So your wife is grieving and traumatised by her birth, what now?
You don’t want her to feel sad, and you can’t understand why she would. You try to distract her by focusing on your baby but that just makes things worse. Maybe she doesn’t have the words to explain everything, and try as she might it turns into tears and shouting between you.
Obviously you want your wife to feel happy, but she’s a mother now, and that was the goal right? Why is there so much other stuff happening in her head? Why can’t she just articulate it for you?
Women struggle to find the words to explain birth trauma and grief because that is the nature of these things.
Someone who has been in a car accident has no need to explain their trauma. It’s easy for us to understand why they are upset, but in our culture we believe that being alive after birth is the very best you can hope for. Our culture is blind to the importance of birth as a rite of passage for women, and our culture is deaf to the pain women express after birth doesn’t go to plan.
One might say that women have to be realistic and understand that birth may not go to plan, but would you say that to the car crash victim?
“Come on Barry! You knew you might have a car crash when you got your license! You knew you might drive into a tree when you drove down that icy road”.
So let’s reframe birth in a way that might make the trauma and grief easier to understand. Birth is a function of a woman’s sexuality, it isn’t a medical procedure, it isn’t something that is done to a woman’s body in order to retrieve a baby. It is something women seek to do in order to welcome their babies.
When a woman goes into labour her brain releases EXACTLY THE SAME HORMONES IT RELEASES WHEN YOU ARE HAVING SEX! Sounds crazy right? I mean, what do birth (which hurts a whole lot) and sex (which is lots of fun) have in common? OXYTOCIN! The love hormone. Birth and sex are inextricably linked, from the beginning, to the end, they can not be separated. Birth is a function of a woman’s sexuality.
Imagine your wife has just given birth and you suddenly become impotent. You will never again enjoy a sexual relationship, as long as you live. No medicines can help, no implants, nothing. The sexual part of your life is over.
“But at least you got a healthy baby!” says your wife, your mother in law, the blokes at work. Surely that’s all that matters, right?
How do you feel about that?
No matter how logical it may be that you now have a child, so you don’t NEED sex anymore, you would still feel incredibly short changed. Being eternally grateful that you have a precious, healthy child has no bearing on it at all.
It’s the same with women and birth. Much as your sexuality is a crucial part of your identity as a man, birth is a crucial part of a woman’s identity. Not all women grieve for a birth that goes awry, but for those that do, it is a very real problem.
Ask your wife if she is glad that you welcomed a baby into your family, she will emphatically say that she is. Ask her how she imagined she would meet her baby, and for how many years she imagined the moment she would become a mother. Look at the way our culture romanticises that moment, think about the fact that it is imprinted on her DNA, then ask her whether her experience matched up to that.
You yourself may have been traumatised by what you witnessed during your wife’s labour. Your wife would benefit from hearing about how scared you were, how you felt when you were witnessing the woman you loved in peril.
Birth trauma doesn’t have to divide you, it can bring you closer together, if only you can find a way to talk about it and accept that you can not fix it. You can not go back in time and change it, you can not expect her to forget it, but you can validate her experience and acknowledge her grief.
In time women find peace and acceptance after a traumatic birth. Men can play a leading role in that healing, or they can be alienating. Although you may never comprehend why birth matters to women on a visceral level, you don’t need to completely understand it to empathise, to give her your shoulder while she cries. She will love you for it.