We’ve all heard the stories, whether from friends, personal acquaintances, or on the news: A postpartum woman has done the unthinkable, whether to her baby or to herself, leaving her loved ones and so many others in unimaginable shock and grief. Seldom are we ever told her history: what were the dynamics of her marriage/relationship, what kind of religious background or dogma she may have adopted, whether she was physically or sexually abused as a child, what kind of trauma she experienced during the birth, or any number of other possibilities that may have served to fracture her mental or emotional stability, leading to a psychotic break.
Much more common – and commonly accepted – is “baby blues,” the milder form of postpartum depression, which most often calls for intervention, which may include individual therapy, support group participation, or medication.
The early days and weeks after giving birth are a highly sensitive time for EVERY woman. Every woman experiences enormous changes in her body: hormones are “shifting” – to put it mildly; her body has changed, and will continue to change of the coming weeks and months; becoming a new mother, or expanding her family with a new member, will bring changes to her day, the loss of control over which will almost certainly surprise; and perhaps the biggest surprises of all may show up in her closest relationships and in her new identity. These changes can test the self-confidence of even the surest, most capable woman.
Add to that the relatively short “recovery time” expected of women in our day and time, and the general lack of postpartum support available to even the most resourced, and the gap between a woman’s expectations and the reality of her experience can shake her to her core.
Labor, birth and postpartum are a unique and sacred time in every woman’s life. There is no other time when she will be more intensely in need of mothering than when she herself is bringing forth new life. If her own needs for emotional and physical safety and loving touch were not met, it would be no surprise that her challenges in meeting the needs of her own baby would be greater than those of a woman without a history of abuse, both in number and intensity.
Specifically, in addition to the “usual” challenges, a survivor may be haunted by self-doubt about her ability to keep her baby safe. She may be afraid to leave the baby with any caregiver – even the baby’s father, who may be confused or understandably hurt over her lack of trust in him. Sexual difficulties may develop between them. She may also have much greater difficulty breastfeeding, especially if her breasts were the focus of some of her prior abuse, experiencing flashbacks and/or disturbing emotions, causing her to confuse what should be the pleasurable sensations of breastfeeding with the incest she experienced in the past.
Add to all the above the fact that as many as 11% of women report some level of birth related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (11%! and based on my own “up close and personal” contact with many hundreds of postpartum women, I believe this number to be under-reported), it becomes easy to see the importance of raising awareness and the right therapy and/or support for these moms, their babies and their partners.
The good news is, simply being aware how her history may affect her postpartum and breastfeeding experience can be the start of taking back her power, enabling her to set a plan for the support she’ll need. This may include a postpartum support group, postpartum doula, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and possibly a counselor or therapist who specializes in women’s issues in the childbearing season. Getting help sooner rather than later is important. Talking over her concerns, preferably during pregnancy, in and of itself, reduces tension. With the right education and support during pregnancy, she can be guided into identifying her personal triggers, and planning strategies to see to needs for comfort and emotional safety, both during birth and during the postpartum period.
The BEST news is, the entire process of conceiving, carrying, giving birth and breastfeeding can be the most healing experience of a woman’s life! It can be a time of awe, as her body grows a new human being – and perhaps for the first time, she feels pride in her body. Giving birth can be an all new experience of taking back the power that was wrongfully taken from her, as she pushes her own baby out of her own body – or alternatively, being prepared to make choices for appropriate medical intervention. Breastfeeding, aside from the pride and confidence that comes from providing her baby’s nutritional and emotional needs, can bring the mother to new levels of healing – restoring her self-respect – even self-admiration – and strengthening her ability to bond securely to her new baby. And THIS is a gift that will last for a lifetime.