Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting After Abuse

When I was pregnant with my first child in 1999, I was a part of an online support group for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It gave me so much strength at a very vulnerable time. My abuser was trying to reestablish contact with me after a few years of estrangement, since I had just moved closer to where he lived. I was not handling that well! The support group helped me recognize and establish boundaries. Seeing what other women did to make those boundaries effective, and having the support of my counselor, helped me have safe and sane results in that distressing situation.

Since about one out of three women are abused by the time they are eighteen, and a number of them have children later on in life, there are many survivors potentially dealing with the effects of abuse while they are childbearing. As a survivor mom, doula and childbirth educator, I am in a well-suited position to support these remarkable mothers. Not all women who experience trauma in their lives will struggle during the childbearing season, but for many, the experiences of pregnancy, birth and parenthood can precipitate intense reactions.

There are as many reasons for this as there are women who experience it. In regards to birth, I think that the intimate and sexual nature of childbirth can create a sense of vulnerability for a woman and when it is combined with the mainstream variety of obstetric care most women in the US receive, it can easily generate an atmosphere conducive to a traumatic response from a laboring mother.

The sensations, smells and sounds of birth alone can cause a survivor to be pulled back or triggered into an abusive memory and even forget that she is giving birth. Some women space out or leave their bodies. It is imperative that a survivor mother be treated with gentleness, respect and sensitivity. She needs to be given a sense of control during prenatal care, birth and postpartum. Every mother deserves this, but a survivor mother may be even more negatively affected without this quality of care.

It can be very perplexing for a care provider who is unaware of these issues to assist a mother who is experiencing a traumatic reaction. They might think that she is too demanding, controlling or emotional to deal with and in some cases too sensitive or unstable. Sometimes, like when I was in labor, the mother doesn’t even know why she is experiencing the sensations she is. I knew I was abused, but had no idea that it would affect my birth journeys, or my life as a mother of three girls for that matter!

At each stage of parenthood, I have revisited my abuse from a wider and different lens. When my children reached the age of my first remembered abuse, I asked myself how anyone could even imagine mistreating an innocent, defenseless child the way I was treated. There are so many layers and complexities to this and so much support is needed as we try our best to not allow our pasts to pollute our futures.

There is still so much to learn about the effects of childhood trauma on childbearing women, but current research shows that the stress often takes its toll on the mother and baby. Through the support group I belonged to, I heard of a book that was emerging as a result of the work of Mickey Sperlich CPM, MA and Julia Seng CNM, PhD. Survivor Mom’s: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse. It contains the most recent research on the subject and includes narratives that provide an earnest voice to the work. I was able to add my own experiences to the stories and research after I gave birth to my daughter in 2000, and the book launched in May of 2008.

More than anything, I want to share resources and be an advocate for survivor moms. I want us to have the best outcomes possible. It is good to know we are not alone and there is a greater awareness and openness about sexual abuse than in the past. It is good to know that there are more effective and safe healing modalities and therapies than ever before. It is good to know that our children can be a part of our own restoration. My daughters have helped me heal and become more grounded. They have also drawn me to my life’s work.

There are numerous books relating to the recovery of sexual abuse, but very few on mothers specifically. I hope that more resources become available to us since we have so much potential to reverse this course. We know what we are protecting our children from and the damage that abuse can cause. Many of us can use our talents to help heal and bring understanding to others and set a positive example for our kids. May we harness the pain and passion inside us, and respond in a curative way to the benefit of our children and the children yet to come.

General Recovery:
Outgrowing the Pain
by Eliana Gil
Outgrowing the Pain Together
by Eliana Gil (for partners)
The Courage to Heal
by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
Allies in Healing
by Laura Davis (for partners)

Survivor Mothers:
Survivor Mom’s: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse
by Mickey Sperlich CPM, MA and Julia Seng CNM, PhD
We Can Break the Cycle: A Mother’s Handbook for Sexual Abuse Survivors
by Marge Grevatt (this is a publication from the Center for Cooperative Action 216.651.1266)
When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Childbearing Women
by Penny Simkin and Phyllis Klaus

Margret Crawford, CD (DONA), CCCE lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband Jimmy, and their three exceptional daughters. She is an aspiring writer, Certified Childbirth Educator, Birth and Postpartum Doula. Visit http://thejoyofbirth.com/. This essay was posted with permission from the author.
Mychelle Moritz, ATR-BC, LPC at Nurture provides counseling, emotional birth preparation, and support in processing a difficult birth experience for mothers and mothers-to-be who have a history of abuse. You can reach Mychelle at (971) 344-7527 or mychelle@nurturepdx.com

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