Birth Trauma is hard on women - but its also hard on their spouses and on marriages and partnerships. A post done by the Good Men Project for spouses of those with depression has inspired me to think about what partners of women traumatized by birth can or should do for the women they love as many of the things mentioned in the post resonated with me and my experience. Nobody tells the partners of birth trauma victims how to cope or what to do - and for the most part how can they be expected to know what to do? This post is intended to try and offer some advice to those loved ones, who desperately want to do something, but just don't know what.
Birth Trauma is devastating for women - when a woman is traumatized by her birth, her entire notion of herself as a woman and her role as a mother have been shattered. It can be a massive struggle for a woman just to make it through the day - many moms continually relive their birth experience and accompanied with the demands of motherhood, they feel overwhelmed. Spouses of women might try a gentle approach, they might try a firm approach, they might try to get them to open up, they might suggest things they think will help, they might buy presents and say encouraging things, they might get frustrated and argue. It seems as nothing a spouse does for a birth traumatized woman makes any difference - she just will not move-on. She seems unable to be grateful for all the good that remains.
Spouses of those traumatized by birth need to know, that birth trauma is not about women being in a "bad mood", or being upset because things during the birth didn't go "their way". Birth trauma is serious and debilitating. It is not about women "playing the victim" - or being trapped in "pity parties" - or being "selfish". Having a traumatic birth experience is like being in a car accident, or having your home destroyed by a flood. There might have been things that could have been done (or there might not be anything that could have been done) to avoid what happened - but the traumatized woman never asked for what happened to happen. The circumstances were entirely beyond her control - and if she could go back in time and have things happen differently, she would.
If your wife was injured in a car accident and had several broken bones - you wouldn't tell her to brush it off and continue as though nothing happened. If your wife was car-jacked and assaulted - you wouldn't tell her that sometimes that happens, and she was just unlucky but that she should be grateful to be alive. You would be patient, you would understand that she might be shaken from the experience - that she will likely need time (maybe a lot of time) and rehabilitation. Depending on how bad the experience was you might even have to come to terms with the idea that your wife might never be the same again. She might have to find ways to cope with the lingering injuries, she might not be able to do the same things she used to do, she might not ever be as social or as unguarded as she once was.
This is what birth trauma is.
Just because your wife made it through the birth physically, doesn't mean she wasn't injured psychologically. And just because you can't see the injury, does not mean that it does not exist, does not mean she is not debilitated.
After my daughter's birth, I was left reeling. It has taken years and a lot of therapy and self-care to get where I am. Three and a half-years on and I am not the same as I was and I doubt I ever will be. I won't seek care from Victoria General Hospital if I can avoid it. I am sensitive to feeling like my care providers are not listening to me. I am far more territorial of my person. I avoid movies with birth scenes in them. I am far more critical of those who judge personal decisions. I am less tolerant of intolerance and injustice. I am more skeptical and cynical. I am more angry. There are friendships I have had to discontinue - and other ones that have begun because of what happened. Birth trauma completely changed my outlook on life and who I am as a person.
When a woman is battling Birth Trauma - it is like she is in the deepest, darkest ocean - being crushed by the pressure of the water, and unable to determine the direction in which she should swim to reach the surface. All a woman wants to do is not feel the way she does, to not feel as though the day their child was born was also the worst one of their lives. They want to reach the surface and breathe -they want to swim to shore.
The natural reaction is to throw them a rope and pull them up to safety - to make them "see" how wonderful things are, to not focus on what happened, but on all the good that is. To make them move forward.
The problem is, that trying to pull women from the depths of Birth Trauma - might make things worse. Telling her to be grateful for her healthy baby. Telling her that what happened to her has happened countless times to countless other women. Telling her that she can not let what happened impact her mothering. Telling her to snap out of it and move on. Telling her that she should be happy as other women have it far worse. All these things are just as likely to drive the woman deeper into the trauma - and might add a dose of depression to go with it. Not only will she be unable to swim to the surface for air, the pressure to deny her feelings and needs for the sake of others might well crush her as she becomes a means to an end, rather than an end in and of herself.
For mothers, there is already tremendous pressure to sacrifice and put aside your needs for those of your family. Mothers already fear harming their children in some way by failing to do things the "right way". Mothers fear being labelled, they fear being seen as ungrateful. Mothers fear being judged as being weak - motherhood and birth are a kind of female machismo - and to admit that birth defeated you in some ways, is almost like admitting you are a lesser woman. There is tremendous stigma attached to mothers who are not blissful in their births and motherhood. We have been told from the time we are little girls, that being mothers is what women do and that good mothers are self-sacrificing. It does not matter that by accepting the stereotype of the good mother, we restrict women to biological essentialism - and that the sentiment is decades out of date and harms many women. The instinctual reaction for a mother is to sacrifice herself and her needs - to insist on soldiering on as a good mother does, personal needs be damned! Mothers will revert into themselves, put emotional barriers up and they will shut down. Trying to force a woman to move on, at what is likely the most emotionally challenging time of her life creates far more problems than it solves.
What spouses of the birth traumatized need to do - is to be there for their wives. If and when they talk, listen - refrain from giving opinions, just really listen. Women who are traumatized by their experiences need to be heard - they don't need your opinion about why everything is or should be okay (your body did not give birth). The thing I wanted more than anything, and the times when I felt my husband was really there for me, are the times when I felt validated and heard and sometimes just held. Your wife needs you to not be angry with her. Your wife needs you to be patient while she finds her own way out of the awful - she needs to feel and be safe when talking about it with you. However awful, the things your wife has to say - listen, and when you are done listening reaffirm that you love them still, reaffirm that you will be there for them, however long it takes and wait until they are strong enough to swim to the surface and the shore. Tell her it is okay for her to do what she needs to do for herself. It probably will be hard, you might need some help, but do not give up on your wife. Support her, love her, and be there for her until she gets to shore - she's the mother of your child, it is the right thing to do.