Welcome to the survivor moms speak out blog!

While practicing full-time as a community-based midwife, I had the opportunity to work with many women who were survivors, either of childhood sexual trauma, rape, or both. The experience of being their midwife, and witnessing their challenges and triumphs encouraged me to learn more about the effects of trauma on the body, and on the experience of childbearing specifically. So just as I felt "called" to practice midwifery, I felt "called" to shed light on issues that survivor moms face during the process of becoming a mother. That calling led me to begin the "Survivor Moms Speak Out" project. We surveyed many women who were both moms and survivors; and 81 of those women completed a narrative or contributed a poem for the book "Survivor Moms: Women's Stories of Birthing, Mothering, and Healing after Sexual Abuse."
Read more about the book, or order a copy, at http://www.midwiferytoday.com/books/survivormoms.asp.

Because of space constraints, not all of the narratives that women contributed to the book project were able to appear in full in the final version of the book. So I would like to take the opportunity to share some of the whole narratives in this blog, featuring a narrative at a time.
About reading survivor stories:
Although the stories are encouraging because they represent survivors’ triumphs over adversity, they can also to be hard to read, because of the intensity of the issues and events. I encourage you to check in with yourself while reading survivor stories, especially if you are a survivor of past trauma, and limit your exposure if you become “triggered”. Feeling triggered might take several different forms. You might start re-experiencing a past trauma you have had before, by not being able to stop thinking about it, or dreaming about, or just feeling like it is happening all over again. You may feel distress or have physical symptoms like feeling your heart race or sweating. If you start to experience these things, you may benefit from talking to someone who understands how trauma works and how to help you with post-traumatic symptoms.

To read more about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder you can check out the National Center for PTSD website: http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/.

The Sidran Foundation offers an information and a referral resource on-line: http://www.sidran.org/

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mary’s Story

When I was 11 years old, I was molested by a friend of my parents. He lived in the upstairs apartment of our house, along with his wife and five daughters. He was a “good Christian man.” I hated when he did that to me; it made me feel dirty and helpless. Finally, I told my brother about it and he, who was nine at the time, said it was a serious thing he had done, and that I had to tell our parents about it right away. He said if I didn’t tell, then he would, and he called my mom in right way and said I had something to tell her. So I did, but I felt so ashamed.

A couple of nights later, I sat down with my mom and dad, a good family friend, and two counselors from the church who I didn’t know as anything more than faces in the congregation. They all told me it wasn’t my fault, and that what he did to me was wrong. I still felt all the more ashamed, weak, and pathetic for allowing such a terrible thing to happen to me.

Years went by. I never dealt with it much. When it came up, I felt as though a dark cloud covered the sun, and I felt all that guilt and shame and pathetic weakness swelling up inside, like I couldn’t hold it in, like it was going to explode. Finally, it did.

I was 16, on a ski trip with a bunch of other 16-year-olds. I flirted a lot with boys, and I was flirting a lot with the boys on the trip. One of the counselors/chaperone people pulled me aside and told me I’d better be careful or someone might take my playful flirting the wrong way, and I could find myself in a lot of trouble.

It triggered something in me, and I immediately burst into tears. I sobbed harder and harder, right there in the laundry room with this strange woman. And she asked me if it already had, meaning had I been raped as a consequence of my flirting. I felt angry with her for seeing it that way. Through my sobs all I managed to say was “it wasn’t my fault,” again and again. I spent the rest of that night and the next morning grieving, crying hard, weeping, in fact, for… I don’t quite know exactly. My lost innocence? My uncontrollable flirtatious nature that was going to “get me into trouble?” For the first time, I let myself feel a little angry, and I began to realize that it really wasn’t my fault. Regardless of whose fault it was, the consequences were mine to live with, to deal with, and I didn’t know if I had it in me to break free. Anyway, it felt good to have cried like that about it. I had dragged it up out of the dirty cellar of my memory and had begun looking at it in clear daylight. It was an ugly mess, don’t get me wrong, but there it was, sitting on the table in front of me, and I couldn’t put it back in the cellar even if I tried.

Three years later, I went to a “Take Back the Night” rally with a new friend. Women who were abuse survivors wore armbands of a certain color. I didn’t put one on. The woman I was there with asked me straight out if I’d been sexually abused. I was at first taken aback by this very direct question, but I told her that I had been molested at age 11. I said it so matter of factly, she didn’t act shocked or surprised or even pitying. It felt good to say it like that and not feel ashamed.

A few days after the rally, I met my daughter’s father. A month later, I was pregnant. I realized early on that although our month-long romantic adventure had been fun and carefree, the honeymoon was definitely over. We were both 19. We were still kids ourselves. It seemed I had no choice but to grow up, and fast. I felt angry that he had a choice. Try as he might, his presence did not feel supportive. In my frustration, I told him I didn’t want him around at all, not for the birth, not for the life. This was the only way I knew how to protect myself in this lonely, vulnerable time.

So, I was a single pregnant woman, 19 years of age. My parents were of great assistance, (though not without disappointment and embarrassment in my “out of wedlock” pregnancy) and for this I am eternally grateful. I moved back in with my family and began preparing for the baby, choosing midwives, gathering baby clothes, etc. I didn’t think much about my status as an abuse survivor during the pregnancy. When I did think about it, I felt afraid that my child would also be abused, and I felt at a loss as to how I was supposed to prevent that from happening.

I’ve read that there are two common and opposite reactions to sexual abuse. Some sexual abuse survivors become very protective of themselves, especially of their bodies. It is common for them to feel ashamed of being naked in front of people. They earn titles like “prude” and “uptight.” Others take the opposite approach, becoming very sexually promiscuous, “free” with their bodies and their sexuality, or so it appears. They are often called “slutty” by the other girls as the boys wait in line. I fell into the second. So I didn’t have much fear of being naked or of having fingers in my vagina or of having a baby emerge from/through my vagina. These things did not scare me. I was mostly afraid of the sexual abuse affecting my mothering.

So the nine months passed and I went into labor without much expectation. I could write five pages on that whole journey of childbirth, but I’ll try to capture it in a few sentences. Childbirth was indeed a powerful transition, a trial, a “right of passage,” into motherhood, you could say. After more than 40 hours of early labor, I hit rock bottom. I was alone and terrified. Terrified of what was ahead, of birthing this baby, of becoming a mother. I considered my options. I could tell the midwife to take me to the hospital and order a cesarean. I’d still have a baby in the end, so I’d still have to be a mother. Or, I could pull myself together, buckle down and push this baby out. I realized that if I chose the second option, I would have to do it. No one else could do it for me. Although I felt no strength within me, I’d have to find it. I’d have to find a whole hell of a lot of it, too.

After about three hours of hysterical exhaustion, extreme pain and feeling completely out of control, I got into the bathtub and pulled myself together. I turned inward and focused on my breath. I listened to my baby and felt the power rushing through my body. I was not thinking consciously about my sexual abuse, or about all the other abusive relationships I’d been involved in in recent years.

I was barely even aware of the sexual/spiritual pain I held, of all the hurt and abuse that I endured, all of the confusion. What I felt was the power in my body. Each contraction, each power rush of energy which began in my womb and then radiated outward, filled my whole being with focus and strength. And then I realized that this flood of strength was being given to me; it was mine. I surrendered to the pain, to the power in my body, to fighting with my fear. Really, I was surrendering to myself. I accepted that I was not really in control, but that I didn’t have to be “under control” to be strong.

But, it wasn’t about being out of control either. It was about accepting what was coming at me, not trying to stop it or control it necessarily, but using it to my advantage. I realized that the pain was there to work through, to come out of on the other side, stronger than ever. The pain of my sexual abuse, the pain of my labor, it was a test, a mission for me to look within and find it in me to overcome.

I pushed her out in 10 minutes. It was the most incredible feeling of release. After all that tension had built up within me, I could at last let it go, or push it from me with all the strength in my body. Later, I reflected upon what it was I was releasing in those moments. Obviously, I was releasing the baby that I’d held for nine months, but there was more than that. It was as if all the abuse, all that filth, all the shame and guilt and pain of my molestation at 11 years of age, and the subsequent sexual abuse I’d suffered, all of it was in a big gooey glob beneath my daughter’s head. It was as though she wouldn’t come out until I’d released it all. I couldn’t be a mother until I pushed it all out of me. And as I pushed, it all came pouring out of me. And I felt as though my birth canal, my vagina, was being purified so my baby could pass through it into holy light. It was a cleansing, a reclaiming. And when at last she did emerge from me, she felt so pure and uncontaminated, so perfect, and I felt freed at last, so grateful to her for carrying me through such a challenging phase of my (our) lives.

Now she is one and a half years old. I still worry a lot about not being able to protect her from molesters and rapists, and all that perversion. All I can do is to do my best, to protect her without hindering her growth, and to know that as with me, she will have to deal with whatever life throws at her. And if, in spite of all my efforts to protect, she does suffer as I did, I just pray she learns that it is there for her to learn from, it is there to challenge her to overcome, and the power lies within her.

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

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