They All Saw A Birth: Perspectives, Truth, and Trauma in Childbirth
I’d had a rare few minutes to myself in a bookstore and as I was on my way out the door I spied “They All Saw A Cat” by Brendan Wenzel. It is the story of a fish and a dog and a fox and a bat and a bee and a skunk and various other creatures who all saw a cat. While they all “saw a cat”, they each saw the cat differently - some would even say they each saw a different cat. The perspective of the flea is true for the flea but not at all the same as the perspective of the bird or the worm or the child.
In the end the cat sees it's own reflection in water but as the reader we are able to see that even how the cat views itself reflected in the water is different than the image of the cat which is the subject of the reflection.
When it comes to birth trauma, things aren't always as they seem to be.
This isn't unlike birth memories and birth trauma. A birth that is scary and 'traumatic' to an observer might be one that the birthing person themself feels really great about. As a doula I certainly attended births over the years where genuine emergencies occurred or the birthing woman was treated terribly, but in talking with them postpartum they didn't experience their birth as traumatic*. Trauma typically results when the person feels as though their wellbeing or even life, or that of their child, are threatened by what is happening. So if an emergency occurs but the person feels safe, trauma is less likely to occur.
On the flipside, a birth that looks idyllic to an onlooker might be experienced as traumatic by the birthing person, if for any reason they felt unsafe or threatened.
Even births that are supported by midwives and a doula...
where everything is within the realm of normal…
where the birthing person's birth plan is respected...
where they are treated with kindness and respect….
Those kind of “perfect” looking births can still be traumatic.
You see, none of our experiences occur in isolation.
We ‘see’ with our brains not our eyes and we remember things from our past through the filter of our entire life, including events that occurred both before and after this particular event. Every time we look ‘back' on something, each time we pull it up from our mind to remember it, new experiences have been layered over it causing our perspective to shift and colouring what we see now. If we have experienced significantly adverse events at any time those particularly wire our brain to process experiences through a painful lens. Abuse, mental health issues, assault, a prior traumatic birth or postpartum... each of these things and more can be strong triggers for trauma to (re)occur in an otherwise ordinary birth.
The process of labour & birth changes how we perceive what is happening.
Add to that the unique nature of childbirth and things become fuzzier still. In labour our rational thinking brain goes quiet so our intuitive brain can take over... which thoroughly distorts our sense of time and space and even presence. 2 people in the room feels like 20. 5 people could be there yet it feels like we're all alone if they aren't where we need them to be. A friend who never leaves our side makes it feel like we were being watched as they invaded our privacy or like we're wrapped in a cocoon of all-encompassing love. A partner stepping out for 5 minutes to get us tea feels like they abandoned us for an hour. A midwife gently asking “Are you ready for me to…” feels to some of us like we are being rushed along and to others like they were never gonna ask at all. Pushing for hours can feel like minutes and 90 second contraction-expansions with 30 second breaks can feel endless when we’re exhausted. The whole thing can feel like it's happening at warp speed or like cold molasses and neither feeling has anything to do with the clock. It's all a matter of perspective.
Their truth is THE truth to them but it's not always your truth and that's okay.
The birthing person is like the cat walking through the world in our opening story…..
And their experience of birth is absolutely true for them.
Their joy is real. Their trauma and pain are real.
How the bird and the dog… and the partner and the doctor and the sibling
and the photographer and the nurse and the doula
each saw and heard and smelled and felt the birth is ALSO true
BUT only for themselves.
Your truth is not always their truth.
Holding space for their truth.
Holding space for those we care for is an integral part of being a good birthworker and involves suspending our own perspectives, joy, and pain while the birthing person processes theirs. Part of holding space involves seeing their truth with them and not trying to explain it away or overwrite it with our own truth, while simultaneously being available to help them see through alternate lenses if they wish to shift their perspective.
We must remember though that their truth is their truth. Even when their truth sees a villain where we see a hero. Even when their truth sees respect where we see condescension. Their truth is THE truth to them.
If however you are the person who has experienced birth trauma - - don't let anyone try to rewrite your story. Keep looking until you find the space and tools you need for healing. Because ultimately we can only heal ourselves - we are the only ones who can allow light in again. It doesn't matter if others see. It doesn't matter if they understand. And it doesn't matter if your authentic journey to healing causes them to feel guilty or sad or mad or anything else.Those are their feelings to deal with as they process their own role and as they find their own healing. Being validated, supported and held up certainly can make the process "easier" for some (as if anything about trauma is easy!!) and if that validation is important to you then persist in your search for it. Reach out to a birth counsellor, to a peer support group, to an online forum even if that is what you need, and especially if you know you will not be able to get validation or support from those close to you whom you wish could give it most. But know that You are enough. Your story is enough. What you feel is enough of a reason for you to pursue whatever healing you need even if you are the only person in the world who knows it.
A Hard Pill To Swallow
As a birth professional or a family member/friend at the birth, it can be a hard pill to swallow when the birthing person sees your role very differently than you do or when they experience things you did from a place of loving service as negative or even traumatic. We need to have the courage and humility to hold space for their truth and to examine it for areas where we could perhaps prune and grow in future. We also need to have the strength and confidence sometimes to accept that their truth isn't now, and may never be, our own. Just because someone else sees you as a hero or a villain doesn't necessarily mean you are.
We all see the cat. We all see birth.
We all see our own truth.
Postscript & Resources For Further Reading
*It is important to note that many don't begin to understand their birth as traumatic until months or even years later and this is perfectly normal.
It is estimated that roughly ¼ to ⅓ of births are experienced as traumatic by the birthing person, and approximately 1 in 3 who identify as having had a traumatic birth develop post traumatic stress disorder.
A traumatic birth experience impacts how the birthing person sees themself and their child and can impact their ability to bond with their child as well as increases their risk of post traumatic stress disorder, postpartum depression, and other postpartum mood disorders.
If you have had a traumatic birth experience please know that your feelings are valid and real; that you are not alone; that there is help and healing for you.
We also need to acknowledge that it is not only mothers who experience birth trauma. The birthing person's support people can experience trauma. Their caregivers and birth professionals can experience trauma. And there is birth trauma that happens both intergenerationally and culturally.
If you identify as someone who has experienced birth trauma, please consider the following resources to learn more and take a step forward on your path towards healing:
Solace For Mothers (and their Supporters)
How To Heal From A Traumatic Birth & Bond With Your Baby
Postpartum Progress: together, stronger
Birth Trauma Association
Birth Trauma Canada
Childbirth Trauma ToolKit from Improving Birth
Sondra Rose on Healing Birth Trauma for all using tools such as EFT
Kundalini Yoga for Trauma
PATTCh: Prevention & Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth
Ancient Map For Modern Birth by Pam England
Labyrinth of Birth by Pam England
When Survivors Give Birth by Penny Simkin
Birth Trauma by Kim Thomas