Self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry, and people swear by the various techniques of famous gurus such as Louse Hay and Rhonda Byrne. That’s great in many of life’s ordinary situations, but birth trauma isn’t an ordinary situation. Women are often desperate to manage their intense emotions around birth trauma and grief, but self-help strategies frequently stop short of a solution, leaving women feeling inadequate, like they failed at birth, and then they failed at self-help.
Birth trauma is different to many of life’s other painful events because society has a wilful disregard for the feelings women express after giving birth. Most people are of the opinion that a healthy baby is the only outcome that matters, and if a woman is upset or traumatised by birth, her expectations were unrealistic. From this hostile and unrelenting environment comes much anger, resentment, and blame.
Anger, resentment, and blame are big no-nos in the self help world, and for arguably good reasons. All of them can be damaging when we carry them with us, unaddressed, for extended periods of time. But the key is to face them head on, express them, and find healthy ways to manage them. Self help rarely provides the tools to support and encourage this difficult and confronting work. Often it simply labels feelings as damaging, and women become desperate to let go of their feelings in search of inner peace.
One of the biggest problems with self help is the promotion of forgiveness as a solution to many so called “negative” emotions. Self help claims that taking personal responsibility for previous events gives you the power to take charge of your emotional well being, and change your future. Self-help experts would have you take on responsibility for negative experiences. Resenting other people, or being angry about the past, according to self-help, will leave you stuck in a negative cycle. You must accept, and forgive, to move on. It’s clear that accepting responsibility for something like alcoholism, and ceasing to blame others for that particular predicament is beneficial, but birth is very different.
When women take full, unquestioning responsibility for the events surrounding birth, they take on the responsibility of nature – when there have been unpredictable physical complications. They might also take on the responsibility of unprofessional maternity care providers who treated them poorly during birth, or for birth that was more intense that they expected. Women are not responsible for any of the above. Taking on that responsibility creates irrational internal resentment, self blame, it does not help a woman come to terms with her trauma or grief.
Finding where to draw the line between the things we had control over, and the things that were entirely out of our hands, often involves apportioning blame to others, and this is frowned upon by self help, but it is vital to forging a path through birth trauma or grief.
Often the popular self help strategies of forgiveness and acceptance force women to adopt the “At Least You Got A Healthy Baby” mantra into their own belief system. This succinctly silences multiple complex emotions. Self help and the acceptance of this “healthy baby” theory become the only way they can find peace because they both requires women to push aside their hefty feelings. Whilst the Healthy Baby mantra aligns neatly with the social expectation that mothers will martyr themselves for their babies, emotionally speaking it serves very few women who have been traumatised during birth. Combined with self help, it often becomes a life sentence of silence and loneliness.
We continue to embrace the suggestions put forth by self-help gurus, and for many people they are enlightening. However for birth trauma survivors it’s not as simple as forgiving and forgetting. Birth is a critical event in a woman’s life. Birth is a bridge between two very distinct parts of a woman’s life, from womanhood to motherhood. How we feel about it can have huge ramifications, not just on us, but on those we love too, most especially our babies.
You are not failing at self help if you can’t move through your anger, resentment, and blame. Self-help is failing you! Expressing our emotions is never easy when they are powerful ones, which is why we can not force ourselves to simply forgive, and we will not find peace by denying them. Confronting our painful emotions is one of the hardest things we can ever do, but living with them, unresolved, is arguably harder. Accepting that we are not responsible for nature or for the behaviour of others is vital, and often that involves blame. We’ve come to view blame as a dirty word, thanks to self help, but blame can actually be a useful part of healing and acceptance after birth trauma or grief.
There are many ways to live with pain and grief over birth, and none involve ignoring the problem. Here is a few suggestions to try, but if you have any others please leave them in the comment section.
- You can write a letter of complaint – you don’t have to send it if you don’t want to, just write it.
- You can write a letter to your baby telling them how you wish you had met them, and how you wish you had been able to share the birth with them that you had imagined.
- You can try Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). If you’re not familiar with it go to youtube and search through the many videos of people sharing the technique until you find one you like.
- You can try meditation or gentle exercise, both are great for helping to manage anxiety.
- You can reach out to an online community for birth trauma support.
- You can try to find a therapist who has experience with birth trauma – be very careful that they are experienced with birth trauma because otherwise they might be in the “healthy baby” camp, and they could cause you more harm than good.
- You can try nutritional, herbal, or homeopathic remedies to help support your body through the process. Being in the best physical health you can possibly be in makes your mind healthier too.
- You can give yourself permission to just feel what you feel without judging the value of your feelings. Understand that however you feel does not alter the quality of your character.