The more I work with mothers, and get to know them, the more birth stories I hear. In each one pain, victory, joy, and disappointment seem to merge and flow. What went well, what went wrong, how life deviates from what they had imagined. I’m privileged to hear these recollections, and to be present as a doula at births. I’ve heard birth stories from women in their eighties to women in their teen years yet the animated recollections do not change. Birth is a massively important event in a woman’s life; one that she will remember vividly forever, whether it was a negative or a positive experience.
Many women already know that birth does not often go as planned. Yet what we aren’t talking about is how many women have traumatizing experiences during their births. Happy recollections are welcome at our gathering tables, yet the harrowing experience women have gone through are often elicits “Well at least you are both healthy and safe, that’s what’s important.”
There it is. At least you are healthy. At least you are safe. At least you are both alive.
What kind of birthing culture do we live in that these are the words of comfort we give to each other? Why is it that we are so uncomfortable to acknowledge the experiences of our sisters, friends, mothers and daughters? Is it because we too have witnessed or experienced it firsthand? Or is it because we can’t seem to fathom how anyone could have gone through what many mothers do every day around the world? Regardless of the reason, please take a moment to read through why offering these words is often more harmful than helpful
1) It assumes that survivors of trauma haven’t considered this already
Anyone who has been through a traumatizing experience has already thought about this many times. Every mother wants a healthy baby, and every mother wants to be healthy enough to care for that baby. As soon as a woman finds out that she is pregnant, her survival mode will kick into high gear. We are still acutely aware that women die in childbirth or from complications afterwards. It is one of the most common fears in pregnancy, especially in developing countries around the world. To assume that a person isn’t already thankful that both her baby and herself are safe is to ignore the fact that they are well aware of this.
2) It shuts down the conversation
People who have gone through trauma are still trying to make sense and come to terms with what has taken place. By inserting words like ‘At least’, and redirecting the focus of the conversation we are actively minimizing their experience. It signifies that we are trying to look at the bright side, when sometimes there is no bright side to their experience.
3) It takes power away from the story teller
When we try to reframe stories of trauma, we are actually taking power away from the story teller. We often try to down play how bad something might have been as a way to comfort a loved one. What we don’t realize is that this can in turn cause victims to doubt themselves, their experience, or feel like it wasn’t a big deal. It also signals to a victim of trauma that we are uncomfortable talking about this subject and have taken control of the conversation. Our needs in this conversation are then being placed above those who have gone through the event. See how the power has shifted?
4) It disregards how important mental health is and focuses only on physical health
We know that postpartum depression and PTSD are directly linked to how a mother views her birthing experience. It can also effect bonding between mother and baby, and the relationship with her partner. So why do we ignore mental health and focus just on physical health with this statement? How many moms are out there just barely holding it together, but who fit the picture of a healthy happy person? When a person speaks out about a traumatic experience, they most likely are looking for support and solidarity, and someone to listen to them.
So what can we do? What can we say instead?
Sometimes these things are really hard to hear, especially if the person is close to you. But we don’t have to solve these problems, or try and make it better. Often people just want someone who can sit and listen without judgment.
Validating is different than trying to comfort someone. Validating a person’s experience helps people make sense of an experience by affirming what they have gone through. It can be as simple as saying “Wow, that sounds really hard/scary/tough”. Be honest. If you can’t imagine what it would be like to go through that say it. If you would have felt scared or alone or angry say it. Put yourself in their shoes; how would you have reacted had the same thing happened to you?
3) Avoid anything that starts with “At least” or trying to put a positive spin on things
4) Be a safe space for that person. Let them know that their experience matters and that they can talk to you if they need to.
Women’s birthing experiences matter. By supporting and listening to each other we can hopefully move towards minimizing birth trauma and preventing it. But it has to start with listening to each other and realizing how common it is in the first place. So lets trash the term “Healthy mom, healthy baby” from our vocabularies.