Labor Challenges

Abuse Survivors

While a history of abuse is not a challenge caused by labor, it can make labor more challenging. The following is an interview with a reader who chose to share her story so others may be better prepared.

When/how did you become aware that your abuse history would affect your birth experiences? Was it actually during labor, or was it after when you were reflecting on the birth?

It was during labor, I began feeling increasingly out of control and talked down to like a child, the nurses would perform cervical checks when ever without asking- " I need to check you" and then boom there's someone shoving her hand inside me while I'm having a contraction. I felt so out of control and vulnerable but it wasn't until the Dr decided I needed internal monitors that I really flipped. The sensation of the montior being inserted sent me into a flashback- i didn't just remember what it felt like or think it felt similar- suddenly i was reliving the rapes- i was there- i was screaming but noone knew why- women scream in labor all the time- i guess my screaming wasn't any different.I snapped out of it but I felt as though I had just been raped all over again- my Dr didn't do anything *wrong* it's just how my long ago pain resurfaced in a very stressful time I suspect that the stress and vulnerabilty along with feeling restrained and muscle memory of something going too far inside my body is what did me in.

I said nothing to anyone for a very long time- it wasn't until I read Kathleen Kendall-Tackett's book The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood, more specifically the chapter, "the Long Shadow" that I finally didn't feel ashamed of what I had experienced-what I experienced can be a common response to what I had endured years before- before this I had felt tremendously guilty for having such negative feelings over the birth of my first child- how could i possibly associate the most traumatic event in my life with what was supposed to be the most precious gift, the birth of my baby? But once I knew it was ok, I could heal.

What did you most need during that first labor? How could those with you have helped you?
What did you do differently to prepare for the next labor?
What worked and what didn’t work for you in labor the next time?

Did you meet any resistance from midwives or physicians you shared your story?  How did you handle that resistance?

Yes, unfortunately I did. With my 2nd son I tried to share my birth plan with my OB she didn't want to see it, she said to send it to the hospital and it would be in my file for the big day, I told her there was important information I thought she needed to know- again- send it to the hospital. I was too afraid to blurt out "Hey you, listen, I'm a rape survivor and I need you to know some things" She had a presence about her that suggested she was right and no one could oppose her way.  At another prenatal appointment we were discussing inducing me and I told her how I just couldn't do pitocin again- she told me I could have an epidural right away and wouldn't feel a thing- I reminded her how I didn't want to have an epidural, I just don't want to feel restrained ( we had discussed this part before) and she replied real sarcastically "oh ya that's right you're afaaaaid of epidurals" I left almost in tears. Thankfully i went into labor on my own on a day she was not on call and while I had a Dr I never had met before this Dr was completely supportive of my birth plan, as were the nurses we worked with at the hospital.  I switched Dr for the births of my next two children to my family practice Dr who has been the best Dr ever.

Basically when I meet resistance I turn into that helpless child again- why I don't know, This is why I need my doula, she's not afraid of anyone. She's sure to let others know how important certain things are to me and can't be ignored.

You said you thought you had healed before the first birth, what did you do after that first birth to continue the healing process?

At first nothing, i felt totally ashamed of how i reacted to his birth, and to add to it we had a terrible time getting him to latch and nurse. I felt damaged and rejected. And when I would try to get my son to nurse and he'd cry, I felt that maybe I was abusing him. Which escalated I was afraid to change his diaper, to wipe him, to bath him-what if I accidentally abused him? I've tried to explain this to people who've not gone through it and they don't get it but others who've come through childhood abuse have said similar things. I was afraid to be his mother, he deserved better, I was afraid I was going to accidentally hurt him? I was also afraid to tell anyone what I was feeling- how could i associate something so beautiful as the birth of a child with something as ugly as rape? It wasn't until J was over 9 months old- probably a bit older that I read The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett ( from my local LLL library) The chapter entitled "The Long Shadow" discusses the impact of childhood abuse on new mothers- she described what I was experiencing! I wasn't a freak! I wasn't a horrible mom! From there I mentioned it to my nurse practitioner who suggested with future births that it's important to mention my trauma to caregivers so they can be mindful of it...why oh why didn't I know this could have been an issue before at least I wouldn't have spent nearly a year in silence worrying that I was crazy?! From there I sought out online resources, message boards, fellow survivors, and eventually a book called When Survivors Give Birth. Not only did it help me prepare for the next child, it helped reinforce that what's happened is a normal response to trauma.

Having each baby and nursing them, has been very empowering to me. This is God's plan for me and I've embraced it!  I've also found it healing to share with others that they are not alone. Even if I couldn't change the flashbacks etc that occurred if I at least known this was a normal response, I wouldn't have spent so much time feeling so bad and alone.

Was there anything specific about the birth experience that was a trigger to re-experience the trauma?

The placement of the internal monitors put me over the edge...the other events: interventions, lack of support, lack of respect, helped get to the edge but the internal monitor probe is inserted all the way up into the uterus to measure contraction stregnth...the uterus is not meant to be entered...just exited. I'm probably being too graphic but as a small child being raped by an adult man things were pushed well beyond where anything was meant to go also- I think "muscle memory", as i've heard it described, was the ultimate trigger for me

Did you have a system set up to help your labor support know if what you were experiencing were flashbacks during the second birth? What did you plan to do if flashbacks did occur?

We didn't really I guess before i had the flashbacks i started getting panicky first so the plan was to just help me focus and not to panic and avoid the interventions hindsight we probably should have had more of a plan for if it would happen what to do...

What advice do you give to other women who have experienced abuse?
Do you feel “healed” now?

I used to think I was healed, i put it out of my mind, I didn't like being a victim, talking about it or dwelling on it, but really i don't know that the wounds really ever heal completely-I've come to an acceptance that this is part of me and i can't change the past only learn from it and move forward.

I am dealing with the original assaults again. It still hurts and I'd be lying if I don't still feel anger for my attacker not only for the original harm he did but for interfering with what should have been a beautiful time in my life, becoming a mom. And maybe it's harder now that I'm a mother, I'm very protective. I'm the mom that stays at a birthday party when all the other parents leave, I'm the mom who doesn't leave her kids with a sitter other than a close friend, and I'm the mom who stays at church in a nearby room when her children are at their youth activities no matter how much I like those who are in charge... I couldn't protect myself as a child but I will do my very best to protect my children.  I know I'm over protective, the rational side of me tells me the likelihood of the same thing happening to them is probably not as great as I perceive it to be but that's how I cope. I feel terrible for saying this because I know we are to forgive but I HATE that man, not for the pain he's caused but for the continuous fear he's created.

 I know I can't take away the pain others have endured but if I can reach out to just one mom and let them know 'this is what helped me,  you're not alone and you can do this. You are not damaged you are having a natural reaction to a not so natural trauma and deserve to be respected, you will be a great mom and you deserve to be happy!'