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What You'll Learn
- What Birth Trauma Is
- Toxic Positivity Around Birth Trauma
- How a Traumatic Birth Experience Impacts Our Future Family Decisions
- The Danger of Wanting a “Do-Over” After a Traumatic Birth Experience
- How We Use Avoidance as a Trauma Response
- How to Heal After a Traumatic Birth Experience
A traumatic birth experience can leave moms feeling conflicted, lost, and unsure of themselves. We’re often told that we should be grateful or appreciative for a healthy baby, no matter what the birth looked like. But traumatic birth experiences can stick with us, impacting our future decisions, such as whether or not to grow our family.
I sat down with clinical social worker Kayleigh Summers, founder of The Birth Trauma Mama, to discuss traumatic birth experiences. In part 1, we talk about how birth trauma impacts us and the importance of healing.
(For the second part of our conversation, preparing for delivery after experiencing birth trauma, catch part two’s blog post!)
From Trauma to Community
Since the early days of the podcast, I have wanted to have on a guest to discuss traumatic birth experiences. But I struggled to find people who were actively talking about the topic.
Over the last couple of years, however, that has changed. People are understanding that birth trauma is real—and that it needs to be acknowledged and talked about.
Kayleigh is one of the pioneers leading the discussion about traumatic birth experiences online. Three years ago, she went through a serious medical issue during birth—an amniotic fluid embolism. Fortunately, she and her son were both okay, but it was a traumatic experience, both physically and mentally.
It was a traumatic experience, both physically and mentally.
As Kayleigh recovered, she was told to be grateful that she was okay and to appreciate the miracle that had happened. So when she struggled to overcome the emotional impact of the trauma, she wasn’t sure where to turn.
When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she founded The Birth Trauma Mama to provide a safe space for people to navigate traumatic birth and learn how to cope.
I couldn’t wait to talk with Kayleigh about birth trauma, its impact on our decisions, and how important it is to find the right support.
What Birth Trauma Is (And Why It’s Hard to Navigate)
I often hear clients express hesitancy to call their births traumatic. They sometimes minimize their own feelings, pointing out that others had more traumatic birth experiences. But birth trauma occurs on a spectrum. It doesn’t have to be a specific event or severity level to be considered a traumatic experience.
Kayleigh defined trauma as anything that overwhelms your body’s ability or your nervous system’s ability to cope. While birth trauma is the form most often talked about, perinatal reproductive trauma can occur surrounding your conception journey, pregnancy, birth, or even the postpartum period.
This trauma is often related to the treatment moms receive during birth, whether it’s lack of consent, abusive care, or just feeling physically or emotionally unsafe.
Kayleigh said that it’s often less about the event itself that happens (although that is definitely part of it) and more about the way our brain encodes and remembers it. We might feel powerless when we recall the memory or hold certain meanings to the experience.
We might feel powerless when we recall the memory.
Trauma often brings up blips of images, sights, sounds, and smells that we associate with the memory, which causes the emotions and stress we had during the event to resurface
But we don’t need to endure a specific level of suffering to have a traumatic birth experience. If it feels traumatic to you, it’s valid.
Toxic Positivity Around Birth Trauma
One of the hurdles that made it difficult for Kayleigh to process her trauma at first was that people kept telling her to be grateful for the miracle that she and her baby had survived. So she thought that when she got home with her baby, everything was going to feel wonderful. But she realized that wasn’t the case when she encountered emotional turmoil over the trauma.
This often happens with moms who endure traumatic birth experiences. They are met with toxic positivity from their friends, family, or social media acquaintances.
Kayleigh pointed out that when you’ve gone through a traumatic birth experience, you’re trying to cope with what was supposed to be one of the best days of your life becoming one of the worst. It’s hard for those feelings to co-exist.
You’re trying to cope with what was supposed to be one of the best days of your life becoming one of the worst.
But it’s okay to have conflicting feelings—to be both grateful for your health and your baby’s health and still be traumatized by what happened.
It can feel very minimizing and dismissive to hear that you should just be grateful or that you should overlook your own trauma, reality, or emotions.
This can often leave moms feeling guilty or ashamed for their conflicted emotions. Kayleigh felt like she shouldn’t even feel sadness—that gratitude was the only emotion she was supposed to have.
How a Traumatic Birth Experience Impacts Our Future Family Decisions
Going through a traumatic birth experience doesn’t just leave us in temporary emotional turmoil—it can also impact our decision making in the future, particularly around whether or not to expand our family.
Many moms who endure traumatic birth encounter physical reasons why they can no longer have babies. Kayleigh herself had an emergency hysterectomy and had to process the grief of no longer having the choice to have children.
But for other moms, the barriers are emotional. Some moms feel driven to have another baby as a “do-over” to reclaim the birth experience, while others feel unable to have another baby due to the fear of repeated trauma.
Kayleigh found herself in the “do-over” camp. Since she was no longer physically able to have children, she decided to start seeking a surrogate mom—despite her partner’s reservations about having another baby. Now, looking back, she understands that this was a trauma response. She was pushing for another baby to try to reclaim control over her experience.
Ultimately, Kayleigh didn’t go through with the surrogacy plan, and she is happy with her decision. She pointed out that the “do-over” drive can be dangerous.
The Danger of Wanting a “Do-Over” After a Traumatic Birth Experience
It can be tempting to choose to have more children because of our trauma. But we have no way of predicting what the next experience will be—it might not be the “reclaiming” that we imagine.
But Kayleigh also pointed out that many moms who have endured a traumatic birth experience and gone on to have more babies have shared that they experienced a punch in the gut with grief all over again, mourning what they didn’t have the first time even stronger.
Subsequent birth experiences can be wonderful for some families, but Kayleigh recommends tuning into your motivation. We need to think about why we want another child. Are we doing it to grow our family, because it feels right? Or are we doing it to make up for our trauma?
When you try to use a subsequent birth as a healing experience, you run the risk of having unrealistic expectations. No birth experience can take away, mitigate, or erase the original traumatic birth—that’s just not how trauma works.
A subsequent birth can’t make up for your birth trauma or change it. That’s not how trauma works.
Kayleigh also recommends asking yourself what your life would look like if you chose not to have another baby. Is there a hole you are trying to fill? Or grief you are trying to cover up?
It can take a lot of reflection and birth trauma therapy, whether alone or with our partner, to uncover our motivations and help us process our experience.
It’s completely understandable to hope for a different experience the next time—nobody wants to encounter a traumatic birth. But when we process our emotions, treat our trauma, and put the right supports in place, we can enter subsequent births with confidence that we are going to make it through.
How to Rewrite the Narrative of a Traumatic Birth Experience
Instead of pushing ourselves into having another baby as a way to overcome our past experience, we can focus on healing ourselves so that we can make confident decisions about our family.
Kayleigh said this begins with rewriting the experience that happened rather than trying to recreate the experience we wanted with a subsequent birth.
Rewriting the narrative isn’t about toxic positivity or only focusing on the good—it’s about acknowledging both the bad parts and the way we came through on the other side. It doesn’t change the experience we had, but it can help us see it in a different way.
This is also important for moms who find themselves pregnant unintentionally before they are ready to endure another birth.
You can work through therapy and treatment to process your trauma and prepare yourself before you go through birth again. This can help you feel empowered and strong rather than at the mercy of the experience.
How We Use Avoidance as a Trauma Response
Sometimes we don’t want to reclaim the experience or go through a “do-over.” Sometimes we become convinced that we don’t want to go through birth ever again.
Kayleigh pointed out that avoidance is a trauma response. It’s our brain’s way of overprotecting us—trying to keep us from going back into that situation. Our brain might send a red alert any time we even think of having another baby.
It’s completely valid to choose to not have another baby, just as it’s completely valid to choose to do so. But again, we should think about our motivations. Are we making a decision out of fear? Or rational thinking?
Are we making a decision out of fear? Or rational thinking?
No matter which direction we lean in, it’s important to heal ourselves so that we can make decisions about our future family with positive motivators, rather than being fueled by fear or grief.
Kayleigh pointed out that healing your trauma won’t take away the fear. After the curtain is pulled back and you see what a traumatic birth experience can look like, you can’t unsee it. But there’s a difference between normal fear and trauma response.
If you’re feeling hyper-aroused, hyper-vigilant, or on edge when thinking about a potential birth, the trauma might still have a strong hold. Kayleigh hopes that moms can normalize birth trauma therapy and getting help and support.
She also hopes that moms will stop being told that their fear will cause birth complications. Many birth courses encourage positive thinking. While that can be great, it isn’t always realistic or possible for moms who have gone through a traumatic birth experience. It can also leave moms blaming themselves for their situation.
How to Heal After a Traumatic Birth Experience
Ultimately, we want to focus on healing our trauma before making the decision. We want to be the most healed version of ourselves. We might later decide to have more children or to not have more children. But our decision will be based on other factors rather than our traumatic experience.
At the end of the day, we want to be the most healed version of ourselves before we make any decisions.
It’s valid to want a big family and to be determined to continue that goal if possible. It’s valid to feel grief when we can’t do that. It’s valid to be one-and-done or choose to not expand our family. And it’s valid to say, “it’s a no for now, but we can revisit this after I work through my trauma.”
Birth trauma therapy can be valuable on our healing journey—there are many effective methods for healing trauma. Kayleigh pointed out that it’s not about making our feelings go away, but rather learning how to cope with them.
She recommends trying to find a therapist who specializes in both perinatal mental health and trauma treatment. With therapy, you can heal yourself, work through your traumatic birth experience, and find a new path forward.
If you’ve experienced birth trauma or perinatal reproductive trauma, working with a mom therapist can help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual Therapy Support consultation today!