Birth is messy and complicated for any family, but if your partner is a survivor of sexual violence, this ‘cheat sheet’ may be helpful.
I don’t know about you, but my husband would have benefitted from a cheat sheet on supporting me through pregnancy and birth. Don’t get me wrong, he was awesome, but he stressed more than he needed to about the best way to support me. Birth is a messy and complicated thing, even in the best of circumstances, but for me, it was made even more so because I am a survivor of sexual violence.
While there are a ton of resources out there for birth partners of both genders, there are few geared specifically towards survivors of sexual assault, which I find remarkable given that 25% of pregnant moms have likely experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives.
Survivors have a unique set of experiences to consider around pregnancy, labor, and delivery. On the one hand, watching your body do something absolutely incredible has the potential to be an empowering, corrective. On the other hand, many of the circumstances around labor and delivery are strong triggers for survivors. After all, most of it takes place at the scene of the crime.
If your partner is a survivor, or if you suspect she may be, you are going to want to be extra prepared. With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to help prepare her for the experience:
1. Reassure her that everything she is feeling is normal. Seriously, everything. Here is a list of some of the things I felt during pregnancy and labor:
- My body isn’t working
- I’m afraid I’m going to die
- I’m afraid the baby is going to die
- I wish I had never gotten pregnant
- This is supposed to be the happiest day of my life, but I feel emotionally wrecked and exhausted
When I talked about my experiences with friends and with professionals after the fact, I learned that all of those feelings were normal. So if your birthing mama expresses any of these emotions, just reassure her the best you can and know she’s not losing her mind. She’s just articulating the way that birth can feel really scary and out of control.
2. Don’t let anyone convince you that there is a right way to have a baby. When I was in labor, I was really worried that I wasn’t “doing it right.” I thought there was something inherently defective about my body, which was reinforced when I ended up having an emergency c-section for my son and a c-section after a long labor for my daughter. If my body was “normal,” the baby would have been positioned better, his heart rate wouldn’t have dropped, my pushing would have worked. Survivors already have lots of feelings about their bodies, often negative, so it’s important to keep the perspective that no matter what happens, her body is awesome and doing an awesome thing.
3. Recruit a bigger team. You don’t have to go it alone! The more people you have who can support you before, during, and after childbirth, the better. If your budget allows, consider a doula who is trained in supporting women in labor and can also support YOU. It was really difficult for my husband to watch me scream in terror and pain during my first delivery, so we hired a doula to work with us the second time around. When things got intense, she was able to support him so he was better able to support me. Most hospitals allow more than one support person, whether a doula, friend, or trusted family member.
4. Talk about what might trigger her, but expect the unexpected. Talking about potential triggers in advance is going to be a lot less traumatic than dealing with them in the moment. Even if the conversation feels scary, do yourselves a favor and bring it up. Some triggers are obvious, like pelvic exams or being touched without consent. But others may not be as obvious. For me, the moment that induced a panic attack was having an oxygen mask put over my nose and mouth.
There are varying degrees of modesty that can be supported throughout labor and delivery. For example, I wore a tube top and a skirt for most of my labor, which allowed me to feel covered, was more comfortable than a hospital gown, and still provided access for exams. Sometimes a desire for modesty might be in conflict with other desires, like the desire for skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, or even receiving an epidural. Talk these things through with your provider if possible, so you know what the options are in your health care setting.
5. Consider managing for anxiety rather than pain. Most childbirth classes teach you techniques to cope with pain. Those same techniques can be used to manage anxiety. Some survivors may want to birth without pain management because the pain keeps them in their bodies. Others might find that their emotional energy is zapped trying to manage pain, and may opt for pain management. Depending on what birth circles you are in, there can be some judgment about pain management. Don’t buy into it.
6. Ask questions during appointments and birth classes. If your partner is comfortable with it, you can raise the issue of sexual violence directly. But even if your partner isn’t comfortable disclosing her history, you can ask good questions if you have a sense of what her triggers might be. No birth is predictable, but health care providers and birthing instructors have more points of reference than you do, so take advantage of their experience and expertise. No question is too small or too dumb.
7. Find time to process after the fact. Having a baby is a big deal, and can bring up powerful emotions in all women, whether or not they are survivors of sexual violence. Even though I had processed so much of my experience, new emotions arose after each of my births. I spent time with a social worker, and with my husband, exploring these feelings. If your partner is triggered by the experience, she’ll need time to process and heal. You can help give her permission to do so at her own pace. You can also offer extra help with the baby so she can see a therapist or just take some solo time to reflect and care for herself.
Even if your partner’s birth experience is traumatic, she will survive it, especially if she has your support, love, and encouragement. Whether you are a husband, wife, midwife, doula, doctor or friend, please break the silence about birth trauma and sexual trauma. It will help your favorite new survivor mama have the best possible birth experience, and make it easier for the whole family to welcome a beautiful new baby into the world.
This post is a part of the Double Silence initiative, a series of posts designed to raise awareness about birth trauma and sexual trauma. To learn more or to participate, please visit The Enliven Project.