Why It Matters We Women Talk About Traumatic Birth

By not talking about birth – the gory bits as well as the glorious bits – we keep hidden a significant part of our experience as women and parents, writes Emma Svanberg

There seems to be this unspoken understanding between mums that birth is complicated. I remember noticing it before I had my own children – I would talk about my hopes for my own births and find that many women would give me knowing nods clearly thinking ‘oh you poor innocent’. Or looks would pass over my head, an acknowledgement between women that they may have to be there to pick up the pieces later.

And I, like so many women, noticed these looks and thought ‘well, it’ll be different for me’.

And I, like so many women, found that it wasn’t different. No amount of planning really prepared me for the experience of birth. What I needed was support.

When we talk about birth, it tends to be split into black and white. We talk about birth being ‘positive’ or a ‘horror story’. Women and birthing people often feel that they only hear negative stories about birth, although there are many women and organisations like the Positive Birth Movement trying hard to make sure the hopeful and empowering stories get out there too.

During pregnancy, people can often feel that they have to shut out the stories of difficulties during birth – something which is actively encouraged by some strands of hypnobirthing. And after birth, when women and birthing people can feel such a need to talk about their experiences (both the positive and the difficult), suddenly they can find that the focus is on the baby, and hear messages like ‘but look, you’ve got a beautiful healthy baby! You should be happy!’ Because of course, when we treat women as vessels for babies – which we are seeing so clearly in places such as Northern Ireland and some states in the US – a woman’s experience of birth becomes unimportant. And those women, feeling that their focus should now be solely on their baby and not on themselves, accept that this is just how it happens. Often while wondering why nobody told them what could happen.

Why don’t we talk about birth? We talk about Love Island, and we talk about Brexit, and we make judgements on people’s pregnant bodies, birth plans and parenting choices - but we don’t talk about birth. What it feels like, what can help it become a positive experience, what is more likely to leave you feeling damaged by it. But we’re still a bit squeamish about the birth itself. I often encourage the parents to be that I work with to familiarise themselves with a variety of videos of birth – YouTube provides a perfect opportunity to see all types of birth. Many of those parents to be have never seen a birth – although often they have seen their somewhat shellshocked friends in the aftermath, which only serves to raise their anxiety.

By not talking about birth – in detail, with all the gory bits as well as the glorious bits – we keep hidden a significant part of our experience as women and parents. Inadvertently, we also create the impression that birth doesn’t need to be thought about, that setting up a plan or galvanising support is somehow a bonus. And then we send women, birthing people and their partners off into stressed-out, traumatised services and are somehow surprised when a third of them come out with some symptoms of trauma after birth. When else in life would you set off on a new and life changing task without getting as much support as you could, planning for different eventualities and speaking to others about both the good and the bad bits of their own journey?

What we miss when we don’t hear these stories is all the grey in the middle. Birth for most people can be both amazing and terrible – at the same time. Even in the most beautiful birth, there will be moments of anxiety. Even in the most difficult birth, there may have been moments of hope or humour.

In particular, we need to hear a variety of stories – because we can learn what worked from those who found birth a positive experience, and we can learn from our friends who are left with symptoms of trauma what could have made birth better for them. There is often some controversy around hearing the stories of birth trauma – as we saw last year with headlines about traumatic birth stories scaring other women. But it’s only by talking about traumatic experiences that we can begin to move on from them. How can we do this without traumatising others?

Often when we come out of a difficult birth experience, we find that there is no-one willing to hear our experience. But for many, symptoms of trauma mean that we feel an urgent need to repeat our experience (conversely, others may wish to avoid thinking or talking about their experience completely). When we don’t provide avenues for people to talk about their births in a safe, helpful and compassionate environment, then of course we will hear the unfiltered versions of those stories – which, yes, can be frightening. But if we do offer women the opportunity to talk about their experiences – not just what happened but what it felt like, what made it positive, what made it difficult – then we get a brilliant double whammy where that woman becomes able to place her experience in the past, and we as a wider society get to learn what works – and what doesn’t.

Of course to do this, we need to create those safe environments and it’s hard to do that in services which are overstretched, containing staff who are often just as stressed as the families they work with. But we can all play a role in changing the narrative around birth and making sure women and birthing people feel able to openly discuss their experience. By asking people how they feel about their births, and listening with open minds and open hearts, maybe we can start to create a new story of birth.

Why Birth Trauma Matters by Emma Svanberg is published by Pinter & Martin. Follow Emma on Twitter and Instagram @Mumologist.

For more information on Birth Trauma Awareness Week (7-14 July), click here