma is key to having a beneficial experience with expert help.
You may want to go on your own, or have your partner attend with you, so they too can learn how to best navigate this time.
Amanda Donnet from Spilt Milk Psychology is an expert in this field. I’ve seen her speak professionally and have referred many women to her over the years with raving reviews.
Though she may not be close to your area, pop over and have a look at her website to get an idea of what you should expect of your perinatal psychologist.
6 – Give It Time
Have you ever heard the saying ‘a woman may forget what happened in labour, but she will never forget how she was made to feel’?
This is so true. A woman, as long as she lives, will remember how she was treated in birth.
I’ve had elderly women, great-grandmothers, tell me of their birth stories. Of what health professionals ‘did’ to them, even what was said to them.
When it comes to birth, time (may not) heal all wounds.
But giving yourself time means going gently on yourself. Lowering expectations of yourself, not expecting to just ‘get over it’ and move on.
Affording yourself the ability to start healing.
Giving yourself time is saying ‘I’m not ok, but I will get there’.
Time can bring clarity, readiness to explore the birth, and readiness to confront the emotions surrounding birth.
7 – Birth Reclaiming Ceremony
A Birth Reclaiming Ceremony, aka Re-birth Ceremony, has started to become more and more common in the birth world over the last couple of years.
Unfortunately this probably speaks to the prevalence of birth trauma in Australia and feelings of impeded bonding between mother and baby.
The ceremony takes place in an environment in the home similar to that which one would hope for birth – dimly lit, quiet, serene.
Women are choosing to have these ceremonies to release negative emotions related to birth, to connect with their baby when initial bonding may not have taken place due to what happened at birth, to let go of emotional pain, to replicate what they had so desired for the first moments with their new babe.
Undertaking this ceremony or something similar can be a significant step in a healing journey. You can find out more here.
8 – Awareness Of Your Thoughts and Feelings
It is more common for women who have had a negative birth experience or birth trauma to feel disconnected to their baby.
This does not mean that you want to hurt your baby, which is a common misconception.
For many reasons, bonding at birth can be impacted upon.
Women (and fathers) have also reported difficulty connecting with their child due to feeling like the birth, therefore the baby, was the cause for the trauma.
Do not blame or hate yourself for feeling this way.
Being able to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts that come up, within context of what has happened, is an important step in healing.
Mindfulness of these thoughts, and sharing these thoughts with a support group, helpline, professional support or trusted loved one is key. Talk it out. Don’t hide these thoughts because you think they are bad, you’re a bad mother, or you will be judged or misunderstood for feeling this way.
If you have any thoughts of harming yourself or your child/children, or do not feel psychologically/emotionally well enough to care for them, please notify a friend or family member immediately and seek professional help.
Self check-in for pregnant Mums, new Mums, Dads and carers using a quick online survey through PANDA is available here.
9 – Be Active In Protecting Other Women
If you feel your or your baby’s wellbeing was at risk due to medical negligence, or you are unhappy with the way you were cared for, there are many options to address this, and ultimately ensure other women receive a better standard of care.
Sometimes writing out your story and concerns as a letter can help your healing journey.
Many women feel angry that they were cared for poorly or made to feel a certain way, as if they didn’t matter as a human being, and communicating this is a step towards letting go of some of that anger, as it does not serve you.
You may wish to write to the hospital complaints sector, the health ombudsman, the maternity unit, a consumer group such as the Maternity Consumer Network or your local MP/health minister.
Some women find it helpful to arrange to meet with the hospital, and openly discuss the birth and share how it made them feel.
Human Rights In Childbirth is a board of experts and advocates of maternity rights from around the world. See the website to help you understand your rights in childbirth and find support.
10 – Do Not Blame Yourself
Don’t. Just don’t. You are not to blame for what happened. You are not to blame for why you feel this way.
You shouldn’t have done anything differently. You are not to blame.
In solidarity, understanding, and admiration, we wish you healing and peace.
If you are interested in learning about the benefits of having your own Midwife, you can find out more here. More useful resources below:
PANDA Information and National Helpline – link
Birthtalk – link
How To Heal A Bad Birth (Book) – link
Amanda Donnet – Spilt Milk Psychology – link
Human Rights In Childbirth – link
Birth Reclaiming Ceremony – link