These days far too many women talk about birth as a traumatic and overwhelming experience. They also talk about the early postpartum weeks and months as a traumatic and overwhelming experience – so much so that the word “postpartum” has come to be synonymous with Postpartum Depression, rather than a word that refers to the initial weeks of motherhood.
When they are in the midst of the overwhelm and trauma that is all too pervasive in our culture surrounding birth and postpartum, most women believe one, or both, of two things:
#1 I am doing something wrong and that’s why I am/was overwhelmed or traumatized.
#2 The nature of birth and/or postpartum are, by definition, traumatic and overwhelming, so I should just get used to it and there’s no reason to expect any different or better.
I don't believe either of these. But when this is what you believe, the result is feeling overwhelmed and/or traumatized. But you shouldn’t have to feel this way. And it’s not your fault that you do.
Many new moms feel insecure, depressed, frightened, alone, distrusting of themselves, unable to enjoy their relationship with their partner or their babies, and much more. You are not supposed to feel this way. You are supposed to feel challenged. You are supposed to feel like, sometimes, you don't know what to do. But you're not supposed to feel all these other feelings the majority of the time.
And if you do, there should be options.
So why are so many women feeling this way?
Here’s the short of it:
You don’t have the support that you, and every woman and new mother, deserve. Your needs aren’t being met the way you deserve for them to be.
Here’s the long of it:
Stress and trauma are not the same thing.
Stress is your body and/or mind being pushed to or near the limit. Stress is hard work. Stress is pressure or tension being exerted on you. Stress is a state of strain. But stress ends. Stress ebbs and flows. Stress does not exist unendingly, nor does it leave you in a state of permanent damage.
Exercise is stress. It’s stress on your skeletal muscles and stress on your heart muscle. When done correctly, exercise makes your muscles (including your heart) stronger. And when you are done exercising, you may feel a bit sore the following day, but a few days later you feel stronger for it. You feel better, not worse. You feel more resilient - not damaged.
Labor and birth are stressful. Labor and birth push both your body and mind to the limit. Labor and birth are hard work. Labor includes both contractions (the flow of stress) and pauses in between contractions (the ebb of stress) that usually last longer than the contractions themselves. Labor and birth might last 3 hours or 30 hours or 3 days, but then it ends. Labor and birth will change you and your body, but they are not supposed to do permanent damage to your body. It may take healing time but you are meant to recover. Your body may be different but it is not meant to be worse off. Some labors are more stressful than others, but whether labor is straightforward or more complicated, it should not be traumatic. Nature did not make labor and birth in such a way that is supposed to leave you permanently damaged either physically or emotionally.
Trauma is different than stress.
Trauma is something that continues after the event has passed. Trauma is stress that doesn’t give you breaks. Trauma is stress that your body and nervous system never got to respond to in the way it wanted. Trauma is stress that your body and nervous system couldn’t and still can’t, on its own, figure out how to resolve.
Trauma is not about the events that happened; trauma is about what happened inside of you, what happened in your nervous system when the events took place and immediately following the events. Trauma is when you feel intense fear and helplessness in a situation and nothing happens to help to change that.
Trauma keeps going as your nervous system is unable to find an end or locate a sense of safety. Your nervous system (and this includes your brain) can't find any genuine sense that you will be okay.
So what makes stress turn into trauma?
From the perspective of the body, it’s really quite simple. It comes down to what happens in our nervous system and our endocrine system. It’s in our brain and our hormones. We are all basic animals trying to protect ourselves and our young so we both feel safe.
Whether we feel emotional or physical threat or stress, our body reacts the exact same way. Our nervous system gets the signal to become stimulated and our hormones shift to help the nervous system get more stimulated. We are ready to “fight or flight.” Our whole body (including the nervous system and brain) are focused on protecting ourselves (and our young) in the face of what threatens us, or our body gets ready to get out of Dodge by running.
Sometimes we are in a situation that doesn’t allow us to either fight or flight, which makes us feel more frightened, more threatened. And our nervous system can’t handle that. It’s just too much. And so, it “freezes.” It checks out. It goes into preservation mode. We zone out. We feel confused. Our bodies go limp. We feel stiff and frozen. We have thoughts but little to no sensation.
Basically, the fear and threat are still there, but we can’t do anything about them, so our body puts its response on hold. The event will pass but our nervous system, our body, and our brain stop recognizing the full picture of what's happening. Our nervous system is unable to recognize that now we are safe.
Another reason stress turns into trauma is too much, too fast.
Something scary or challenging happens, our body feels it and responds to it, and then it’s done. But if something scary or challenging happens, and seconds later another scary or challenging thing happens, and seconds after that another scary or challenging thing happens, we can’t keep up. Now three different things have happened, each of them requiring a response, but maybe all three require a different response, so now our nervous system doesn’t know what to do, and we get overwhelmed, and again, we are back in “freeze” mode.
I’ll give an example:
You’re in labor, someone listens to the baby’s heart rate, which you can hear, but no one tells you if it’s good or not. So you start to worry for your baby. Is your baby safe or struggling? But before you are able to ask someone if the heart rate is good, someone starts to ask you when was the last time you had something to eat or drink. Your nervous system is a little (just a little) stressed out because you aren’t sure if your baby is okay, and now you are trying to think about the last time you ate and drank and you are wondering if it was too long ago or too recent. Just as you are giving them an answer someone tells you that you need to get onto your back so they can do a vaginal exam. Your mind is thinking that you are still worried about your baby and you want to know if you shouldn’t have eaten and drunk or if you should again but because you are thinking about both of these at the same time, neither question is coming out of your mouth, plus now you are wondering who is this person that you’ve never met who is about to give you a vaginal exam. So now you’ve got three questions and the nurse reinforces that you need to turn onto your back to have a vaginal exam. People are helping you to turn onto your back, you dont see your partner, and the vaginal exam is far more uncomfortable than you expected. So now you are wondering if the baby is okay, you are concerned that you ate too recently or too long ago, want to know who just did the vaginal exam and where your doctor or midwife is, you now see your partner but he or she feels far away, and, ouch, that just hurt and you don’t want things to be hurting any more than they already are.
While this is a series of milder stresses, it’s still generally too much, too fast. Usually, if it stopped there, you’d probably be able to take a minute and ask the questions you have, or ask your partner to come closer and hold your hand, and then you’d feel better, safer. But what if things didn’t get quiet and slow down at that point but instead kept going at that rate? What if no one was answering you when you asked questions? What if the answers you got were unclear? What if you didn’t trust the people? What if so much was going on that your partner felt overwhelmed and remained on the other side of the room? The body (including the brain) thinks you are not safe, and after enough of “not safe” without the ability to protect yourself and your baby, you check out.
And this is trauma. This is your baby being born, and you are still not sure you are safe. This is you at home nursing and you still don’t understand what happened and why. This is you trying to figure out what happened while you were in labor and you are also trying to figure out what is happening now. It’s all too much.
But isn’t that just what happens in labor? Isn’t that just how women feel afterward?
My answer is: It doesn’t have to be!
What if you arrived in the hospital, someone listened to the baby’s heartbeat and said, “The baby sounds great. Do you have any questions?” And you notice your body has taken a deep breath, so happy to know your baby is well. Then you take a moment to think if you have any questions about it and you realize you don’t.
Then the nurse says, “So I have a series of questions I’m going to need to ask you. I know you are having contractions and it’s hard to focus so mostly I will ask your partner, but there are a few I need to ask you. These are just routine questions. Are you comfortable lying in bed or is there something else that feels better?" You realize you feel more pressure when you're lying down so you stand up beside the bed and lean over which helps to relieve the pressure. Your partner is at your side with his or her hand resting on your low back, the warmth of which is soothing. The nurse turns to your partner and asks, “Do you know the last time she had something to eat?” Your partner answers her. Just as she is about to ask the next question, someone you’ve never met walks into the room. The nurse waits until your contraction ends and says, “This is Dr. Smith, the resident. Do you mind if she does a vaginal exam to check how dilated your cervix is?” You say that’s alright. The nurse asks if you’d like to wait until after the next contraction, which you would, in fact, prefer, so you do. And after the next contraction, you slowly move into the bed. Dr. Smith says she will wait until after the next contraction to do the vaginal exam. After the next contraction, she lets you know it won't last long but the exam will be mildly uncomfortable. So you take a deep breath and tell her you are ready.
Probably just reading these two descriptions felt very different. Almost nothing different happened except more communication and things not moving at such a fast pace, but for the nervous system, these are two entirely different experiences!
Even when things do have to move at a very fast pace, there is a lot to be said for someone saying “I know things are moving really fast right now and you probably feel a little scared. We are staying right here with you and giving you the best care we can. I promise when it’s over I will explain what happened.”
If your birth felt overwhelming or traumatic, it was probably because too much was happening too fast and no one was there to ask you how you were feeling and what you needed. Probably no one was helping you understand what was going on, or helping to slow things down. Likely, you were expressing your needs and no one listened or no one helped you to express your needs.
If your labor and birth did leave you feeling physically and/or emotionally damaged as the weeks and months pass, it is not your fault. There is nothing you failed to do. It is the way in which our social and medical systems have failed you.
And you can get help to integrate your experience. You can find someone who works with trauma and who will hear what you have to say and will validate your feelings and will help you integrate it.
And what about postpartum overwhelm?
Babies are meant to thrive when they're born. Family life is meant to be sustainable. That's how nature made it. And if it's not feeling that way, something isn't right. Maybe the baby isn't getting enough to eat. But why? And how can that be resolved? Your body is meant to make enough milk and the baby is meant to get enough milk. If that's not how it's working there is always an explanation and usually a resolution.
Maybe you don't have enough support and you are trying to do it on your own, expecting yourself to do too much.
Maybe you have lots of family around and they are all holding the baby but not helping around the house. Maybe you don't want them holding the baby. Maybe you don't even want them visiting yet because right now you just want to be curled up in bed with your partner and baby.
But here's the point. If it feels overwhelming, something isn't right. If it feels to you like something isn't right, you are right. If you seek out support from a professional or a family member and it doesn't feel like things are improving, something isn't right and you need help from someone different.
Again, it is normal that this is a stressful time. There is a lot happening - so much change, so much that is unfamiliar - but it should not be miserable. You should not be struggling to connect with your baby or care for your baby. You should not feel like this was all a bad idea. You should not feel like you are just barely hanging on by the skin of your teeth. And if you do, it is not your fault. Moments of challenge and overwhelm and fear? Yes. Entire days of overwhelm and fear? No.
If you are feeling stress without relief, it’s a message something needs to change
It doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong and it doesn’t mean your baby is doing anything wrong. It does, however, mean that something needs to change.
So take a minute, by yourself or alone with your baby, and ask yourself: How do I want this to be? Deep down inside, how do you want it to be? Not what do you think is realistic. Not what have people told you you should be doing or shouldn’t be doing. What do you, deep down in your heart, want things to feel like? Why do you want it to feel that way? What would you have, how would things be different, if it felt that way? And what is the first step to getting that?
Do you need more support? Do you need to get all your family and friends who are visiting to give you and your partner time alone with your baby? Do you need just one of the visitors to stay but all the rest to leave? Do you need to change care providers? Do you need to change birth environments? Do you need a doula? Do you need a lactation consultant? Do you need a new pediatrician? Do you need a massage? Do you need someone to come into your house for two hours a day to clean up and cook a meal? Do you need to take the baby to craniosacral therapy?
Are you calling the resources available to you to use them to the full extent of what they are offering? Are the resources you have being very nice but not that helpful? It’s wonderful that they’re nice, but this is a time in your life that you deserve more than nice. You deserve deeply kind. You deserve an expert. You deserve someone who is putting your and your baby's needs (as you see them) first. You deserve someone who believes in you and supports you. You deserve someone who wants to understand you and help you have and feel what you want to have and feel. Just because the person is nice and means well doesn’t necessarily mean they are right for you.
If you feel like this is more than you can handle, ask your partner to do this for you. Call a friend you trust and ask her to help you and make some phone calls for you.
You deserve help. You deserve support.
And, you have a right to advocate for yourself. You deserve people around you who will advocate for you when you are being too challenged to advocate for yourself.
If feeling overwhelmed and anxious is a constant for you in your life, there are probably long-held stresses and traumas that are leaving your nervous system less resilient than it could be. If this is the case, getting the support to help you integrate these old wounds and create more resilience and sense of safety in your life might be surprisingly helpful. Resources like Somatic Experiencing® or other body based therapies that get at the heart of things will likely be of huge benefit.
Potential resources: Only stay involved with the resources that help you to feel better and help you trust yourself more!
- Prenatal yoga classes
- La Leche League (can be wonderful both prenatally and after giving birth)
- Mom’s support groups
- Moms Club International (find your local club) - wonderful for everything from other moms to talk with, to women who will bring you meals in the first weeks after your baby is born
- Mommy and Me yoga classes
- Local birth centers have lots of groups and classes
- Somatic Experiencing® - a therapy focused on integration of trauma (can benefit both moms and babies). Traumahealing.com has a comprehensive list of trained professionals around the world. Speak to someone on the phone and see if they’re a good fit. If you gut says yes, then yes. If your gut says no, find someone else.
- Local playgrounds are full of moms, babies and kids.
- RIE classes
- Craniosacral therapy and/or pediatric chiropractic
- And tons of online resources.