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, February 27, 2009

Katrina's Story

There was something wrong with me, I was sure. Simple things, like going alone into a new place, terrified me. I was afraid of men. I had an overactive caution meter that made certain situations unbearable, everything within me screaming, "GET OUT NOW!" I cried at the drop of a hat with people I trusted. I was seldom happy and never contented, never safe, even at home. After a disastrous dating relationship with an abusive guy, I married a wonderful man with whom making love was uncomfortable at best and at worst, I wasn’t even there for it. I had this uncanny ability to disappear, leave my body and come back at a later point. Sometimes I went into the wallpaper, sometimes into the rest of my day and sometimes into nowhere. This wasn’t normal, was it?

Then, one evening, sitting with my legs drawn up on the floor in a friend’s living room with the lamp light behind my left shoulder, I remembered. I remembered episodes of "special games" that a 17-year-old male babysitter would play with 6 year old me. I went home that evening and told everything to my husband, and it felt as though I had never forgotten. I felt relieved, at some level, to understand that I was wounded; I wasn’t "normal." Then I slid into deep depression.

Mercifully, love and support surrounded me. At this point in our lives, my husband was in graduate school and there was a counselor on staff whom I could see free of charge. She was experienced in dealing with abuse survivors and we worked together for two full years on a weekly basis. There is no way that I can ever repay the gift that she gave to me of her time, her energy, her love. She mothered me toward health and healing and was the midwife to my most difficult birth. My husband was a rock, staunchly loyal, protective and patient. He even sought counseling himself as he tried to deal with my depression. He held me or didn’t as I needed, coached me, comforted me, cooked for me and prayed for me. And I had a doula too, a brave survivor herself, further along her healing path, who held my hand, raged with me, wept with me and believed in me.

After two years, my counselor moved on and I continued for one year with someone new. Two months into that time, I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. We had stopped using birth control four months earlier and I had wept through each of my periods since then, sure that despite all my work, the abuse was going to interfere with my life one more time and prevent my pregnancy. But here I was, pregnant. What a miracle! I had an easy pregnancy and slid into prenatal care by the OB group who had a female nurse practitioner whom I had found for well woman care.

Part of the work of my healing involved exploring "normality." What did it mean to be "normal"? I confused health and wholeness with "normality." I so badly wanted to have a normal pregnancy and a normal birth and a normal baby, having felt so abnormal all of my life. I have no sisters and none of my women friends were pregnant at the time that I was. The only stories that I had to go on were of the women in the office where I worked and they were all at least 15 years older than I was. I knew I wanted a natural birth, though. My mother had two natural births and taught Lamaze when I was young. She talked all of my life about the beauty of her births and her joy at the end of pain. My friend, my doula, also steered me in the direction of childbirth classes as a way to prepare for a natural birth.

In my sixth month I read a book that said that for survivors of abuse, birth in a hospital into the hands of doctors could entail elements of re-victimization. I toyed with the idea of a home birth but only knew about lay midwives locally and knew that where I live the practice of lay midwifery is illegal. I did not have the resources to break the law. I was trying to be normal.

Three weeks before my due date, I lost my mucous plug and began having contractions. For three days, I labored off and on, mostly at home, punctuated by trips to the hospital to be checked, and made no "progress." I began to doubt that labor led to birth; it only led to more labor. On my final trip to the hospital they surmised that I had a urinary tract infection (a phone diagnosis by the doctor) they put me on antibiotics and sent me home. So hard. I felt supported by my husband and doula but not by my doctors. For several more days I had contractions off and on, which I knew were more intense than Braxton-Hicks. Meanwhile, the baby grew.

At my weekly appointment a few days before my due date, the doctor expressed concern at the size of the baby. I already measured 44cm. She suggested that we schedule an induction after the weekend or (as I hesitated) I could come in for a non-stress test. No patience, no sympathy, no trust in my body. We went in for the induction on Monday. And thus followed a cascade of interventions: amniotomy, pitocin, premature pushing (I pushed before I had an urge to) and CPD. After 20 hours of labor I had an epidural and a c-section. Bruce was 10 lbs, 5 oz.

As I look back, I marvel at my capacity for pain: enduring a Pit induced labor with no medication and no bag of waters cushion. I had terrific support from both my husband and doula and the nurse assigned to us. She said later that she had never seen a couple work together so well. I am also amazed that I stayed present for all of my labor. At no point did I disappear into the wood- work even as the male OB tried to turn an already stuck baby. Still, I felt that my body and I had not worked together. I had not trusted.

Immediately following my surgery I was given medication to make me sleep. I was not consulted about this. I was out of it for many hours and Bruce and I nursed for the first time six hours after his birth. In the meantime they had given him a bottle of glucose water because his glucose level dropped. Thus ensued a troubled and trying nursing relationship. Bruce lost weight and then gained only slowly. I finally was convinced to supplement with formula and wore a supplemental nursing system for the next year. My consultation with lactation consultants and La Leche League leaders has suggested that the Pitocin (which artificially swells breast tissue causing poor latch on), the delay in our nursing and the initial bottle were all causes of my low milk supply.

During the next weeks and months I held and nursed and wore a high need Bruce and struggled with depression. When Bruce was 9 months old I began studying to be a natural childbirth educator. The process of learning unleashed my anger and I agonized over feeling unsupported and voiceless and re-victimized. This anger gave me energy to study, to begin teaching and to promise myself to make different choices the next time.

I became pregnant again when Bruce was 16 months old. By then I had more knowledge of the birth community locally due to my association with other childbirth teachers and midwives. I explored the possibility of a home birth with a Certified Nurse Midwife and birth at the most natural childbirth friendly hospital. I found a wonderful midwife who wanted a record of my surgical incision but otherwise treated me as a healthy pregnant woman.

Mary’s office was in the back of an old Bed and Breakfast almost 25 miles from my home. Behind the building there was a farmyard with horses, a stream, and a beautiful weeping willow tree. Each of my prenatal visits was profoundly healing for me. Mary spent at least an hour each visit with me, talking about me, my hopes, fears, my previous birth, and my dreams. She was attentive to two-year-old Bruce. She had me check my own urine and weigh myself and gave me copies of all of my records. I felt empowered and cared for and strong. Then after our check ups, Bruce and I would go to the local general store, buy peanuts and juice and sit under the willow tree watching the stream.

I decided early on that I wanted to labor in water this time and rented a birthing tub from another local childbirth educator. We picked it up three weeks before my due date and set it up in a back bedroom of our house. We filled it once to be sure it didn’t leak and my husband, Peter, and I tried it out for fun.

What a different birth this was! My husband called the midwife at 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning and said that we thought this was it. He asked me how far dilated I thought I was, "Six,” I said. He told her not to hurry that we would be fine until she got there. At 6:00 a.m. Bruce woke up and I instinctively went in to him to put him back to sleep. He dozed until I had to move onto my hands and knees for a contraction. That upset him, "Mommy no have contraptions," he cried. My mother said she would take him to the other grandparent’s house and Peter put him in the car screaming. I cried. After they left, I looked at my belly and said, "Ok baby, time for you to come. I need to take care of my other baby." Then I went into transition. I got in the shower and moaned and moaned. I felt the moment the contractions begin to change and felt the powerful pushing at the peaks begin. “ I feel pushy,” I called to Peter outside the curtain. "Don’t push,” he said. “ Mary isn’t here yet." He ran back and forth to the door looking for her.

Mary arrived just as I was getting out of the shower and wondering why the next contraction wasn’t there yet. She checked me and I was complete with a bulging bag. So we called all the friends we’d invited to be at the birth, sent my father off with the car so my mother could come back and settled down to wait. I had an hour break during which I had three contractions. We listened to music; I ate banana bread and a popsicle and smiled at my friends as they came through the door. They were amazed to see me up and smiling and completely dilated. Then I began to feel pressure: all these lovely people here are waiting for me to produce the baby. I told Peter I needed to be alone with him in the bathroom. Mary said to call her if I felt the baby move. Fifteen minutes later I was squatting and pushing and I felt the baby slip under the pubic bone. Mary came in and with the next contraction I soaked her by popping the amniotic sac. This was all new now and I began to panic. “The baby is too big,” I thought. “No way is something that feels that big getting out.” I called for honey and I clung to Peter saying, "I can’t do it." “You are doing it,” he replied. Then I said I wanted to get back in the water.

A few contractions later the head emerged and then a good push or two and out came the shoulders and Peter yelled, "You did it, Katrina!" There he was, wet, wiggly and precious and I held him just moments after he was born. I was a queen!

I look back on Nate’s birth as both the result of and a vehicle for healing from the abuse. Choosing to birth at home with a midwife who trusted the process of birth and the ability of my body to birth were crucial. By choosing to be at home I put myself at the center of the birthing process: I took responsibility for the possible risks of being at home and gave myself permission to say and do what I needed and wanted. I gave myself a voice. I also declared myself valuable enough to have friends around me to support me and share in the miracle. In choosing Mary to be my midwife I learned what "normal" pregnancy and birth is all about. I drew on her trust of birth and my body to learn to do the same for myself. I not only stayed in my body during Nate’s birth; I also learned to trust.

Since beginning to write this narrative, I have become pregnant with our third child. We are planning another homebirth, with the midwife who served as Mary’s assistant at Nate’s birth. This pregnancy has been one of joy and celebration for me. I feel the freedom to speak as I need to about my needs and wishes. I trust my body’s ability to grow a baby and to birth it. My dreams for this birth are the healing of two more shards still broken from the abuse. I would like this to be a sexy birth, a birth that highlights the intimacy of the creation of the baby and my connection to Peter even as I push the baby out. I want to rewrite the synapses in my neural net that prevent me from fully surrendering to sexual pleasure even as I surrender to the powerful forces of birth. We have talked about Peter catching the baby so that I can look at him as I push the baby out, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, wonder-to-wonder. I also want to experience greater healing in breastfeeding. Nate, like Bruce, lost weight and put it back on slowly. I grew anxious before the doctor did and wore the SNS for several months. I would like to not have to do that again. I would like to trust my body to nourish the baby outside the womb as it did so beautifully inside.

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

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