Inspired by the March of Dimes #unspokenstories campaign and #blackmaternalhealthweek, here are tips for moms and family members who have experienced trauma, mortality, or morbidity at birth on how to talk about their experience.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege to attend a special screening of the April 15 episode of Fox’s The Resident, titled “If Not Now, When?” This episode featured a storyline about maternal mortality that was inspired by the real life experience of Kira Dixon Johnson. Her husband, Charles Johnson, has tirelessly advocated for black maternal health ever since he lost his wife just hours after the birth of their second son through the nonprofit he founded, 4Kira4Moms.
Attending this event, held at the March of Dimes headquarters in Arlington, VA, opened my eyes to just how many families are impacted by maternal mortality and morbidity (“near death”) every year. The United States is the only industrialized country in which the maternal death rate is rising. Black women are disproportionately likely to experience death or morbidity during their birth experience. These numbers are devastating, and reveal that those of us who have been impacted by these statistics are not alone.
My own birth with Sammi was traumatic. Thankfully, both she and I received excellent care and are thriving. But for the few months after having Sammi, and every once and awhile now when I am triggered by something I encounter in the world, I have often been brought back into the trauma of our experience.
Other people may assume that your birth experience looked like a Pampers commercial. But if your birth experience involved trauma, mortality, or morbidity, you know how painful conversations about your birth story can be. Significant milestones, such as birthdays, bring mixed emotions rather than the unadulterated joy other people seem to feel about their children’s milestones. When people say, “from the moment you held her in your arms…” your heart may still break at the memory of not being able to hold your baby right after birth. All of this is normal and okay.
As someone who has had to navigate these experiences, I have a few tips to offer so that you can protect yourself in situations where you’re being asked to speak about your birth experience.
1. Be Open About the Trauma
It is very painful to be in a conversation where someone is telling you about their ideal (by comparison) birth experience, or asking you to talk about your own. It is even more painful to try to nod along and mirror someone else’s emotions about their own experience, rather than being honest about the fact that you have had a traumatic one.
I have found that a simple line such as, “we had a traumatic birth,” lets other people know that they need to tread lightly on this subject. You don’t have to go through all the painful details of your experience in order to give someone a head’s up that it’s a touchy subject for you, and this “short but sweet” line gives you a direct, empowered, and honest way to let someone else know that this is a triggering topic for you. You can then choose whether to navigate around the subject, or create a safe space to share.
2. Consider Therapy or a Support Group
For me, it was very healing to connect with other mothers and share my experience through a mommy support group. We attended one sponsored by the hospital where I delivered. It was not specifically a support group for trauma, but it was a safe and supportive space where I felt comfortable. It helped me realize that we were not alone in having had a traumatic birth, and to feel a sense of connection with other moms. Some may benefit more from one-on-one counseling, or a support group that is specific to trauma, mortality, or morbidity at birth. You can also find trusted friends and family members to talk about the experience with.
It’s definitely important to process what you’ve been through. Talking is one way to move through all of your feelings, rather than keeping them bottled up. However you prefer to do that, it’s important to seek out a safe space where you can open up about what you’ve been through.
3. Use Mantras to Pivot from Trauma
When you’re processing a traumatic birth experience, you may find that you have painful flashbacks, memories, or repeated thoughts of fear, or even panic. This is normal, and there’s no need to stigmatize these episodes if it’s something that you’re experiencing. Every birth, but especially a traumatic one, triggers our biological hardwiring for a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This is true for not only mothers, but also fathers, grandmothers, and other family members. We as humans are programmed on a very deep level to survive, and to ensure the survival of our offspring. Pivoting away from trauma involves soothing yourself so that you can turn off that “fight or flight” mode.
One thing that can help you gradually begin to reprogram your mind after such a trauma is to use mantras to remind yourself that you are now safe, and focus on the positive things ahead, instead of the pain of the past. In coping with my own experience, I repeated the mantra, “I am safe and my daughter is thriving.” I would collect happy moments from our days together and try to recall these when I was flashing back to our birth experience, kind of like a slideshow that I would play on loop when I was having a flashback moment.
Over time, I have been able to go for longer and longer stretches without having flashbacks. It’s important to note here that everyone copes in different ways, and everyone’s experience is different, so please consult a mental health professional about the best way to deal with your own feelings about a traumatic birth. Don’t just take my word for it!
Of course, one of the best ways to process a traumatic birth is to seek to help others who are dealing with these circumstances. Join the #unspokenstories campaign by sharing your own story using this hashtag and tagging @marchofdimes. Please visit the March of Dimes website to learn more about maternal health and morbidity, and to learn about ways that you can help!