This subject, which effects so many silent victims, is a hard one to approach. The damage is not only physical. It is mental, it is emotional, it effects the very spirit. Even for those who seek therapy, it can take a lifetime to heal – some people never heal.
For birthing women, this subject becomes even more complicated. Sexual abuse can leave a stigma in the woman’s own mind about herself, her body, and possibly even her baby. I know – I am a survivor of abuse myself. In the BWF Support Group, and in other places on the internet, I have answered questions for women about how to progress through pregnancy and birth with a history of abuse, and January was kind enough to let me write a guest post so that we can reach a larger audience.
Pregnancy and Birth are supposed to be a joyous and life-changing experience. You are growing a life within, your body changes and grows, and you birth a new generation into the world. A beautiful thing. But sexual abuse can change your outlook. It can change a beautiful experience into a struggle without the right support and a compassionate care provider.
My abuse occurred when I was young, at the hands of a relative. Someone I was supposed to trust, someone who said they loved me. For many years I felt as though my body was a dirty place and that it was something that I deserved. Many hours of therapy later, and supportive family, close friends, and my wonderful husband – I thought I had finally healed. I thought I had moved on. Never could I imagine that after trying for two years to conceive that my wished for pregnancy would make everything resurface.
After finding out we were pregnant, we began to search for a midwife. I knew, long before we conceived, that a midwife was the only way for me (barring medical need) – and preferably not in a hospital. Apart from the research I had done into the safety of out-of-hospital birth I just knew, in my gut, that a hospital would cause my labor to stop. Having people in and out of the room, with my vagina wide open and on display – I just couldn’t even imagine going through that.
We found our amazing midwife and during one of my first prenatals, she asked if I was an abuse victim. I answered yes, she noted it in my chart and asked if I would like to speak about it in relation to birth. I told her no, thinking that it would not be an issue for me.
The feelings of fear and shame did not surface until about half way through my pregnancy. I started to lactate and during an intimate moment with my husband, milk leaked. I immediately broke down and just cried, “My body is not mine!” From there, it was as if the flood gates opened. All the old fears came back. All the old feelings of not being my own person, of being used, of being broken. Everything I thought I would never feel again.
From that moment on – I knew I had to take control. Not control of birth (who can do that – it is a wild ride!), but I had to take control of my emotions. My midwife highly suggested Hypnobirthing to all her clients, and though I could not afford a class, I got a book and did the home study. I practiced each night, learning to imagine my body as a beautiful, working thing. Imagining my body opening, pure and clean, and almost magical. The actual language used in the tracks talk about your body being clean, healthy, and beautiful. It could not have been more perfect for my situation. I learned to control my fears and feelings – not hide them, not dismiss them – but master them. Slowly but surely I regained my joy.
Every night during my practice, I thought about how this birth would heal me. How this birth would prove once and for all that I was not a broken person, and that the abuse did not break the most womanly part of me. When my son moved through and out of me, he would “clear out” all the pain of the past. That from that moment on, I would only associate joy with my body.
Months later, I hit 37 weeks – on Christmas. I just knew that my son was coming soon, even though the midwife thought he would stay put a while longer. At 37+4, my son was born into joy – my labor and the birth – it was pure magic. I truly feel like my own person once more, without a stigma of pain and doubt. The support of my husband and my midwife were instrumental – not having vaginal checks without my permission, not invading my space, and the understanding of everyone in the room that this was something I had to do on my own. This was my personal mountain to climb, in more ways than one.
For those who have been there – or those who will be one day – I reach out to you. Imagine my sisterly hug around your neck, and know that you are not alone. There are people out there who understand and who will treat you with respect in your pregnancy and birth.
Words of Encouragement:
YOU choose your birth place – be that home, hospital, birth center, or a field of cows – you birth where you feel comfortable.
Choose a care provider who understands your feelings and past. What is important to you – reduced vaginal checks, or not having any at all? Being able to push in a position where your vagina will not be “on display” (such as squatting or side lying, or birthing in a tub)?
Find your own way of being at peace with your feelings. For me, it was Hypnobirthing. Research your options and find something that lets you feel peace. That can even mean just promising yourself to “go with the flow” and be in the moment. Therapy is available as well, from traditional practitioners as well as many doulas (who generally have training in abuse/trauma in relation to labor).
Don’t ignore the feelings – ignoring them will only create an environment for them to fester. Talk to someone – be that a therapist, your care provider, a friend, family member, or your partner. Even getting the emotions out on a private forum can be healing. Just knowing that the feelings are “out there” and that someone knows and listened.
Create a support system for after the birth as well. PPD can hit those who have already had traumatic experiences, and having support can help keep it away or catch it early.
And finally – Love yourself. This can be the hardest thing to do, but it has amazing effects.
*Mama Bice is a wife, mother, and aspiring midwife. Her personal areas of interest are in birth, breastfeeding, and Harry Potter. Having had a natural out-of-hospital birth already, and planning home births for her future children, she believes that an empowering birth experience (no matter where it takes place) is important for every mother and family. Her feisty side comes out at times, but compassionate support is her goal.