Labor and birth is more than just a physical endeavor. Your mind and emotions are an integral part of the journey, fueled by hormones and the knowledge that your world is about to change. We plan for so much of the pregnancy to account for every little moment of birth, but what happens when the plans fall through and you're faced with a difficult birth? Or when you are blindsided with birth trauma, for any reason? Or no reason at all?
Sometimes, the inevitable happens, the unthinkable takes over, and we are left reeling in the wake. There’s no way to plan for birth trauma or to see it coming. But it’s not the end. You can heal from a difficult birth, and allow it to shape your path into motherhood in the best of ways.
When Birth Isn’t Beautiful
In our most positive ideals about birth, we envision deep breathing, full presence, and a peaceful, spiritual experience. Only one thing is certain, though, and that is that birth is transformative. Birth makes us mothers – even when it’s not our first time, each step toward birth makes us into the mother we will be for that child.
When the labor and birth are difficult, even traumatic, it may not be the kind of shaping and molding that we had anticipated.
When the trauma comes from nature and unpreventable circumstances, we tend to internalize it. As women, we are largely in tune with the power and abilities that our bodies carry. When things don’t go as expected, it’s easy to blame our bodies or feel inadequate.
The narrative from modern, conventional birthing systems feeds into this guilt with phrases like “failure to progress.” My body failed me!
When the trauma is inflicted by the birth workers themselves, or someone present on the birth team, you might feel angry and violated. Something occurring without consent, unnecessary pressure, physical pain – birth trauma can have so many faces.
You planned and prepared and did all you could, and then it felt like they took it from you. How could they do this to me?
I maintain that all birth has an element of beauty, even though that beauty is sometimes clothed in tragedy. We cannot change what has happened, but we do have a say in the way it changes us.
8 Ways to Heal from a Difficult Birth
As much as our bodies need to heal from a normal birth, our bodies and minds need that much more time to heal from a difficult birth. It’s even more important to take care of physical needs. Even more important to be supported and aware of emotional and mental health needs. Here are some steps that can get you started on your path to healing from a difficult birth experience.
Note: In the worst of circumstances, the birthing process is traumatic and your baby suffers, as well. This list includes much about newborn relationships and could be triggering and sensitive.
Don’t try to recover alone. Tap into the spiritual, emotional, and physical support network around you however you can. Even if it’s only a couple of trusted individuals, reach out to them.
It can be extra challenging to take care of mundane self-care tasks when mentally and physically struggling, but your body needs it now more than ever. Keep good snacks near you and eat real food as regularly as possible. Soups are a good go-to for comfort foods that still nourish, as are herbal teas.
Spend time in herb baths with your baby. Enjoy him in his pre-birth environment. Some mothers have enjoyed a healing “re-birth,” with a photographer, beautiful herb bath with flower petals and candles, and a chance to have the moment they dreamed of, bringing baby out of the water and to their chest.
Get skin to skin with your baby, your partner, your toddler. Strip down and spend some time resting and reconnecting with them. Match your heart and breathing and body temperatures. Let go of everything but the moment with them.
Early days nursing can be difficult and can add to the challenges you’ve already faced. The stress of trauma and postpartum days can add up to breast infections quickly. Reach out for support. Soothe cracked and sore nipples. Don’t just press through – find someone to walk through the struggles with you.
It cannot be stressed enough: take all of the help you can get. From your partner, your neighbors, your children, your family and friends. You may have a large network or not even all of those groups. But allow anyone who is willing to help you to do so, and be specific with them. Let them know what you need and tell them when what they are offering isn’t actually helping. You need to focus on your health and your new baby, not laundry and meal planning.
Addressing the source.
If you have pinpointed a specific cause of the birth trauma, you may be able to address it. If your care provider was in the wrong in some way, reporting their behavior may be helpful. Researching what happened can create a “knowledge is power” type of situation. When you are ready, look at your challenges from a distance and see what you might be able to address to create closure.
Perhaps most importantly, allow yourself the grieving process. Denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance are prominent markers of the process, which can cycle many times. Give that to yourself. Understand and acknowledge it. Allow yourself to feel the feelings and give them credence. You don’t have to stuff or hide them to move on.
Birth Plans and Expecting the Unexpected
Preparing for birth is an important rite of pregnancy and readying your body and mind for the laboring process. But it’s important to keep in mind the level of control – or lack thereof – that we actually have.
We can do a lot to ready ourselves for the best birth possible. Physical health, nutrition, building the right environment for birth, prioritizing a good position for the baby, and being on the same page with care providers are all incredibly important ways to prepare for birth.
It’s also important to understand that we are working with the birthing process, not controlling it. Stepping into labor and birth, we have to acknowledge that we can only do what we can do. To some extent, we have to let go of our need to control each phase of the birthing process.
Before birth, the best ways to prepare ourselves in the case of birthing difficulties include:
- Focusing our minds and quieting our spirits to be in tune with what our baby and our bodies need, even if that doesn’t look like what we had envisioned.
- Surrounding ourselves with the people who understand birth, know us intimately, and can help us spot where those two things collide. What do I need in the middle of a difficult time, and what might my baby and birth need when things aren’t going as planned.
- Letting go. The image of riding each contraction like a wave is a beautiful and accurate one. Yet anyone who has been around heavy surf knows that you cannot harness a wave. Let go of the need to control, and let go of the weight of that responsibility.
You’re a strong, amazing vessel who has carried life within you. You’re concerned about everything being just right for your baby’s entrance into the world. And while you can’t control those circumstances, your love and concern is what makes it everything your baby needs.
A difficult birth, however challenging and troubling it may be, can shape you into the kind of mother who understands early on that your baby doesn’t need a flawless life or even a flawless mother. He just needs you.