The healing power of a snatched conversation: Motherhood after sexual trauma

This is a guest post from someone who has visited The Motherkind Café who would like to remain anonymous. We are so grateful to her for her amazing courage and generosity in sharing this story with us. Please be advised that this blog post contains references to sexual assault and abuse; if you feel you may be distressed by this, then you may wish not to read any further. There will be some information below the post about where you can find support if you have been affected by experiences like this.

A few years after becoming a mum, I got back in touch with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in a decade. We talked and laughed while our children played (and the house got ransacked). As no small people were shrieking about being thumped and everyone seemed to be having a good time, we carried on drinking tea and going over all the things we’d not had a chance to talk about in that important decade since we’d last seen each other. 

We talked about our children, but also about serious stuff, faith and divorce and step-parenting. Recalling the birth of her child, my friend said quietly but certainly that the pain of her contractions in labour had taken her right back to being raped as a teenager. We didn’t dwell on more details, except for me to express my sadness for her and for her to shrug and glaze over a little. As is often the way with small children, our conversation was interrupted by the need to provide a meal. Chicken and cherrytomatoesnottouchingontheplateandnoweirdgreenthingsonthesidepleasemummy NOW was sufficiently prosaic to draw a line under the conversation.

Of all the conversations I have ever had about pregnancy and parenting, this brief exchange did more for me personally than I can ever explain. I can only hope that I listened well enough to her for it to be a relatively positive experience for her too.

My own intrusive memories and sensations from sexual trauma and childhood abuse were not something I had words for, and to have someone articulate that experience for me made me feel human and so much less alone. It made me feel, frankly, a bit less batshit for what I had judged to be illogical associations in my mind between the experience of necessary medical interventions in pregnancy and birth and episodes of assault. 

My friend’s matter-of-fact presentation of her experience of flashbacks during her birth allowed me to relent marginally on my own internal narrative of judgement. I had felt that there was something wrong with me for thinking and feeling I was somewhere else during gynaecological procedures in pregnancy, and I was ashamed of the confusion that had caused me to try and climb off the examination table, or to shake uncontrollably for simple procedures such as smear tests or the relentless minor intrusions that constituted many years of IVF.

There’s so much written about trauma and its impact, but it’s hard to see this as relevant to yourself if one of your superpowers is denial that certain events have happened. If dissociation from the events or feelings is a feature of your memory, sometimes the bodily sensations of labour or a medical intervention of some sort can take you right back there. With layers of experience confusingly interposed, a phrase, a tone of voice, the physical characteristics of medical staff, or, in my case, a lack of windows in the delivery room and a door shutting can have surreal effects.

The aftermath of interventions in birth meant that after my last child was born, I felt like I had been saddled with a physical trigger that I carried around with me, unable to ever get away from it. I felt like the sensations from my own body were eternally spinning me back to a place that filled me with horror and fear. I didn’t want it and I certainly didn’t want “it” anywhere near my tiny innocent baby. It got to the point where I couldn’t feel my own arms anymore or recognise myself in the mirror. Not the first time this has happened, but it was heartbreaking as I felt so sad I was letting my baby down by being “somewhere else” and mentally distant.  

These complicated experiences were and are clearly not resolved simply by recalling my friend’s openness (OXPIP were exceptionally kind), but it has been a guiding light for me in seeking information about what was happening for me. I was not the only person this happened to, and I wasn’t just “broken,” despite feeling this. 

Psychologists and psychotherapists like to say that trauma responses are “a normal response to an abnormal situation.” I’m stubborn enough to want to shout about it not feeling very bloody normal, thank you very much, but being lippy aside, it’s been valuable to me to try and put aside my own judgement of myself for re-experiencing symptoms I can’t control. Crucially, I want other women to know if this is happening for them, they are not the only ones. There is a wealth of professional literature (mostly that I can’t read due to my superpowers of denial, but yanno, baby steps and all that) that describes my experiences, and weirdly it’s not followed by a ringing judgement of mental instability and unsuitability to parent. 

Sometimes these experiences felt like they were or are me, all of me. When your body is a constant reminder of things you’ve worked very hard to forget, it’s exhausting. When that is layered over with birth trauma, it is confusing and anxiety-provoking. But it is not “all of me,” even if it feels like it is sometimes, and I’m not a bad parent or a danger to my children if I have this stuff in my past/present (which is certainly how I felt). 

I’m hoping that by being honest here and maybe at The Motherkind Café, if I can ever find the words, I can normalise similar experiences for other women, so I can pass on a little of the feeling my friend gave me: that it’s not just me, you are not alone.

If anything in this post affects you and you would like some support with any of the issues mentioned, please speak to your GP. You can also self-refer to Talking Space Plus (NHS) or OXPIP, both of whom can offer advice, support, and treatment. You could also speak to the Oxford Maternity Voices Partnership for help in relation to giving feedback about a difficult or traumatic birth and improving care for women in Oxford, or find out more about birth trauma via the Birth Trauma Association and Make Birth Better.

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