One of the most common reasons pregnant women contact me looking for a doula is because of a previous difficult birth. When they share their birth experiences they often say things like "my first baby’s birth was horrible” or “I had such an awful experience last time”. These women are desperately looking for anything they can do to ensure that this birth is a better one. After having a traumatising birth it’s understandable to be worried about doing it again.
Thankfully the women I work with all go on to have significantly more positive births but I wish so many women didn't have to go through an 'awful' birth to begin with. I wish birth trauma was rare but unfortunately it is increasingly common.
What is birth trauma?
My definition of birth trauma is any birth experience that leaves women with feelings of failure, sadness, anger, disappointment or resentment.
These responses can range from fleeting emotions that don’t linger through to strong emotions that can make women feel like they can’t get past their baby’s birth. Most of the time these negative emotions will alleviate over time and its only when a woman finds herself pregnant and preparing for another birth that these feelings resurface. Other times a woman doesn’t need to be pregnant again - the intense negative emotions surrounding her baby’s birth just wont ease or go away with time.
In extreme circumstances women may experience symptoms like post traumatic stress and have panic attacks or flashbacks about their baby's birth.
What causes a woman to be traumatised by her birth?
There is so much misunderstanding about what makes a positive or negative birth. The general idea that a complicated, overly long or caesarean birth equals a ‘bad’ birth is too simplistic and often far from the truth. In my experience its not what happened but how a woman felt during her birth that matters.
In a traumatic birth women might feel powerless, fearful, violated, unheard and alone. These feelings can occur even if a birth is quick and relatively straightforward.
In a positive birth, women feel safe, supported, nurtured and respected. In a medically complicated birth it's still possible for women to feel positive about the experience if they are well supported and respected.
When considering whether a birth was 'good' or 'bad' it's more important to focus on how a women felt during and after the birth rather than on what happened.
I have seen women feel proud and empowered about every type of birth imaginable. I have also met women who tell me about their 'easy' birth that has left them feeling shattered.
Why does it matter how we feel about our births?
In our culture birth is often seen as a means to an end (i.e having a healthy baby) and this message is reinforced when women express unhappy feelings about their baby's birth. They are usually met with invalidating responses like "yeah that sounds hard but I guess all that matters is a healthy baby".
Of course coming home with a healthy baby is the most important thing but it's not the only important thing.
As Barbara Katz Rothman says "birth is not just about making babies. Birth is also about making mothers - strong, competent, capable mothers who trust themselves and know their inner strength".
If birth leaves a women feeling sad, angry, disappointed, traumatised, or like they are a failure, it can affect how she feels as a mother, partner and woman.
There is this idea that birth is inherently awful and traumatic but it’s simply not true. Many women feel great about their baby’s birth and say it was one of the best days of their lives. Not just because they finally met their baby but because they feel a sense of achievement in how they gave birth. To simply say “birth is always horrible” denies women their right to have a positive birth.
I feel awful about my baby's birth and don't know how to get past it
If all of this has hit a nerve with you and you feel like you could benefit from a birth debrief please contact me.
There are also a number of online support resources you might benefit from:
Some positive facebook groups are:
- VBAC Australia Support Group
- Natural Hospital Birthing
- Caeserean Section Support Group Australia
- Our local pregnancy and birth support group Pregnant In The Illawarra
Every type of birth has the potential to have positive and empowering aspects to it. Women should feel loved, supported and respected in every birth setting. My hope for the future is that birth trauma becomes a relic of the past and that women all receive excellent care and support during their births.