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/

Friday, December 12, 2008

Liz's Story

Sometimes a wide plain, sometimes barely a trail, the path is ever changing and long. In places it has deep ruts that fill with water from the rains, elsewhere there is only twisting sand, under the intense beating sun. It can be almost impassable with thorny overgrowth or so steep and exposed that nothing can grow. But as I travel it, I learn to weather its challenges and recognize its patterns. And I try to always remember it is my path. It does lead somewhere. It goes on.

This path is mine. My path as a woman, a mother, and a survivor. I became a mother before I became a survivor. Although my abuse happened as a child, becoming a mother allowed me to embrace who I truly am and allowed me to look into the dark places. Each birth left me with an imprint of the sacred, and I had no choice but to be transformed.

Now it takes effort to remember what my life, and my path, looked like before having my children. It takes effort to remember that I used to avoid remembering. I used to stuff the memories down into any corner or crevice. I had a mile-long body with rows upon rows of caverns, locked tight. It was my way of coping, shutting in the dark, so only the light would show. I could go on being the person I wanted to be, the person everyone knew--happy, smart, successful, well-raised--a model life.

The Past

Not the person who I really was. That person would have to remember the spring and summer of 1980, when I was twelve years old. That person would have to recall the day my younger sister and I went over to play at our neighbor’s house. Playing in the basement. Her older brother’s bedroom was down in the basement too. The cool, older brother, dressed in army fatigues, with a hunting knife and a BB gun. The popular one who killed the frogs down by the stream and kicked his dog if enough people were watching. No firm memory of the sequence of events, only patches of events and feelings. Him being there, “we will play hide and seek now.” Always, it is my turn to seek. The others must hide. They run away, giggling, leaving me to count. Leaving me to suck. Him up against me, a large penis being pressed into my mouth. When will I get to hide? When will I get to run away? I will get to hide and run away for many years.

I remember being let into his “fort” in the yard. A clubhouse, an older teen-age hang out, a privilege. None of the younger kids were allowed in. But Liz was. How lucky. More blow jobs on a Saturday afternoon. He never reacted. He never came. A robot, just like me. My lips had never been kissed, yet they had been wrapped around a penis. I longed for a kiss.

In the woods, by the creek. Him against me. Smell of cigar. Grabbing on, hands thrust down my pants. With clenched jaws, I hung on and blocked out the searing pain. My head was cut off and put back on when it was over. Running home, afraid of being seen or smelled. A wounded animal with underpants filled with blood. Deflowered. Locked in the bathroom, cleaning, washing, purifying. Wadding my underpants and my shame into layers and layers of paper bags and stuffing them at the bottom of the garbage. The bottom of my soul.

The hunted survive through learning the ways of their hunters. “No, I don’t want to go outside right now.” Sensing, listening, always aware, I rendered his weapons (isolation, intimidation, strength, a penis) obsolete. He turned to humiliation. The teasing began. The cool, older crowd heard his stories. “You begged him for it. Little slut. Little slut.” Shame. Shame. I swallowed the shame. I told no one the truth. Too afraid, too confused. To preserve my dignity, and myself, I split in two. Liz and the sexual Liz. The sexual Liz became the bad one, so the rest of me could stay intact.

This is how I went through my teenage years and early twenties. As half of myself. Demi-being. My relationships, of course, suffered. No one ever knew me. With men, I was curiously flirty and fun in public where I felt safe, but frigid and in control in private, determined to protect myself from abuse and its shadow of humiliation. I had learned that if love does not accompany sexual feelings, only dirty, disgusting acts and pain result. Therefore, masturbation, having sex with people you do not love, and sex for sex’s sake was wrong. By never performing these acts, I salvaged a scrap of self-respect. Read my mind: Even though I used to be a slut, I am not dirty anymore because I now only have sex with people I love, in committed relationships. I don’t let them touch my boobs until we have been seeing each other for at least four months, and don’t let them touch below that for two months after that . . . I chose only “safe” men; men I had been friends with for a long time, men who were gentle, kind, and those who did not challenge me. Men who were virgins. I could have made worse choices.

With women, I felt no solidarity, a mirror for my inability to connect with my own femaleness. I was disgusted with/afraid of the female aspects of myself, and paradoxically, was always jealous of women who seemed to have these aspects perfected--those that I deemed flirty, pretty, and sexy. Competitive by nature, I was determined to perfect these aspects in myself as well, even if it was all an act. I remained a frozen bud; a sense of sisterhood would not blossom until much later.


In my mid-twenties I married. A gentle, loving man, who was, as fate would have it, comfortable with his sexuality and its expression. What a challenge for me. Even so, I believed that on our wedding night, all my baggage about sex would miraculously disappear. It took six months for sex to become THE issue in our otherwise seamless relationship. I felt no power or control in sex with David despite controlling every aspect of our sexual relationship: what we did, when we did it, how we did it. I considered my sexuality as the sum of my body parts--crotch and boobs mostly--and felt that this is what David wanted to have sex with, not me.

So I set out to fix myself. With my motto “there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished through thorough research,” I read a multitude of books about sexuality, adult massage, tantric sex, and being your own sex therapist. In my head, I gained many new insights and ideas, but in my body, nothing changed. I couldn’t make the connection. I couldn’t go about healing in the same way I went about graduate school. It was quite a shock.

Birth of Eric

During the second year of our marriage, I became pregnant. My gynecologist had told us that it might take a year or two to become pregnant due to my erratic and infrequent ovulation, but it took only three weeks. We were thrilled, surprised, and a little overwhelmed. David and I were still dancing awkwardly (and I, reluctantly) the salsa of our sexual relationship, and we worried that having a baby would turn the music off completely. Lose the CD. Sell the CD player. Fire the DJ.

I applied my ever-strong research skills to pregnancy and birth and deciphering the myriad of ways to approach them. I found many studies pointing to the safety of homebirth with midwives for low-risk women. My need for controlling what happened to my body led me naturally to midwives, as did my experience overseas working with a rural African midwife.

As I progressed through my pregnancy, I marveled at how my body was changing. I read everything possible on fetal development, ate well, kept in shape, and generally, felt great. I did have a raging yeast infection for the last six months but loved the fact that it meant I was exempt from having sex. When the day of birth came, David and I were excited and felt prepared. I turned inward to deal with the pain, as I was accustomed to doing, but was aware of David and needed him by my side, literally, for the entire process.

I pushed myself through the birth of my first child through sheer power of will. I was determined to have a “good and natural” birth (read: a “perfect” birth), yet was unable to open up to the pain, to the experience of it. I associated pain with my genitals and knew how to deal with it: block it out. I pushed for two hours with out uttering a cry, only low moans could escape. I could only choke on the hoops, hollers, and screams of joy and agony that I wanted to utter. Despite my midwife’s encouragement to open my throat and voice, so my vagina would follow, I could not. I could only swallow.

Despite this difficulty, my Eric came wailing out of me all at once after a particularly strong push. Bright pink with bright red lips longing to suck. The feelings of relief and wonder were equally immense. I felt the presence of the sacred for the first time in my life. Giving birth gave me the first positive, blessed connection with my own sexuality. My genitals had held only shame for me before; I never owned them, never loved them. Now look what had come out of them! Sex could not be all bad if this beautiful child was the result. I also experienced the strength and power of my beautiful, female body, because everyone trusted it that day. Everyone trusted me and my body to bring this baby here. With the help of some wise and gentle hands, I too began to trust myself. To trust, and therefore respect, my body.

Breastfeeding went smoothly with Eric. I was absolutely determined to breastfeed for as long as he was willing (16 months) and did so whenever and wherever he was hungry. In public places, I did not ask people for permission or go hunker down in a corner. If people felt embarrassed because they stared and got a wee glimpse of skin, good for them. It would loosen them up a bit, as I was becoming loosened up. I tried to be discreet, but I was not going to be ashamed.


But I was afraid. I was afraid of cutting this beautiful child off from his sexuality, as I was still alienated from mine, and afraid of the growing sexual isolation from David. Filled with courage and power from the birth, I went into psychotherapy. This was a major hurdle as I come from a family of teachers, social workers, and psychologists. (We help others; we can’t possibly need help ourselves.)

Entering therapy was like entering a new world for me. I realized I wasn’t crazy--that the things I felt and did, my “coping techniques” were normal. I began the long process of turning myself as victim into myself as survivor. And being proud of it. David was steadfastly by my side. Encouraged by his reception, I slowly gained the courage to tell a few close female friends my story. I showed them my dark side, and they didn’t turn away. This brought warm, welcome light into my cold dark caverns of shame and self-loathing. I began to feel known and whole. To realize just how many women felt devalued and shamed, by men and by greater societal beliefs and values, and that we were together, fighting on the same side.

Through visualization exercises in therapy, I became aware of a coarse rope around my neck, inhibiting access to my voice. This made it difficult for me to cry, to become angry, to voice any scary feelings, to make sounds. I had to regain my voice. I began group therapy in a women’s “circle of sound” for survivors. A combination of music and voice therapy, I grew more in this setting than anywhere else. Not only did I see my experience reflected back to me in the lives of the other women again and again, but also I was challenged by the experiential aspects of the group, its intuition-led, let-come-out-what-comes-out structure. There was no goal, only to be where you were, to feel what came up, and to trust that it would be all right. The non-judgment the women showed me will forever serve as a model for how to be in relationship. David and my relationship, as well as my other friendships grew immensely during this time.

Birth of Will

I was in the midst of this therapy when I became pregnant with my second child. At first I considered stopping therapy, as I did not want to expose my yet-to-be-born child to the dark places we entered during our sessions. I was afraid of what he would hear and feel in utero. After much internal debate, I realized that the personal growth I was doing, the growth of this child’s mother, would more than make up for any damage done. I chose different midwives for this birth. As I was filling out the required forms I checked the box marked “yes” for the question “Have you ever been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused?” for the first time in my life. A warrior wears her battle scars with pride.

Will’s birth was different for many reasons; he was my second child, he was smaller than Eric, he was born into water. He was born to a woman who could make noise! I moaned and groaned and felt so open during the labor and birth. Much of this openness I attribute to therapy and to my midwives who allowed me to create the setting, energy, and space I needed to bring my child into the world. And to David who was right there in the pool with me, my quiet pillar of support. I felt again the gratitude that something so precious could come out of a place I had loathed for so long.

Having two children was a transition, especially for Eric (he was almost three). I breastfed Will for a year and made sure Eric got enough hugs and other physical time with me. Now, with the boys at almost six and three, we are in a groove, the four of us, together.

Being A Mom

Being a survivor has affected how I mother. In good and bad ways. On the positive side, I am determined that my sons not be cut off from their sexuality. I want them to see it as beautiful and special. For me, that means not overtly or covertly expressing things that would make them ashamed about their bodies; pooping, peeing, masturbating, or being naked. Also, I want them to be comfortable with all their emotions. I don’t tell them that “boys don’t cry” or that feeling angry is wrong.

Do I mother in ways of which I am less proud? Oh, yes. Though I encourage the expression of emotions, I overreact when my sons are aggressive towards others. My reaction can be out of proportion to a petite offense. I want them to know it is never O.K. to hurt people. Yet I am also afraid they will be hurt by people. Suspicious of strangers, care providers, older boys, well, really anyone male that I don’t know, I can be overprotective. I only want them to have sweet, joyful play with kind, safe people. This, of course, is every mother’s wish for her children and also ridiculous. It exemplifies the fine balance that mothering must accomplish; protecting one’s children from the truly damaging experiences of life, while still allowing them some struggles so they develop the skills with which to cope with adversity. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But how is a mother to know?

Being A Woman

As for my life outside of kids (threadbare, but existent), my path of healing has continued. I do energy work. I take dance classes that move me through my chakra centers and keep the energy flowing through the places that shut down easily. Dance helps me remember that I can move my body however I want to and that it is beautiful and my right. The sexual relationship between David and me continues to be our biggest struggle. I must remain conscious and vigilant of my sexuality. But we have learned slowly to stop trying to fix me and instead grow as “us.”

My experience as a survivor has also helped to shape my professional life. I worked for years at Planned Parenthood to support women in their choices about their bodies and sexual lives. In public health graduate school, I studied women, social power and support, culture, and birth. I worked with inner city, community-based organizations to increase the choices that women had in birth. Through these experiences I was reminded of what I knew well in my own heart: the best way to help women is to listen to women.

Now my interests have led me to examine birth and women’s lives in other cultures. With the global dominance of Western ideology, practices surrounding birth can often be a last vestige of a traditional culture. In fact, healthy traditional practices and rituals surrounding birth can be a sign of a culture’s very survival. And so I ponder: if we brought this idea down to an individual level, to what degree are we destroying a woman by not letting her determine where she wants to give birth, with whom, and how? I believe having a voice can mean a woman’s very survival: of her spirit, her will, and her identity. I believe that for a woman who has been marginalized, either through race, socioeconomic status, or past history, having choice in birth is especially critical. It can plant the seeds of trust in her intuition, her knowledge of her body and of how to mother.

Sometimes a wide plain, sometimes barely a trail, the path is ever changing and long. My path of suffering, survival, and healing. Out of this suffering comes compassion; compassion for others who are suffering. I can love them because I am not afraid of them. I am not afraid of them because I am not afraid of myself. I am a warrior and will wear my scars with pride.

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

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