The birth didn’t go the way you expected it would.
When friends and family ask how it was, you want to answer: Scary. Bad.
It may be especially confusing to feel this way if the outcome of the birth seems objectively “better” than during your loss pregnancy. That is, if you are able to welcome a living child to your family. But even if the birth results in a living child, you can experience it as traumatic.
What Is A Traumatic Birth?
Sometimes, it is easy for outsiders to understand why the birth was traumatic. Maybe you or your baby needed emergency intervention. Maybe you lost a lot of blood. Sometimes it’s harder for outsiders to understand. Maybe you felt deeply afraid. Maybe things felt completely out of control. The only perspective that matters in whether a birth was traumatic or not is yours.
The official definition of a traumatic event, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, is “Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” In the context of birth, this can apply to you as the birthing person or your baby.
While that is the technical definition, it can be helpful to frame trauma in more accessible terms. In his book The Body Keeps The Score, psychologist Bessel van der Kolk writes, “The essence of trauma is that it is overwhelming, unbelievable, and unbearable.” In short, trauma is something we experience that is beyond our capacity to process.
But just because it is beyond your capacity to process an event when it happens doesn’t mean it will always be beyond your capacity. If you’ve experienced a traumatic birth, there are things you can do that can help you move forward the way you want to as a parent and in life.
Where To Get Help
The most important thing to do when you have experienced a traumatic birth is to process what happened. There are several ways to do this that other people have found helpful.
- Talk to your provider. You can begin by talking about your birth story with someone who was there, such as your doctor, midwife, doula, or support person. They can help you make sense of what happened by listening to you and sharing details of what they remember. You can even request your medical records to help assist in the sense-making process.
- Find a therapist. Having experienced a traumatic birth may or may not lead to a mental health complication such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether or not you end up meeting criteria for a diagnosis of a mental illness, talking to a licensed therapist can help you process what happened during your birth. There are evidence-based therapies which are highly effective for healing from trauma including cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposureThompson-Hollands, et al., “Veterans with poor PTSD treatment adherence: Exploring their loved ones’ experience of PTSD and understanding of PTSD treatment.” Psychological … Continue reading. (For more help on finding a therapist, see What You Need To Know About Postpartum Anxiety and Depression).
- Join a support group. Some people find it helpful to talk to other people who really get it because they’ve been there, too. It can be healing to share your birth story and hear other people’s stories. If this sounds like something you’re interested in, you can look for a supportive community online. Two good places to start are with the non-profit Solace for Mothers or a group on Facebook, such as Birth & Trauma Support Group.