I wanted to have a baby, so why wasn’t I happy? I was angry. I felt violated. Why?
Lucky for me, I had a wonderful doctor whom I trusted. I downplayed my history, referring vaguely to some sexual abuse. My OB read between the lines, and she explained to me that birth could have an extra emotional result for me. “Many women who have been through what you’ve been through feel like they’ve been raped by their baby.”
It felt wrong to admit it out loud, but pregnancy can trigger flashbacks and increase the risk of postpartum depression in survivors of abuse. These feelings can be amplified by the tests and exams pregnant women have to undergo during pregnancy. They can feel vulnerable or even violated by the doctors and nurses examining them.
My doctor was very helpful in providing me with resources when I needed them and reducing my triggers. Here are ways to prepare for pregnancy and birth if you’ve suffered past abuse:
1. Tailor-make a birth plan.
Every survivor of sexual abuse needs to weigh her options and choose what’s right for her. My OB gave me the option to have a C-section, but this was not the right option for me.
We planned to do an induction. It gave me a chance to be emotionally prepared and not to feel surprised by my labor. We also planned an epidural to reduce the physical pain. We hoped that would reduce my risk of the experience being traumatic.
We also agreed that I would do better if I skipped the birthing classes. For me, they were too overwhelming and had the possibility of triggering bad memories and flashbacks.
Talk with your doctor or midwife about your options and make sure you’re comfortable with a birth plan that works for you. There is no wrong way to give birth.
2. Ask for help.
During my pregnancy, I made a trip to the hospital to receive a needle because I have a negative blood type. This particular needle needed to be administered in the high part of my thigh, so I needed to remove my jeans. During my visit to the hospital, the nurse allowed a student to give me the shot.
I felt embarrassed and mean to speak up for myself. It was hard to understand that when I did I was simply focusing on my needs. No one was offended because they were focused on my needs too.
3. Take control.
Exams were traumatic for me. My doctor let me know when she was going to touch me. This gave me the sense that she had my permission and that I was in control.
One test was particularly challenging and emotional. We made a few attempts, but it wasn’t going well, and we weren’t getting the information needed. With a bit of simple instruction, I was able to perform the test on myself in private.
Six months after the birth of my baby, we discovered I hadn’t healed correctly. My OB was able to arrange an OR where I could be sedated for the procedure to avoid any undo emotional stress. She also planned to take a pap smear at that time, since that is another procedure I find invasive.
Having an open conversation with your OB is crucial. Take the extra steps you need to protect yourself from the emotional trauma of reliving past abuse.
4. Try to remember it’s temporary.
Even though I knew early on this was going to be hard and I had a great support system, I thought I was changed forever and that even if the physical pain would someday go away (although it didn’t go fast enough for me) that I was always going to be little sadder than I used to be. I don’t know what my doctor stitched up, but it was more than my body. It’s like someone turned the light on after the follow-up surgery. I couldn’t believe it while I was in it, but it did get better.
5. Take a minute.
When there are no other options, when you feel overwhelmed, when there is a test or procedure that makes you feel uncomfortable, asking for a time-out is always a great way to take back control.
Have a drink of water. Take some deep breaths. Squeeze your partner’s hand. Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable and in control of what is happening to your body.
6. Let go.
A lot of things are going on in your body when you’re pregnant; add to that the possibility of past traumatic experiences coming to the surface and it’s a lot to take in. I had a lot of flash-back nightmares during my pregnancy, as well as days where I just couldn’t feel happy about the baby coming. It’s OK. Feel what you feel. Talk it out and be open with good people who understand and care about your experience.
Let go of what you think you should be like when you’re pregnant and accept what is. Free yourself from all those expectations. You aren’t going to be graded on how you handle your pregnancy. If the best you can do is get through it, then you’ll have a beautiful baby at the end who loves you unconditionally. That is a pretty amazing accomplishment.