A year and a half ago, I experienced a traumatic birth. It was something I wouldn’t wish upon anybody. My life was in danger, and my son almost lost his. While I am now completely recovered and my son is a naughty, adorable, feisty toddler, I am still dealing with the aftermath of that experience. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and am currently undergoing treatment. I have nightmare regularly about the experience where I wake up in a cold sweat and a racing pulse. Flashbacks during the day happen regularly. Alarms remind me of code bells, and microwaves beeping remind me of NICU monitors.
The more I have spoken up about this, I have realized that I’m not alone. Mothers everywhere with different backgrounds and experiences feel traumatized by their birth. In discussing this with other moms, there is one feeling that perpetually comes up in conversation: Isolation. When something that is supposed to be one of the happiest days of your life turns into a nightmare for you, it can be hard to relate to other people or be at peace with your experience. Birth is a common, everyday thing and it’s how all of us got here. It’s a frequent topic of discussion, especially amongst fellow moms. Survivors of birth trauma know that we need to be able to navigate things that trigger us, and we can’t expect everybody to know they upset us. Still, it can be helpful to know that these practices can be a common trigger of panic, shame, depression, and isolation amongst those who’ve experienced this type of trauma.
1. “At least you are both okay now.”
Probably the most common things people say, this is well-intentioned, with the person hoping to show you the silver lining. And it’s true if we are one of the lucky ones, we very much are physically recovered from the event. We are well aware that we are, and we are thankful that we are. But trauma doesn’t work that way. Emotional scars run deep. Saying this stings for us, because it doesn’t validate our feelings and instead just makes us feel bad.
Instead, say: “I’m glad you are both okay now, but I can imagine that’s something that stays with you.”
Changing the “At least” part takes away the notion that we should be grateful and forget about it, and the second phrase lends empathy to our situation.
2. “You have to find a way to move past it.”
Brilliant idea. Thank you for bringing that up, we hadn’t thought about it. Now we’re fixed! Less forgiving than other conversation faux pas, hopefully, you are self-aware enough not to say this to someone, but you’d be surprised how often we hear it! I’ve thought about why that is, and I think it goes back to it generally being a positive event for other people. You would never say this to a victim of an assault. Nobody ever talks about a “positive car accident.” This is unhelpful advice at its best and makes us feel more stigmatized.
Instead, say: Nothing. Keep that thought in your head. If you wouldn’t say this to a person who experienced other trauma, you shouldn’t say it to us.
3. “Isn’t all birth traumatic?”
No. There is a difference between feeling pain and experiencing trauma. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the pain of childbirth is what creates the traumatic experience. What’s traumatic to one person isn’t to another. Someone may have a two-hour labor and describe it as the easiest birth. Another person might have a two-hour labor and say they felt out of control and be traumatized by it. Sometimes it’s not pain but rather a near-death experience, blood pressure spiking, the baby being in distress. Someone may experience in extremely painful birth, but then see their baby and say they are ready to do it again all over. No trauma is the same. Nobodies experience is more valid than the other.
Instead, say: “That must have been very scary.” When in doubt, validate how a person is feeling. Don’t speculate on what merits trauma or what doesn’t. Don’t assume because someone had what you would think was an easy birth that it was for them. Listen and validate.
4. “Well in my birth…”
It’s a commonality between women to experience labor and childbirth. And while there will be plenty of times where it’s typical and appropriate to swap birth and parenting stories, if a woman is in the process of telling you about her traumatic birth, now is not the time to jump in with your story or “one-up” her. First, know it’s taken a great deal of courage for her to share it and she has probably weighed this decision to talk about it heavily. If she is telling you, she considers you someone close. Second, know that she already feels out of place in these conversations.
Instead: Pause, listen and validate her.
5. Having a straightforward, healthy delivery.
Okay, okay, we know. There is nothing you can do to help us with this one and of course it’s what we want! We would never wish a bad or unsafe experience on anybody, but we’d be lying if we said we weren’t jealous for a while. We can be over the moon happy for you and still sad for us. It is likely that we panicked for you when we found out you were in labor and held our breath until we heard you and baby were safe. For me, I get sad that I never got to put my baby on my chest. Many people feel triggered by someone having a vaginal birth when they had a traumatic c-section, or a simple recovery when they had a third-degree tear.
Instead: Simply being aware of this will help you be in tune sensitivity wise. Instead of immediately talking about your birth, talk about other details of your new baby or adjusting to motherhood. Or literally any other topic. If you truly want to share your birth experience with this friend or family member, let some time pass and ask them about it before you do.
6. “Maybe if you had…”
Stop. None of us want a Monday morning quarterback for our delivery. Most often times things that happen to us are completely outside of our control. We made the best decisions we could with the information we had at the time. I can almost guarantee you we have replayed things over a million times and found ways to blame ourselves, even when it’s not merited. Instead, Say: “I know you probably want to blame yourself, but don’t.” Be mindful of the situation, as this phrase may not universally fit. But most people who experience trauma go through a phrase of self-deprecation and blame. It provides a sense of control when we often feel out of control. Hearing this helps us to negate our own self-talk.
We know most people mean well. We just ask for sincere understanding when you can, and sympathy for when you can’t.