In the summer of 2006, I was lucky enough to be chosen for a role in Louisville’s Birth Care Network’s local production of Birth the Play. The play is comprised of 7 women’s birth stories with 7 actors playing all the characters within each story: family members, partners, doctors, nurses, etc. Part of the powerful narrative of one woman’s cesarean birth story is her consternation at how often she is told, “…but you had a healthy baby!” when she tries to express her grief at how her child was born.
At the time I was taking part in this show, I was very pregnant with my second son. My first birth had hit me face-first with surprise, dismay, fear, disappointment, and many other emotions that I didn’t quite know how to heal. Whenever we would rehearse the scene with those lines about “…but you had a healthy baby!” I would wonder if that was something people actually said to women who talked about their births honestly. It seemed like such a silly and dismissive and ignorant thing to say.
The more I have worked in the birth world as a doula, childbirth educator, and breastfeeding peer support person, the more I have heard that trite line trotted out to mothers and it never ceases to amaze me that it can be anything besides a line in a play. I have many theories about why people like to use that line so much: they’re genuinely trying to find the silver lining and make the mother feel better, they are in denial about their own birth experience and the feelings they don’t want to face about it, they just aren’t thinking about what’s coming out of their mouths…etc.
But let’s look at what’s really being said behind those words…
If a woman has a birth experience that is unexpected, scary, or traumatic in some way (and that’s really only up to her perspective, not anyone else’s), she may feel any or all of the following:
Like a failure
Her feelings about her birth may affect her ability to bond with and enjoy her baby or to enjoy life in general. Her feelings may make it hard for her to connect to other people who just don’t seem to understand. She may feel jealous of other mothers whose births she perceives as having been “easy” or “perfect”. She may not want to talk about her feelings for fear of being judged. She may feel alienated by all of this.
If she does find the courage to say something about how she is truly feeling and is met with “…but you have a healthy baby!” what she is really hearing is this:
“Your baby is the only part of this story that matters. You do not matter. Your body does not matter. Your feelings do not matter. Birth does not matter.”
And I am here to tell you that none of that is true. Of course every mother wants more than anything in the world for her baby to be safe and healthy. But that hope is not mutually exclusive of everything else having to do with her birth story. In fact, all parts are connected: mother, mother’s feelings, mother’s body, mother’s experience, baby’s health. Every piece of the puzzle affects all the others. And to tell a woman that her feelings and experience are invalid is just the sort of thing that sets us up for our current rates of postpartum depression in the United States, for an epidemic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following birth (Postpartum Traumatic Stress Disorder?), and for a culture of disconnect and “dis-ease” (as in, the opposite of health).
So, what do we do about this?
Find the support you need. There are people out there who are willing to listen to your birth story and the feelings you have about it with no judgment. There is support for you. Contact a local birth network, your doula (or, if you did not have a doula, find one in your area who can point you in the direction of local support), your local ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) chapter, a therapist, or a friend who is a good listener. Look for a postpartum wellness group on facebook. Join a positive new moms group or playgroup. Don’t stop reaching out until you have gotten what you need to process and heal. It is possible.
Watch this video . And please, never tell a woman that the only thing that matters about her birth is her baby. Listen quietly. Hug. Bring meals. Let her cry. Let her feel her feelings. Help her find support if you feel it is more than you can do to help her by yourself.
Some of my favorite resources:
And, one very concrete way you can work on processing your story and move towards healing is to take part in an upcoming “Unpacking Your Birth Baggage” workshop with me. In this workshop, we will work in a small group to look at the feelings we have from our birth experiences (or about an upcoming birth…read more about the workshop here) and figure out how to own our stories in a confident, freeing way rather than being held back by them. The process is powerful and so is the chance to be in a safe place with supportive women. The workshop package includes ongoing support via a private facebook group and other chances to contact after our face to face time has passed. I believe so strongly in this process and want to share it with as many women as I can. In order to give women the specific type of experiences they need in this process, I will be offering two separate workshops: one for expectant mothers who are holding doubts, fears, and confusion about their ability to give birth; and another for mothers who have had traumatic or unexpected birth outcomes and need a safe place to process them and move on into parenting with freedom and joy. The next workshop is set for March 11 and 18 and is intended for Mother’s who’ve given birth before. To learn more details or to register, visit my website.
Know this: You matter. Your feelings matter. Your experience matters. Your birth matters. BIRTH MATTERS.
Sending you a hug,
Photo credit: Jana Glass, Looking Glass Photography