I considered myself as prepared for labor and delivery as any first-time mother could possibly be. I had read all the books and watched all the documentaries and practice breathing and enlisted the help of my partner and best friend. I had met with my labor and delivery team on numerous occasions; even knowing the names of most of the nurses on staff. I just knew I was ready, but I didn't realize that being a sexual assault survivor can affect labor and delivery. I didn't realize that, when it came time for my water to break and my contractions to start and for me to push, I would be thrown back into a vicious cycle of memories that had, thankfully, evaded me for some time.
Not every sexual assault survivor who decides to become a mother, has a difficult time with labor and delivery. Like anything else in this world, how one heals from sexual assault varies depending on the person and their experience. For instance, there are plenty of sexual assault survivors who don't have any problems breastfeeding, and even credit breastfeeding as an act that helped them heal from their trauma. Others, like myself, found breastfeeding to be a trigger, and had a difficult time successfully breastfeeding as a sexual assault survivor. Perhaps that is one of the most difficult, horrific parts of sexual assault: you have no idea how it will change your life in the days, weeks, months or even years to come. It's a shadow that can creep up on you when you least expect it. It's always present but not always visible. It's relentless and unkind and unapologetic.
As the parenting world continues to argue and endlessly debate as to what qualifies as the "best way to give birth," I think it's important that we take a look at how certain factors, especially factors as (sadly) common as sexual assault, play a role in labor and delivery. In the United States, 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Many of those women, if they chose to and are able, will go on to have children, and their assault will undoubtably have an impact on their pregnancy, labor, delivery and postpartum lives. We cannot, with any certainty and certainly with a clear conscious, tell women what is best for them (whether it's birthing a baby, or in any other aspect of their lives) when we know the harrowing odds that they could very well be a survivor of sexual assault.
So, with that in mind, here are just a few ways being a sexual assault survivor can alter a woman's labor and delivery experience. Again, no two women are alike and how someone heals from sexual assault is entirely up to that individual, but my labor and delivery was definitely changed because I'm a sexual assault survivor, and I wish I would have known then what I know now.
You Can Find Yourself Disconnected From The Experience
In order to ignore some of the triggers I was feeling, I had to disconnect myself at certain times throughout my 23 hour labor and delivery process. I didn't want to, but I found myself shutting down. I had to get myself out of my body, to the point that I felt like I was watching my labor happen from the outside, in order to push past the relentless memories of an attack that happened years prior. It kept me from really being "in the moment" and experiencing what I had hoped my first labor and delivery would be. I had these grand ideas of being one with my body and bringing my son into the world without the help of an epidural; just my partner and I in a tub. None of those things happened, but in the end, my son was safe and healthy and I was mentally, emotionally and physically healthy.
I didn't know this at the time, but avoidance is a long-term side effect of sexual assault. Avoidance can cause a woman to separate herself from either her entire body, or specific body parts. Many women who have given birth after being sexually assaulted, share stories of actually numbing certain body parts, as to detach themselves from the pain they were feeling.
You Might Not Be Able To Trust Your Body (Or Abilities)
I had a hard time trusting my body and its ability to handle what was happening. As a first time mom, I had never experienced contractions before. That kind of pain and pressure scared me, and I started to doubt my body the same way I doubted it after I was sexually assaulted. Rationally, I knew I should separate the two experiences, as they are in no way the same. Still, losing control of my body during labor and delivery felt eerily similar to the control I lost during my attack, and it was difficult for me to remind myself of where I was and what was actually going on.
You Might Have A Larger Aversion To Pain
Physical pain is a substantial trigger for sexual assault survivors, especially if that pain is being felt in areas of the body that were assaulted. I, personally, attempted a drug-free labor and delivery, and spent 10 hours combating not only the normal pains of my contractions, but the constant memories that bombarded me because of that pain. In the end, I decided that my mental and emotional health was more important than the experience of a drug-free labor, changed my birth plan, and asked for an epidural.
I can't tell you the relief I felt, and although I was sad that I didn't get the exact birth I wanted, I also didn't realize that birth would be traumatic for me because of my sexual assault. I adapted, albeit somewhat reluctantly, and in the end, I was glad that I did what was best for me.
Certain Sensations Can Be Triggers
Pain isn't the only physical trigger that can send a sexual assault survivor down an unforgiving spiral of memories. I didn't realize it, but the pressure I was feeling during the delivery part of labor, was also a trigger. I felt this extreme heaviness wash over me, and focusing on pushing my son into the world was much harder than I had anticipated. Feeling anxious (like many mothers do during labor and delivery) can be a trigger, as can the feelings of helplessness, fatigue, and fear.
You May Rely Heavily On Others...
In order to make it though my labor and delivery, I relied heavily on my partner and my best friend. Both were in the delivery room; both were asked to talk to me and send me back to happier memories, like when I first met both of them and when I was carefree and safe; both were instrumental in reminding me of where I was, and not where I had been.
...Or Have A Hard Time Trusting Others In Your Time Of Need
At the same time, it was very difficult for me to trust certain people (mainly the strangers that were part of my medical team) with my body during labor and delivery. Rationally, I knew that they were qualified medical professionals who had assisted in the birth of countless babies, but to me, they were people with an immense amount of power over my potential health. I knew that I needed to let them help me, but it was very difficult for me to relinquish that control and just instinctively know that I would be OK.
Losing Control Of Your Body May Be Scary
Many sexual assault survivors associate the lack of control over their body, with the assault they experienced. This can make labor and delivery extremely difficult, as most women are coached to relinquish control and give into their contractions and the natural reactions their body has to labor and delivery. I, personally, tensed up my body and held onto the pain and tried to even fight it which, of course, made my contractions worse. It was an instinctual reaction; something I couldn't seem to turn off; something that was a direct result of losing control of my body all those years ago, when I was sexually assaulted.
It Can Be Hard To Separate Your Past From Your Current Situation
All of the aforementioned reasons is why it can be very difficult to separate your labor and delivery experience, from the sexual assault you survived. I didn't know this at the time (and wow, I wish I did) but there are ways you can help yourself get through the triggers and the memories, and have an enjoyable (or, at least, less traumatic) birth experience. Here are just a few ways you can respond to your very real concerns:
- Recognize and accept that some fears and concerns make sense
- Consider working with a trauma therapist or counselor who is. knowledgeable about childbearing, or reading books for survivors that contain suggestions for dealing with triggers and reducing your concerns.
- Some caregivers are interested in emotional issues and are both willing and able to respond to your needs, while others may not have the skills needed to help you. If you are comfortable disclosing your history to your midwife or doctor, you can work together to plan your care so that it will be sensitive to your history.
Your Birth Plan Is Flexible, To Accommodate The Unknown...
My flexible birth plan saved my labor and delivery experience. No, I didn't get the exact birth I wanted, but I was able to avoid the surgery room, I was able to birth a healthy baby boy, and I was able to be somewhat present in the experience, even when it was challenging. Learning to let go and manage my expectations, while somewhat heartbreaking at times, helped me get through a traumatic experience with my head held high. I am proud of the birth I had, even if it wasn't the birth I had envisioned.
...But You Might Feel Guilty Or "Wrong" For Having A Different Birth Plan Than Someone Else
I think every laboring mother feels this way, regardless of whether or not she is a sexual assault survivor. There is so much judgement and shame in the "mom world," that it seems somewhat impossible to make an informed decisioned and not be judged for it by someone who chose differently.
Still, I can say from personal experience that I was shamed for choosing to have an epidural. I had someone claim that my inability to initially bond with my child directly after he was born, was because I had an epidural and not a drug-free birth. Of course, this person failed to take into account my traumatic birth, my history of sexual assault or one of the twins I had lost at 19 weeks. Even though I was aware of all the factors that contributed to my postpartum depression, I still felt like I was broken; Like I was at fault for feeling the way I felt; Like I did something wrong, and that is why I didn't have the birth this particular individual decided I should have.
I think it's important to acknowledge those feelings and see them as valid reactions to what are continued, long-term effects of sexual assault. I think it's equally important to remind ourselves, as survivors, that it's not our fault. It is not my fault that labor and delivery were traumatic triggers for me. It's not my fault that I needed to deviate from a plan, in order to make it through labor and delivery with my mental faculties in tact. It's not my fault if other people cannot understand those needs. And if you're reading this and you've been made to feel the same, it's not your fault either.