Birth trauma changes your personal landscape for pregnancy, and birth announcements, forever. Never again will your friends be able to tell you that they are being induced, or scheduling a caesarean, because you will feel the urge to save them. But you can’t.
That ball of anxiety you can feel in the pit of your stomach, when your friend or loved one makes the same “choices” you made, is called Vicarious Trauma. It’s like being re-traumatised, again and again, by experiences that aren’t physically your own.
No matter how much good advice you give, or how many studies you share to debunk the recommendations of an over zealous care provider, she will follow her own plan. It may or it may not end well, but however it ends, you’ll probably feel rotten.
Not only is in invalidating when a friend ignores our dire warnings, but whether she ends up having a textbook eight hour labour, or the full cascade of interventions and surgery, those of us with trauma will have shattered nerves by the time the birth announcement comes.
Beyond the physical outcome though, there is her emotional response. She may be perfectly happy with the result, which is like another big whack with the invalidation stick. Or she may indeed, feel deeply traumatised, but of course you won’t find satisfaction in that either.
Many women with trauma feel wretched when their friend has a straightforward labour, not because they wished ill upon their friend, but because it makes them question the way their bodies worked under similar circumstances.
But women are amazing. When a friend’s birth goes to hell in a handbasket we never have the urge to say “I told you so”. Often our own trauma has been so triggered that the best thing we can do is beat a hasty retreat and wait for the friend to reach out to us. Sadly, far too many women silence their pain with The Healthy Baby Lie, and your friend may be one of those women. Which in turn adds to your own trauma yet again by invalidating you. Why is SHE ok with the healthy baby, why aren’t I ok with that!?
So here are a few tips for managing vicarious trauma:
- Remember that YOU are physically safe now, your emotions are all over the place, but you ARE safe at this very moment. Tell yourself that as many times as you need.
- Offer advice and information but be aware that your friend may want to continue on the path she is on with no diversions. That’s ok, it’s NOT because she doesn’t trust you, it’s because that’s what women do during pregnancy.
- Tell her it’s ok for her to make decisions about her health – very few people will ever tell her that. It’s likely that everyone will be patting her on the head and telling her to “just do what the nice doctor says”. Tell her that you will love her no matter what she chooses.
- Once you’ve made information available to her, step back. Just smile and nod, no matter what she says. Practice your most sympathetic nodding and just keep on keeping on. If everything falls apart she will know she can go to you because you already told her that you supported her.
- Remember that it can take a few months for feelings of grief and trauma to surface so NEVER press a friend about it, especially not in the early days or weeks. Take her a meal, help her to enjoy the early days of mothering, and just wait. Hopefully, if she does reach out to you, your vicarious trauma will have settled.
- Find a healthy way to express your feelings – usually a birth trauma group is the best place, there are lots of them on facebook! Give yourself permission to feel however you feel without assigning your feelings any value. Feelings are never wrong or right.
So if your friend rings you up to tell you about her birth plans, and they’re plans that led you down a dark path, remember that it’s ok to feel anxious, angry, lonely, sad, scared, or anything else. It’s normal to feel a whole range of things, when the people we love, are potentially in danger. Do what you need to do to get through the hours waiting for her birth announcement. Have no expectations of yourself and how you will feel, because the nature of trauma is unpredictable, and vicarious trauma is perhaps the greatest evidence of that.
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