The Unspoken Horrors Of Pregnancy And Birth For Moms Who Are Survivors Of Sexual Assault
Unlike other mothers I know, I do not enjoy telling my birth story.
My memories of those 16 hours are hazy, thanks to drugs and exhaustion, and the most wonderful bits of that grueling process were at the end, curled up in a hospital room with my 3-day-old child resting on my chest. The lead-up to those pleasantries, however, are painful to reflect upon, and even more so when someone asks me to recount it to them.
The moment that sticks out the most was after changing into a hospital gown and being placed on a bed for triage, just after stumbling through the hospital with my partner’s arm tightly wound around my waist. The nurse was tired and seemed to have little patience for my moaning and occasional cursing of the pounding back labor that I was experiencing. She managed to take my blood pressure amidst my tightening breaths and winces, and asked me to lay back and relax.
I shot back with a sarcastic comment, but did as she requested.
Once I saw her gloved fingers coming at my open knees, I fell into a state of despair and pushed myself up the bed, away from her. She ignored my clear discomfort, asked me to open my knees, and proceeded to attempt to discern how far along I was. I cringed, coiling away from her, involuntarily, when I felt what she was trying to do.
This resulted in another nurse coming in with a plastic speculum. My partner paced behind them, panic on his face.
One of the nurses spoke loudly at me, as if I was a child, like maybe if she raised her voice I would comply with what she was asking. I felt like a caged wild animal, hysterical, and wanting to hiss and claw so they would leave me alone. My crying came not only from the excruciating contractions, but from the waves of memory that nearly drowned me in that hospital room, confronted with the same discomfort, confusion, and desperation I had felt at 14.
The ghost of my sexual trauma had sidled into the room with us, hovering over the hospital bed with a greedy grin on its face, taunting me as I suffered through the physical discomfort of labor and the aching weight of a memory that had not been forgotten.
Eventually, they gave up, exasperated and annoyed, refusing to wrestle with me anymore as I blocked every attempt they made to perform a very standard procedure. I was wheeled away in a wheelchair to my room, red-faced, ashamed, and shaking.
The most painful part of reflecting on the day I gave birth to my child is not only the memory of having my autonomy taken from me in a small, crowded hospital room, but realizing the number of sexual trauma victims who had undoubtedly suffered the same forceful hospital experience that I, too, had.
A well-known statistic that is important to reiterate is the fact 1 out of 6 women have faced rape or an attempted rape, as recorded by RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). This does not include sexual trauma such as nonconsensual touching and harassment. This also does not take into account the amount of people who do not come forward with their stories of sexual trauma. Of which there are many. Too many.
The staggering number of sexual trauma survivors in comparison to the amount of women who give birth helps establish a bridge in understanding that this type of experience is not uncommon within the walls of a hospital. And yet, why are we not talking about it?
In a study involving 53,065 pregnant women, 19% had experienced adult abuse, and 80% of those women experienced postpartum depression. In addition, other studies that focused on childhood sexual abuse imply that pregnancy can cause “re-traumatization” of abuse.
From there, you can look into depression during pregnancy, issues with breastfeeding, and sexual intimacy after pregnancy. So many women are faced with sexual trauma, and so many women suffer through their pregnancy because of it.
Even though these experiences can create an unwelcome mental prison for pregnant women, medical professionals can offer support by discussing what the patient needs and what they are comfortable with, and by communicating what they will physically be doing to patients as they go through labor and other medical experiences.
Knowing that as I was going through a life-changing and natural process I was also reliving some deep traumatic stressors from nearly a decade before tainted my labor experience, in addition to the first few months with my new baby. I am far from alone in this experience. There needs to be more conversation between medical professionals and patients about past traumatic experience, how to avoid triggering these memories during labor, and allowing pregnant women autonomy and control over their birthing experience.
Being held prisoner by sexual trauma is one of the biggest mountains I have ever had to climb, and a battle I fight daily. No woman should be expected to conquer that mountain while in the vulnerable position of bringing new life into this world.
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