34% of women these days are reporting their birth expense as “traumatic”(1), 28% are showing some or all of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in regards to their brith experience (2). Despite the growing ideal of “natural childbirth” over the last 10 years our cesarean rate has stayed in and around 30% nation wide.
As a childbirth educator and lactation consultant I see lots of moms just before and just after they experience birth. I know that in my experience there are moms who desperately do not want interventions at birth, that regardless of the precautions they take or the education they get they end up with the very things they did not want. I also know that lots of moms who experience this are told not only by those close to them but by society as a whole that if they should “just be happy for a healthy baby and healthy mom”.
This notion of being grateful for “healthy baby and healthy mom” is not lost, nor is it wrong, it is just used inappropriately and (likely) unknowingly by those around new parents in order to deal with the discomfort of the listener. I don’t think any mom is going to say, I am ungrateful for my healthy baby and being healthy myself. The notion that this statement somehow is the antitheses of the pain and loss mothers may feel is where the problem comes in.
When we practice self awareness and making space for the experience and feelings of others (as is spelled out 5 Steps to Pursuing Self Awareness) we realize that no two sentiments ever cancel each other out.
Birth trauma is used to describe experiences that pose a real or perceived threat to the safety and well being of the mother, father or baby in birth, including the threat of death. It can also be used to describe experiences where the traumatized person perceives a threat to the physical or emotional integrity of the mom, dad or baby. Note that this concept is not determined by outcome but by perception and experience of the traumatized person, so, for example, all that matters is that the risk of death be present, not if the baby or mom died. (This experience is not indicative of birth trauma, though it absolutely would fall under the umbrella of this definition.)
Birth trauma has a wide range of instigators from having medical procedures pushed or forced upon moms, to the loss of mom or baby, to the mourning of plans lost from the ideal birth a parent envisioned.
The presence of birth trauma is never to negate the fact that mom is grateful for the life of her baby or her own life. I have often heard women criticize those who are mourning and feeling the wide range of emotions associated with birth trauma as selfish or silly for caring more about ideals than the health and well being of baby/mom. I can tell you that in my time spent with those mourning the loss of an ideal birth or other traumatic experiences I have never met a mother who does not love their baby or the fact that they are both healthy.
The presence of birth trauma points to the fact that our existence is so much more that purely physical. Our physical life is not more important or more significant than our emotional or spiritual existence. This would imply that someone who lives enslaved or oppressed has the same quality of life as someone who isn’t simply because they are physically alive. I don’t know many people who would debate this fact, but if you deny people the space to feel their emotions to the fullest simply because they are physically healthy and alive you are imposing this idea. SO though a mother and baby who experienced a birth trauma may be physically healthy whats to say that they are emotionally intact? At the end of the day is it really up to ANYONE other than the mom or day them self to decide whether their feelings are important or not?
So lets not devalue your sentiment of how grateful YOU are for a healthy mom and baby by forcing your feelings on someone else! Those feelings belong to you and there is nothing wrong with that, if you want to interact with new parents feelings around their birth-ASK!
It may be helpful to think about why you want to move the conversation to the feelings of gratitude rather than listen to what really is going on in moms mind and heart.
One thing that is pretty common is a general discomfort with emotions that may be deemed as “bad” in our society. This would basically be anything that isn’t happy or anything that brings up feelings of sadness.
Another common reason people will be so quick to shut down the emotional processing of certain emotions in another is because they themselves have similar emotions that were not allowed to be felt, or were shut down by someone else. You yourself may have experienced birth trauma or even another form of trauma in your life, and have never allowed yourself to mourn and feel the feelings that go along with it. So when that person starts to talk about these things you yourself are triggered back to these repressed emotions and in order to shut it back down again and shut down the person you are talking to.
Identifying that this is at the root of your response gives you the ability to now decide if you would like to either work through your own experiences or if you are uncomfortable talking about this traumatic experience and maybe need to distance yourself from this conversations about the trauma at hand.
If the latter is your sentiment then simply say “I hear what you are saying, and I want to honor that. This is triggering some things in me that I am not ready to open up. I can not talk about this at this time.”
Once we have done that, we have set up a safety net to catch ourselves when we are talking to a new mom/dad about their experience. Then you can try one of the following:
Train your brain to ask questions and listen.
Offer to write out a birth story for the family as they tell it to you while nursing/feeding the baby.
LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. Then offer to call tomorrow to listen some more.
Offer sympathy with their experience, acknowledging that their experience is important.
Remember that what they say is valid, even if it sounds “wrong” compared to your experience/feelings.
Know how you can help and don’t be afraid to ask for specifics if you are unsure.
Watch for signs of PPD and offer love and help if mom needs it. Be delicate and gentle here but don’t be afraid to speak up.
Moms need us to start listening, asking questions and speaking up for their well being. The first step in doing this is identifying any personal prohibitors we may have and addressing them fully. Through our own emotional awareness we make space for others to find themselves. So next time you catch yourself thinking or saying “all that matters is a healthy baby and healthy mom” Stop yourself and instead say “Your experience matters and I am here for you.” You never know how big of a difference that could make in the new families early weeks.
Did you feel free to mourn your birth pain or birth trauma? Have you ever found yourself saying “all that matters is healthy baby and healthy mom”? Why do you think you said this?