You can read part one, BIRTH AS INITIATION GROUND FOR DEEP HEALING here.
“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. And I will choose how the story ends.” – Brené Brown
Healing is layered. It is non-linear. It happens in its own unfolding.
Here are some of my reflections on what has helped me to recover after a challenging birth, starting from within and shifting to the broader social landscape.*
HEALING THE BODY
Healing looks different for everyone. Healing needs to be embodied. It’s not enough just to heal our thoughts and beliefs after a challenging birth. It needs to be integrated in a felt sense, in our bodies.
Embodied practices, like self-massage, bodywork/massage/physiotherapy treatments, movement, dance, and breathwork, all offered a way for me to inhabit and feel safe in my body again after feeling fragmented and dismembered after surgery.
After cesarean birth it can be important to rebuild sensation in numb areas around the scar, and self-massage or bodywork treatments may help this. Reconnecting with my womb and belly took me quite a few months, as there was a lot of physical and emotional pain activated in these parts, as well as body memories/flashbacks (a symptom of PTSD) that happened when physical pain was present in the wound. Going gently and at my own pace was the most important thing for me.
My birth experience took me on a deep dive into understanding my own stress physiology and the ways that my nervous system was already functioning within a reduced ‘window of tolerance’ to stress. This has also led to a much deeper appreciation for my personal sensitivity to sensory overload. Trauma can feel like too much, too soon, and this pattern can extend into parenting when there are endless ways that we get overstimulated (babies crying, being touched-out, breastfeeding, having too much to do in a day, being climbed all over by a rambunctious toddler… the list goes on).
I’ve recognized that having enough space to have no stimulation is so important for my healing. Staring at the clouds, not having anyone need me, no phones, being with trees etc.
Claiming what I need and creating the boundaries around it, to enforce it, is an ongoing journey.
Some steps for body-focused healing:
- Bodywork with a safe, trauma-informed practitioner.
- Find a movement practices or somatic practices that helps you release and discharge energy from your body (you can do this at home with the help of youtube!).
- Try simple practices to reconnect with your body, like self massage, including massaging scar tissue.
- Find ways to feel pleasure in your body again, what makes your senses come alive?
- Somatic therapy.
- Practicing Emotional Freedom Technique (tapping).
HEALING THE MIND
Making sense of your feelings and the stories you’re telling yourself are fundamental to healing after a challenging birth.
Getting support early is vital. I also found that different layers emerged to be healed in their own time. Healing has it’s own timeline. Much like grief.
What can hold us back from sharing our stories is fear of judgement, shame, and believing the perfect birth/motherhood myth. There is also a pretty strong narrative of ‘getting it right’ in birth, which says we can somehow control birth if we ‘do all the right things’ like yoga, Hypnobirthing, or Spinning Babies or other childbirth education.
I have spoken with countless other mothers and birthworkers (doulas and midwives) who have shared how much they judged themselves when they had a challenging or traumatic birth, and I understand this personally. We often learn to be our own harshest judge, and trauma attaches itself to our unhealed wounds.
Seeds of shame can root down into the fertile ground of our being after experiencing trauma. It’s the negative meaning we make about the overwhelming or threatening experience. It comes through in beliefs like, “I failed” or “my body failed”. Shame turns us in on ourselves.
Shame has a sidekick, called disenfranchised grief. This is grief that has no social space for healing and validation. Grief that is collectively denied. You only need to think of the old saying, ‘at least you have a healthy baby’ to see how this applies to birth trauma.
I’m grateful for a therapist who helped me to unpack the role of suppressed anger and the impact this was having on my mental health. Anger needs a voice, an outlet. A safe way to be felt and expressed so it can be released without spilling out sideways.
I had a lot of misplaced anger. Anger that I focused in on myself, rather than outside of myself, on the maternity care system and the individuals within it who heavily influenced how I felt during my birth.
Finding people that I trusted to hold me and my story was one of the most helpful actions I took. This looked like different listeners at different times, all with different pieces of wisdom to offer. Some were midwives, doulas, women’s mystery teachers, counsellors, psychologists, friends, or family members.
Overtime what has emerged is a reclamation of my more whole self. Beyond the ‘good girl’ narrative that we are socialised into and which shows up at birth. Where we acquiesce to the coercion and mistreatment disguised as ‘standard care’.
In my parenting the reclamation of myself came out initially as fierce, overprotective and hypervigilant mothering. Not letting my baby spend much time, if at all, away from me. Being highly protective of him and advocating for him throughout many challenging weeks and months of breastfeeding issues.
Stepping into my role as a mother who demanded that my knowledge was the most valid. A sense of making up for the danger that my baby experienced through the birth and early postpartum time has deeply impacted my mothering journey and still does, as our imprints of birth unfold over time.
Birth trauma breads hypervigilance, because our nervous system becomes wired for fear and danger, rather than connection and safety. However the reframing of the hypervigilance is that this kind of fierce mothering gave me back a sense of control, and a sharp, instinctual awareness of my baby’s needs, and I so I also trust this.
My trust in myself and my knowledge as a mother continues to grow.
Trust that you will know when someone is the right fit for you to listen and hold your story (and if you feel dismissed or worse about yourself after speaking about your story, please find someone else, you deserve that!).
Some steps to heal your mind:
- Can you make space to feel your feelings and express them safely (through anger release practices or moving your body).
- These books offer much wisdom and practical steps for healing:
- Can you find a local trauma-informed counsellor or psychologist to help your understand and process your story. I offer holistic, trauma-informed counselling in Brisbane or online across Australia. Or perhaps you can search online to find a therapist in your area who specialises in birth trauma.
- There are also free services like PANDA and Australasian Birth Trauma Association that offer phone based services that some parents find supportive.
GROWING YOUR VILLAGE
I can’t really do justice with words, to express how much having a circle of women around me before and after my birth helped me in my matresence journey.
I am deeply grateful that I trusted my intuition to seek this support. In fact when I first met Jane Hardwicke Collings years ago as a new doula in my 20s I vowed to myself that I would join her school (The School Of Shamanic Womancraft) and undertake the women’s mysteries program – Eight Seasons Journey – when I was pregnant myself.
When I did join the school I had just moved to a new town, without friends or many supports, uprooted and isolated, and about to start studying midwifery. I knew I needed the school at this time. Little did I realise at the that time that I was actually early in my pregnancy. My vow had come true!
Growing and learning with a group of other women who were willing to hold the space for me during my pregnancy and postpartum proved to be the best investment in myself and my mental health.
We cannot fully heal alone. We are not meant to.
We need holding, and community and being witnessed in a safe, supportive way.
I encourage anyone who has struggled with a challenging or traumatic birth to find or reconnect with a community of like-minded, supportive folks who can walk with you on your road to healing.
Some steps to grow your village:
- If you’re in Brisbane, Australia, then please come and connect with the community of women and folks who are gathering with the Red Thread Sisterhood. Red Thread Sisterhood was created when two newborn mothers/doulas (myself and Jillian Nogueira) connected with a beautiful midwife and friend (Meg Clein from It Takes A Village Midwifery) and decided it was time to create the village we were longing for, and which we felt was missing in our community.
- Can you find a group that feels safe in your area, or can you create one yourself?
HEALING BIRTH IN OUR CULTURE
What do we need to do for mothers, parents and babies to feel well supported after birth? How will this change happen?
The current situation is 1 in 3 women describe their birth as traumatic, so drastic change is needed.
Sharing our collective stories and demanding the complete overhaul of our maternity care systems is surely a part of this.
Women are given the message in countless ways to suppress their own needs, and to martyr themselves as a parent, and to “just get on with it,” after birth. This imprint of ‘get on with it’ is woven throughout a female’s life, from menarche and menstruation to birth, and then continues into our experience of menopause.
Healing birth in our culture requires a collective healing of all the ways that female bodily processes have been vilified, stigmatised and pathologised. We have been sold a lie for too long that our bodies are broken.
Some steps to help heal birth in our culture:
- Taking back your birth and birthing on your own terms, however this looks for your family.
- Making complaints to authorities like AHPRA about abuse and mistreatment from care providers.
- Take part in studies like this to share your story and influence research
- Get involved in maternity care advocacy.
- Create spaces to have conversations with friends and family about birth, and changing the narrative (and you could screen a showing of Birth Time).
- Some other ways to take action steps/lobbying.
- Know that you’re not alone, and that there are many women and parents who have experienced similar birth experiences to you. There are attempts at different levels to try and improve the systemic issues in maternity care. Here are some examples of women sharing their stories as a part of the ACT inquiry into maternity care.
- Any healing that you engage with is healing birth in our culture, especially if you can help to shift the imprint about birth that is passed onto your children (and to challenge the narrative that birth is scary and painful).
My personal philosophy is that we are spiritual beings having a human experience and that we are all interconnected and inseparable from nature.
If you’re not interested in a spiritual lens, perhaps an exploration of post traumatic growth might be a more useful way to frame this.
A core part of my healing has come from connecting with and integrating the deeper meaning that I am making about my birth in the context of my life journey. This is a deeply personal process that will look different for each of us.
For myself, recognising the importance of my conception journey and my belief that a prayer to my ancestors was answered. Also a sense of trust that even though I never wished for my birth to unfold how it did, and it’s never acceptable to be mistreated in birth, there are still deep lessons in this experience that I am grateful for. That without it, I would not be who I am today. So a sense of trust in the larger unfolding of my own life and recognising that there is medicine in shadow awakenings.
The wound reveals the medicine. Our births always have something to teach us. As Jane Hardwicke Collings says, ‘we have the birth we need to have, to teach us what we need to parent our child’.
And yet it has been a profound awakening experience of re-embodying my body and my life in a deeper, more healed and compassionate way. This is the work I feel called to help other women do, to integrate the shadows that can be awakened with birth. To help us come into greater wholeness. “To be the women and mothers the earth needs now” – Jane Hardwicke Collings.
Some steps to spiritually integrate your birth:
- Jane Hardwicke Colling’s courses- Pregnancy the Inner Journey & Healing From A Previous Traumatic Birth
- Perhaps the School of Shamanic Womancraft might interest you.
- What role could ritual have for you healing? One simple example could be a releasing ceremony, where you write your birth story and your feelings about it, and then burning this paper with the intention of releasing what doesn’t serve your highest self. Another example, a birthworker or support person could do a closing ceremony with you or another healing ceremony that helps you to feel closure in your body.
- Experiencing altered states of consciousness may help us to integrate aspects of our healing in an embodied way. Some ways to do this could be through listening to a guided meditation or drum journey.
RECLAIMING YOUR WORTHINESS
Sharing my story, not hiding it away, out of fear that it somehow evidence of my ‘not enough-ness’ is the next step in my own healing journey.
My prayer for all mothers, babies, and families who have felt overwhelmed or traumatized after their birth … may you find the inner capacity and the outside support and love to help you heal.
Because healing is possible. Your story matters. Our individual healing helps to heal birth in our culture.
May it be so.
P.S. This is just my story of healing. Please remember we are all unique and its important to find our own pathway.
Please comment below with your experience of healing, what has helped you heal after a challenging birth?
* Really there is no separation between our physical, mental and spiritual aspects of ourselves, however this is just a framework to explore these aspects more closely.