Validating your feelings about a traumatic birth and how to recover from the trauma

Category: Better Mood | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 18-10-2010 | Modified: 16-07-2018

What distress you must be in if you have (and/or your partner has) suffered a birth trauma.

This article is designed to help you acknowledge your pain, regardless of the precise circumstances of the delivery of your baby and how long ago it happened. You may have landed here because you're pregnant again and memories are flooding back. Or perhaps you're feeling too traumatised to ever contemplate another pregnancy.

So let's see what might have gone wrong...

What caused you to feel so traumatised?

Problems with the delivery

  • How, when and/or where your baby was delivered
  • An injury sustained during birth
  • Feeling unable to control the way in which the baby was delivered, even if you understood the reasons for it
  • The way you felt the doctors/midwives/nurses conducted themselves

Problems with the baby

  • Your baby may very sadly have died before, during or soon after birth
  • Your baby was injured during the delivery
  • Your baby may have arrived too early and been taken to a special care baby unit. You may fear for his/her survival and future prospects
  • Your baby is ill or has been born with special needs - expected or unexpected
  • You're having to watch your baby live in unnatural surroundings and necessarily being subjected to painful or uncomfortable experiences
Elizabeth Edwards: She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way - and it surely has not - she adjusted her sails.No one will truly understand what you've been through. But know you will be able to adjust your sails with or without support

The consequences of those experiences

Any of the above events could potentially have led to you feeling devastated and traumatised (even if some of them are not strictly classed as birth traumas).

The traumatic delivery of a baby can lead to a sense of loss, whether or not your baby died. And if your baby did pass away, you're suddenly confronted with even more enormous levels of grief, pain and suffering to cope with.

Here are the types of losses you're likely to be dealing with...

5 Major losses after suffering a traumatic birth

  1. Losses surrounding your baby - particularly in terms of the expectation of having a healthy baby
  2. The loss of your sense of security and safety -  a safe environment and perhaps trust in the medical profession
  3. The loss of confidence in your body/yourself - you felt out of control, your body didn't perform the way it was supposed or expected to
  4. The loss of confidence in other people - feeling let down by your partner, professionals and/or family
  5. The loss of important relationships - some people just disappear as they don't know what to say or what to do, or it's too close to home for them to be able to deal with. Or maybe your disappointment, anger and frustration with how they acted has driven a wedge between you.

Understanding the losses can be helpful because they can point you towards what needs to happen in order for you to begin to recover.

What may be adding to your distress?

There are often other problems that could potentially contribute to your - and possibly your partner's - distress and sense of devastation.

Here are just some of them...

Problems in your relationship or marriage

Marital or relationship problems are going to make it harder for you (both) to get over a birth trauma. Those problems may include:

  • the way your partner and/or father of the baby acted before, during and/or after your pregnancy and delivery
  • the state of your relationship at the time of you falling pregnant

Other potentially contributing factors

  • the manner in which you fell pregnant
  • distressing (family) events prior to giving birth
  • other distressing life events surrounding your pregnancy and delivery
  • a pre-existing phobia, whether of hospitals, blood, childbirth or any other

Some women fear that they're suffering from post-traumatic stress or even full-blown PTSD after the birth of their baby. To learn more about PTSD, start with my article on its signs and symptoms.

You delivered a healthy baby, but had a traumatic birth?

When anaesthesia was developed, it was for many decades routinely withheld from women giving birth, since women were "supposed" to suffer.

One of the few societies to take a contrary view was the Huichol tribe in Mexico. The Huichol believed that the pain of childbirth should be shared, so the mother would hold on to a string tied to her husband's testicles. With each painful contraction, she would give the string a yank so that the man could share the burden.

Surely if such a mechanism were more widespread, injuries in childbirth would garner more attention.” 

― Nicholas D. Kristof, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Same woman's face - shown with different emotions

There is a general expectation that you as a mother - and of course the other parent or partner - should be happy with a healthy baby, particularly if your circumstances are judged by others to be ideal. But however well-intentioned other people's expectations may be, they won't help you if you're trying to deal with the after-effects of a birth trauma.

Loved ones may have trouble understanding why you're not your normal self if the baby is fine and all seems to be well. It's therefore no wonder if you've ended up putting on a mask and feeling torn between revealing and hiding your distress. 

If your partner and loved ones are struggling to understand what you're going through, have a look at my other pages on trauma, starting with The Signs and Symptoms of Trauma. If the people around you know what's going on for you, they'll be much more able to offer you the right kind of support - which will be a relief for you and them.

Problems with the baby?

If there is any kind of problem with the baby, people are likely to attribute your and your partner's distress to your worries and sadness about that. The trauma of the actual delivery of the baby (birth trauma) may remain hidden.

How to overcome a difficult delivery

Can you get over a birth trauma? Absolutely you can! And it really doesn't have to mean years of psychotherapy. There are wonderful, gentle and often fast ways of treating traumas, including birth traumas.

It is very likely that you'll make a complete recovery. The memory of it will never be pleasant, but you won't be haunted by it anymore. And there's every chance that you'll even be able to comfortably contemplate another pregnancy again when you're ready.

Once you've processed the trauma, you'll be able to focus on living your life again without being distracted by the terror and distress you suffered. Gone will be those angry, painful, frightening thoughts, feelings, nightmares and flashbacks.

Discover the practical steps towards recovery you can take in my article: Coping with PTSD.

Are you suffering from post-natal depression?

The wound is the place where the light enters you. -Rumi

When you suffer from the after-effects of a traumatic birth, signs and symptoms of PTSD can occur alongside postnatal depression. If you are traumatised it may be difficult to distinguish between the two but in essence, the sooner you can be helped to recover from the trauma the more likely it is that you'll be able to bond with your baby.

There are some really helpful self-hypnosis downloads I recommend to set you off on the right track. Have a look at my page on Hypnosis Downloads FAQ and Downloads for further information.

What help have you had, if any?

I wonder what help, support and treatment you've had so far in healing from your birth trauma:

  • no meaningful help at all
  • support and help from midwives or other medical professionals
  • psychological treatment from a suitably qualified trauma specialist
  • support and help from your partner or spouse
  • support and help from friends or family
  • OR... nobody knows that you're suffering!

Perhaps you've felt unable to admit to others (or even to yourself) that you can't get over your traumatic birth, and that - despite trying to leave it behind - you're still devastated by it.

So, let's get you on the road to recovery...

How to overcome a traumatic delivery

6 Self-help strategies to recover from a traumatic birth

  1. Admit to how you’re feeling, however scary that may be. It’ll be the start of you being able to move forward. Yes, there are likely to be people who won’t understand and who may tell you to pull yourself together. However, if you can accept that their judgements are not your business, you'll free yourself up to focus on what really does matter. And remember: nobody can read your mind - dropping hints isn’t going to cut it.
  2. Ask for support from loved ones - but choose wisely who you'll talk to. Read my article on how to get the best relationship advice. Ask for practical, emotional and advisory support. Think carefully about who may be willing and able to do what 
  3. Consider asking to speak to the professionals involved in your birth experience. Remember that they may have made mistakes, but they’ll never have wanted someone under their care to suffer. Aim for an open, honest conversation, without blame, although that doesn’t mean that you can’t express any criticism.
  4. Accept that you may need professional help. There’s absolutely no shame in that. Allow someone to do their job and help you. We, as therapists, take pleasure in helping people and doing it to the very best of our ability, with a deep understanding - as a professional and as a fellow human being - of what’s at stake. It's easier than ever to get help these days: you can connect online with a professional, licensed therapist. See my page on depression counselling for further information.
  5. Keep the channels of communication with your partner open. Remember it's  very likely that you'll each have your own ways of coping with what’s happened. Be open-minded about - and allow space for - your partner’s coping strategies, even if they’re very different from yours. And ask for the same understanding and space in return.
  6. Be active in dealing with depression. Read my article on how to deal with depression and promise yourself you'll start helping yourself right away.

Finally...

Dealing with a birth trauma can be excruciatingly painful, difficult and distressing. Everything you're feeling is understandable, natural, and personal to you so I'd really like you to be gentle with yourself.

Healing will take some time, so give yourself permission to recover at your own pace and in your own way. Ask for the help and support that you need - and know that you absolutely can get through this terrible time. I promise you, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel.

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