In last week’s post, we considered possible challenges around fertility, conception, and the prospect of parenthood for those with a history of sexual abuse. For some, this is where you may encounter your first challenge of the journey. For others, conception comes easy and is greeted with joy – or can even come as a surprise, possibly even in spite of careful measures to avoid it.
Similarly, there is a very wide variety of ways a survivor’s pregnancy and birth can be experienced.
In her book, “When Survivors Give Birth,” Penny Simkin writes,
“Pregnancy is a time of monumental change for women – a time when the past, present, and future all come together, a time of openness, a time of vulnerability. Being pregnant causes memories of one’s own childhood to surface. Past events are stirred up. The present evokes the paradox of excitement over the baby on the one hand, and fears and anxiety on the other. Thoughts of the future bring hopes of dreams fulfilled and eager anticipation of joy and love, along with apprehension over the demands of parenting and the effort it will take to keep the child safe and happy.”
Your experience can fall anywhere on the spectrum – from intense anxiety around the inevitable physical sensations and changes of pregnancy to an equally intense feeling of validation and joy, experiencing those same sensations as “proof” that your body isn’t broken, but normal – and wonderfully capable of growing a new human being.
Unresolved childhood abuse can be a significant factor in complications of pregnancy, such as intense “morning sickness,” pregnancy-induced hypertension, unexplained bleeding and pre- or post-maturity. During labor and birth, it can result in prodromal labor (long, drawn out, slowly or non-progressing), increased physical pain and/or emotional trauma as certain exams or procedures may trigger flashbacks of abuse or feelings of being out of control or helpless.
Pregnancy-and-laborland is a veritable minefield of potential triggers for the survivor. Some are just natural to the process of the spontaneous, uncontrollable unfolding of labor and birth: nausea and vomiting, bloody excretions, moaning, grunting, crying out and feeling a baby in her vagina. Some positions of labor can make any woman feel vulnerable – and especially one who may have experienced some form of powerlessness or humiliation in those positions.
Other triggers might be related to the hospital and/or medical procedures or equipment: vaginal exams, IV’s, catheters, needles, and possibly the feeling of numbness from anesthesia that may add to the feeling of being out of control, even though the pain relief was requested.
Also, some commonly used phrases a labouring woman is likely to hear can stimulate surprising reactions. Phrases such as “relax and it won’t hurt so much,” “open your legs,” “relax your bottom,” etc., can bring long-suppressed memories into the present moment. Even phrases intended to be encouraging, such as “trust your body,” or “do what your body tells you to do,” can be unwelcome words to a woman who has felt betrayed by her body, or has embodied experiences of shame or anguish.
So…all that is the bad news.
The good news is, with the right support and preparation, your experience of pregnancy, labor and birth can be the next step to deeper healing and empowerment than you ever imagined possible! And this is true for EVERY woman, whether or not she experienced sexual abuse.
It DOES require the right support and preparation – not merely an understanding of the potential, or wishful thinking. And the usual preparation – books, hospital classes and short appointments with their obstetrician – falls far short of meeting the needs of a woman with a high level of anxiety or fear around pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
The right support can include private counseling and/or hypnotherapy; guidance on how to communicate effectively with doctors, midwives and other medical staff; finding a mother-centered childbirth education series, such as HypnoBirthing or The Bradley Method, where you’ll find a safe environment where you can learn your options – and there are more than you might imagine – for giving birth in a way you’ll actually love to remember!
You can’t change the past. What happened, happened. It may feel like you just can’t overcome it. But what if you absolutely CAN heal your present, and change your future – and that of your children? What if carrying and giving birth to your own baby can give you back the power that was wrongfully taken from you? It can restore your faith and confidence in your body. It can transform your self-doubt – even self-loathing – into self-acceptance, pride, and self-love, as you experience the creation of life itself in your beautiful, amazing body.
My life-calling is to do all I can to bring transformation to women’s and babies’ experiences of pregnancy, labor, birth and breastfeeding. Because when women are healed and empowered, we can change the world – whether we do it by mothering our own children in confidence and love, or if we express our creative powers in another way. And when a baby’s prenatal and early experiences are of love and peace rather than fear, they will be a beautiful manifestation of that change!