Let's Be Honest: Labor Is Trauma
By now, many of you have seen the photo floating around Facebook. In the foreground, a beaming dad relaxes on a hospital bed, holding a capped, burrito-wrapped baby and giving the camera a thumbs-up as he snaps a selfie. Shirtless, her back to the camera, the newly delivered mother stands facing the window, clad only in the disposable underpants and large absorbent pads familiar on the maternity ward.
28-year-old Amanda Bacon posted this image of herself to Facebook last week, calling it “Motherhood Uncensored.” In her original post, Bacon said she shared the photo because she wanted to show how “raw, stunning, messy, and freaking hilarious” motherhood is, and because “the realities of postpartum life” are too often taboo.
The post resonated with many and garnered well over a half million likes and tens of thousands of shares and comments, with numerous media outlets covering the phenomenon. “A lot of women were tagging their friends and saying, ‘this is what you have to look forward to,’” Bacon told People magazine. “It was really neat, like a bonding experience.”
As a doula, I’m all for unashamedly embracing the earthiest aspects of childbearing. There will be blood and other fluids. There will be leaking. Many aspects of childbirth and postpartum life are not particularly pretty. So the enthusiastic response to Amanda Bacon’s photograph—with its honest, humorous, and even celebratory take on childbearing—shouldn’t surprise us. It’s a form of female solidarity and a way of warning other women about what to expect when their time comes.
Well, sort of.
Something unsettles me about Bacon’s photograph. I discussed it with Megan Hill, another CT contributor, and she put her finger on it: there’s a striking disconnect between the calm and beaming dad in the foreground and the nearly naked, diapered woman in the background. In her interview with People, Bacon emphasized that she thought it was “hilarious” that her husband took the photo. She edited her Facebook post to make clear that it was she, not he, who published it on social media.
Even so, she’s captured in a vulnerable moment, and something in me wanted to cover her up. Yes, we need female solidarity, and it’s helpful to acknowledge and embrace the earthy realities of childbirth, but maybe not quite like this.
Although I may sound curmudgeonly when I say this, too much levity about the indignities and fleshiness of childbirth worries me. While it is not recognized as such in the DSM-V, the so-called “bible” of mental disorder diagnoses, many women experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in childbirth’s wake. I’m one of them.
I was home from the hospital for a week when my husband put Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites on the stereo. I’d listened to it via my earphones while in labor with our first child, and when the strains filled the dining room, I burst into tears and asked him to turn it off immediately. I’d had a flashback and felt as if I were twisting in pain in the hospital bed again. There, in my own home, I felt helpless, alone, and out of control. Flashbacks are a key marker of PTSD, as distinguished from the more commonly discussed PPD (postpartum depression.) PTSD whisks you back to trauma time without warning.
Sarah Bessey has written about the unattended delivery of her son in a parking garage. For years, she used it as an icebreaker to make people laugh, but then, following the gentle questioning of her midwife, she finally acknowledged the terror and trauma of the event. She’d been plagued by nightmares of being utterly alone and afraid, and when she finally allowed the fear to be a part of what she’d told as just a “funny story,” the fear began to fade.
“There’s something about childbirth that [says] we’re supposed to be happy and grateful, and when you have to be happy and grateful, there’s not room to talk about the reality,” says Bobbie Posmontier, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who works in a therapy program aimed at helping women who have experienced birth trauma.
“I really wished I had someone to process my delivery with,” said Courtney Reissig, who also writes for CT. “It was way more difficult and different than I expected, and it messed with my head. I had a lot of emotional upheaval over it and found support in the stories of others.” Reissig added that she couldn’t remember parts of her baby’s delivery and cried, asking her husband to help her fill in her memory’s gaps.
Some therapists are studying the effects of movement therapies and EMDR therapies on women who are recovering from birth trauma. Years ago, the late birth activist Sheila Kitzinger started a network of hotlines for British women to call to talk through their difficult birth experiences. As the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk told Krista Tippett, when people are traumatized, they find it hard even to tell the story, to find a coherent narrative.
For most of human history, women have had a collective narrative for childbirth. Before the days when more and more births took place in the hospital, women experienced what historians call “social childbirth,” where communities of women cared for one another as they gave birth at home and then recovered at home.
In English, at least, we know that gossip, used as a noun, was first applied to the women who attended their neighbors’ childbirths. Although the word took on negative connotations, it originally comes from god-sib, that is, god-sibling: the woman who you’d name as your closest friend, and the godmother of your child. In early America, once a woman’s postpartum recovery period was over, she’d host a party for the god-sibs who had helped her during labor. They spoke of gathering around the “groaning table,” in reference to a table creaking under the weight of the food piled atop it and to the groaning of a woman in labor.
Nowadays, we’re less adept at talking openly about groaning and trauma. It’s easy to push platitudes—“Be happy and grateful!” or “Stay in the present moment!” or “Be happy that the baby is okay!”—that, although well intended, may hinder healing. It’s also easy to be breezy and cavalier—“Look how absurd I look in my mom-diaper!” about something that involves intense suffering.
The good news is that, as Christians, we have a model for experiencing trauma. We’re people who seek to live within a story that centers on Jesus’s suffering, death, burial, and resurrection. I daresay Jesus wasn’t “happy” or “grateful” to go to the cross. He agonized alone in Gethsemane and drank that cup of suffering anyway.
While we wait for the day when he’ll wipe away our tears, let’s hear and hold one another—and one another’s stories—gently.