From the beginning it was cast –
The clan, the given name, the heart's claim: motherhood
Changing Woman, who changes four times a year.
The four directions
The four cardinal points
The four births from the underworld
The four breaths of life –
Changing Woman said it so.
In beauty it is done,
In harmony it is written.
In beauty and harmony it shall so be finished.
Changing Woman said it so.- Gerald Hausman, Meditations with the Navajo
I come from a family with a history of sexual and physical abuse. My mother’s parents were both abusive, one sexually, the other physically. I can only assume a trail of further abuse, leading back who knows how far. My mother hoped to stop the cycle with herself. Instead it is stopping with me.
My mother was resilient and came up with creative survival techniques, which she later had to unlearn. Her story is for her to tell, and I’d leave her out of my story, but the fact that she went through therapy and healed herself got me started healing much before I otherwise would have. My mother intended to protect us from harm. Her caution was sufficient to protect almost all of her children, and for me the healing of her hurts marked the path for the healing of my own.
While I don’t remember much of the events of being abused, I do remember enough to identify who, when, and generally what happened. I was sexually abused at one, five, and seven years old, and perhaps at other times in between. What memories I have were not assigned the meaning that one would normally expect. I remember the feel of a male hand patting my diapered bottom, and the frustrated sigh of a barely-verbal child wondering if “men would EVER get enough.” The reference was clearly sexual, yet even as a child, that memory didn’t disturb me. I have stacks of disjointed memories that should have disturbed or even terrified me, from waking to find my grandfather standing over me, watching in creepy silence, to being utterly unwilling to enter the house when he was there, even to relieve my agonizingly full bladder – I’d rather suffer physical pain than have him even look at me. I remember not finding these memories troubling … they were my life, and to me, that meant they were normal.
I also misinterpreted normal things as sexual. I hated those short little dresses they put on little girls – the ease of "access" from abusing hands upset me. It never occurred to me that other people saw those skirts as a way to allow those girls to crawl and climb without getting tangled up in their clothes.
I remember losing my seventh summer to amnesia, a loss so profound I could not remember what the toilet was for. Nor could I remember my name, or the names of my family members. I was upset by the loss of memory, and survived for days by listening and not speaking until my life started becoming familiar once again. That was the summer my great-uncle visited us. How much trauma does it take for a child to develop amnesia?
I also had disjointed emotions – reactions so out of alignment with what was happening at the moment that had I told anyone about them, they would have thought me crazy, or more likely, in serious need of some professional help. I remember, in my teens, having an intense rage attack while sleeping in my (then deceased) great-uncle’s room while visiting family. In the middle of the night, I woke with an overwhelming urge to smash everything in that room: mirrors, furniture, everything. I felt an absolute physical need to bite and strangle my mother (who was sleeping beside me), to beat her, to hurt her until she could feel the unexpressed, unbelievable grief beneath my rage. I was intensely angry with her for not stopping it, and I felt deeply disturbed, both that I could not identify the “it” I wanted her to have stopped, and because I was sure she would have stopped it if she had known. As usual, I controlled myself through sheer will, shaking violently as I clenched my fists and held my body rigid, preventing myself from actually taking action on those emotions. I felt exposed, naked to the core. As I slowly regained composure, I floundered in a sea of loneliness… I was so lonely I could no longer identify the feeling – the emotion was too big for any word. And I was ashamed of my rage, because somehow I knew that I had hidden the information that would have helped. For that, if not for the abuse itself, I blamed myself. In defense, as usual, I sent the feelings away, and returned to living without my full spectrum of emotions rather than feel too much.
And that isn't even all of it. There is simply too much to tell it all. But the memories themselves, and the details, are less important. More important is how I managed them, or how I did not. I lost some emotions entirely – fear was something I never remember feeling as an emotion, though I remember the physical sensations that normally go along with it. I remember shame, and guilt, and occasional happiness or contentment or anticipatory excitement over Christmas or birthdays, but seldom any other feelings. By the time I was eight or nine, I was dispassionate, detached, dissociated from my most powerful emotions. I had a choice – I could live in my body and feel almost nothing, or I could experience my feelings without any connection to my physical self. I could not do both at once, and being in my body was more pleasant, so there I stayed most of the time. Outside, my body reacted to what I should be feeling. Inside, the feeling just wasn't there. I felt only blankness. My sister described me as “asleep.” I was sleepwalking my way through my childhood, my complete self carefully separated into boxes inside.
My healing journey started later that summer my great-uncle visited the first time. My great-uncle was visiting again, but this time he didn't lay a hand on me, as far as I can tell. It doesn't qualify as an apology, but he spent a fair portion of his time trying to make me back into the child I had been before. His actions by no means undid the harm he had done, but he at least turned me in the right direction and pointed me toward being real and human again. I do not know if he understood that who I had become was directly because of his actions; he is dead now, so I cannot ask. I wish I had remembered more while he was still alive – I would like to know for certain if he was sorry. Remarkably, that curiosity is all I feel about him anymore. I’m no longer emotionally invested in him. I neither love him nor hate him, though at times I get angry at him again. An effective resolution, for me.
My mom did not realize that I was hurting. I freely admit that that was mostly because I did not want her to know. If she knew, she might put me back together again, and then I'd have to feel what I was desperately trying not to feel. I was pretty good at acting normal when I felt the need, so almost nobody had a clue that I needed much help anyway. Still, I subconsciously was always seeking a way back to me, back to wholeness. By the end of grade school, if I let my mind wander, my hands would spontaneously write, “help me” on any flat surface. My desks and notebooks were covered with it, but the only person who noticed was a girl who sat next to me, and she accepted my hasty explanation that the letters “just looked nice together.” I never let my hands play with letters after that.
Skip forward to adolescence… I was a bright kid, so had started school early. This didn’t help me any as a teen, since I was not only rather socially truncated, but also younger than my peers. I avoided dating, but wanted to date. When I was 14, I had finally had a few dates. One pretty mild snuggling session sent me into amazingly deep shock. I knew that wasn't a normal reaction. I had all the signs of being terrified – rigid body, sweating, dry mouth – but I felt only the physical part. And that was just from having the guy's arm around my shoulder! I began to wonder if I had been abused (as I already knew my mother had been), and began to do some research. As usual, I relied on myself alone to manage my problems. Asking for help was against the rules.
My mom had collected quite a library of resources. I began to flip through her self-help and psychology books, and started to practice self-hypnosis to overcome my "normal" phobias (swimming, in particular). I also talked to my mom about my own behaviors and how to go about changing the things I didn’t like about how I acted. There were plenty of "safe" topics to work on. She taught gladly, and I learned how to interpret my own dreams, and how to listen to my body. She taught me how to find the root of a behavior, and by identifying it, remove the power from it. She also taught me how to identify shame, and how to rid myself of guilt that didn’t belong to me. While I believed that I had been abused, it didn’t fully click, even then. I certainly never suggested to her that it was a possibility. It was peculiarly unimportant, and I often forgot completely about it, only to discover it again later. I was still too dissociated to functionally deal with it.
By the time I graduated high school, I was sexually active, and loved it. I got a lot of validation from my boyfriends about my body, my sex drive, and my rapidly growing sexual skills. I also usually picked boyfriends who didn’t help me grow or heal. I was also exploring my spirituality, and I patiently followed the threads of my mongrel heritage through a variety of spiritual practices. I went from agnostic, to Unitarian, to Druid, to Buddhist, briefly considered becoming Episcopalian, moved back through a few Native American practices, into Celtic Wicca, through Universalism, touched on Quakerism, and eventually combined what worked for me into a personal form of eclectic neo-pagan by the time I finished college. By the age of 18, I not only had taken many seminars on religion and worship and spiritual healing, but I had taught a few, too. In the process, I discovered a lot about myself and about healing.
My explorations of the spiritual paths taught me a lot. I learned that I could accept and love my body, but I could not connect to my face. I learned that I was coming to value myself primarily for sexual activity, and I hated that and began to change it immediately. I learned to use the tools of spiritual ritual and meditation to get to the source of a problem and begin to heal it. Long before I finished exploring, I had realized that I had been sexually abused as a child, but I often tagged it with “probably.” My life was still not proof enough; however, I could finally think about it without having my mind fuzz out and wander off to safer topics. That I was functioning relatively normally in the sexual arena made it safer to think about dysfunctions elsewhere. I finally began trying to heal in earnest.
The Courage to Heal set (book and workbook) was a big help in my healing journey. I also relied heavily on An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s Normal, and began to solidify my spiritual practices within a group of women. In the space of a year or two I had made huge leaps in growth and healing. I “came out” to others I considered safe and found that many of my friends had also been abused, and those who were not survivors were no less supportive. It wasn't long before I became a resource for others discovering their own abuse history. Still, I didn't tell anyone in my family for years after that.
Through journaling and dream-analysis, I discovered that my mental image of abuse as crippling me was incorrect. It was a deformity, like a misshapen bone, not a straight break or even a lost part. I had initially described myself as broken by the abuse, but I was just warped out of normal shape by it. Bad enough, certainly, but an entirely different sort of problem. I had to struggle to keep myself in the functioning norm, but it was not impossible to pass as normal. It took a lot of work to make some standard behaviors happen, but with constant vigilance I could do it most of the time. Of course, there was the difficult problem of knowing what the norm was, in the first place. I was often deeply anxious about missing the mark, making a mistake that showed that I didn't know what normal was at all. I kept myself guarded much of the time, knowing that any slip meant that “normal” people could see beneath my mask and see how bizarre my true form was. Worse, they might see how it had happened and blame me for it. I had never blamed myself very much – that much carried through from my mom's parenting style early on – but I was prone to overloading on other people's reactions, and shame attacks occurred regularly in response to the reactions of those around me. I was transforming the shame I did carry into more healthy feelings about my abusers (such as anger and grief), but it was a slow undertaking.
I went through a variety of boyfriends (increasingly mentally healthy ones, too!) and then got engaged to a man I considered one of my very best friends. Three years later (and still unmarried), I left him. We learned the hard way that for a couple to survive together, they BOTH have to grow. Still, we remained friends, and I started dating a man I had known and been attracted to for a few years. We dated for fun, and never thought we could fall in love. Of course, we did fall in love, and were married a few years later. I always thought I had been in love before, but this was miles beyond any of the others.
My husband has been a rock for me, learning alongside me, encouraging and supporting my growth. He relies on the results to measure the success, rather than dismissing any peculiar method as unscientific. He read books like "Ghosts in the Bedroom" to help him deal with living with a woman who had been molested before she could even talk, who had been lied to in destructive ways, and who was just starting to learn some fundamental things about life. This man has broken all the rules of what I was told by my abusers, even just by marrying me at all. I had been told that nobody would want to marry me if they knew. But here I was, married to a guy who knew all about my history. The fact of my marriage made the abuser's words into a lie, and that released another part of me. Even my nightmares have stopped, just because he told them to. He has a direct line to my subconscious mind, somehow. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have found someone I trust so absolutely, and with such apparent reason.
Marriage is great. We work very hard on our relationship, partly because of my emotional and psychological “deformity,” partly because we are so different in style that we’d go nuts otherwise. Marriage also pushed me toward therapy. Don’t laugh, but I actually started therapy because I was a lousy housekeeper. Ever since the first summer my great-uncle spent with us, I have literally been a mess. Before that summer, I had no trouble keeping my room tidy. After that summer, my room was often so deep in discarded clothes, papers, books, toys, trash, and miscellaneous junk that I had to leap from a spot a few feet away to get to my bed. I developed a habit of dissociating the moment I noticed something needed to be cleaned, or even if I thought about cleaning. I could walk past a trashcan overflowing onto the floor and never once consciously note that it needed to be emptied, let alone that I should do so. Not too surprisingly, this was getting in the way of my marital happiness. I realized that not only was this a problem for my husband, but it would be a problem for any child we had. Since I had genuinely tried every trick I knew to get past it, I realized I needed more help than I could give myself. More than a decade of self-help, and I was still floundering in many areas. Time to find a therapist.
Finding a therapist was interesting. I searched the Internet looking for a description of my symptoms, to see if I could find a reference to a type of disorder, and an associated therapy style or treatment. Soon enough, I found it: DDNOS (Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). I separate my feelings from my physical experiences, separate memory from meaning. My physical self is often left to handle overwhelming sensations without any mental or emotional connection, or conversely, I have intense emotional reactions without anything concrete to base them on. When trying to make sense of my experiences, I often must dig for the parts that are missing in order to connect to an experience completely. I don’t fit in any of the specific “typical” dissociative categories, but fall within the overall disorder. Dissociative disorders include Dissociative Identity Disorder, or what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Standard “talking” therapy works on these, so I asked my doctor for a referral. I trusted her, and she proved it was with good reason. When I mentioned that I was aware that I had been sexually abused, and was having problems with dissociation that I felt were big enough to seek therapy for, she found me a resource who could refer me to someone closer to where I lived.
I soon had a list of therapists who specialized in dealing with dissociation. I began interviewing them over the phone. I asked a range of questions, including eliciting their reaction to one of my favorite things, a new 64 box of Crayola crayons. Four made the cut on the phone interview. One told me frankly that I was simply not dysfunctional enough to need her services. I was privately delighted that I had already done enough work to move past the critical-care level of therapy. Another seemed awed by my coping skills and intellect. She was thoroughly impressed with me, but I wanted someone who would make me work (not laud what I had already accomplished). The art therapist was brilliant but flipped out when I described myself as a pagan … after her weird reaction, I bailed on her. The fourth one told me that she wasn’t about to let me dodge my issues by being interesting. BINGO! Soon I was in therapy with a woman who would catch me at my own tricks, and it was making some tangible differences. My housekeeping improved slightly, and my overall life and coping skills improved much more.
Therapy is great, and it works, even though it can be physically and emotionally exhausting. I connected to some childhood events for the first time. I actually felt fear completely and learned to identify it and use it as a tool. I identified fidgety behaviors that indicated when I was dissociating. As usual with therapy, I did a lot of the work, but the nudges and conversational shifts my therapist used to direct the sessions drew me further along the healing path than I had been before. She let me cry, and drew me back into the issues again and again. Eventually, my husband and I decided it was time (and past time, in my mind) to start a family. I continued therapy up until my maternity leave started.
I loved pregnancy as a concept long before I experienced it. I had learned from my mother to embrace the process, as she had. I grew up knowing how wonderful it was to carry a child inside your body, even when it wasn’t always fun. I remember my mother being incredibly beautiful when she was pregnant. Her hair glowed gold, her skin radiated, and she was so full of delight! I can still remember her joyfully and patiently showing me my little brother's foot pushing out against her skin. I have always carried in my mind the image of the perfect ripe roundness of her very pregnant belly as she stood before her mirror. I looked forward to labor, because of my mother’s descriptions of the power, wonder, passion, and beauty of birthing a child. I had always loved to listen to my birth story, how she had started labor in the morning, continued cleaning the house, called the baby-sitter, packed her bags, and THEN called my dad. She was so calm, she trusted her body so completely, and she knew what to do. I loved hearing how I was born without drugs that same evening (back when that simply wasn’t done), and how she had chocolate bars stowed in her purse so that she would have something to eat in the hungry time after the delivery (hospitals didn't seem to think women should be hungry just then!). I would glow with pride and admiration as she told me about defying the nurse to stop her when they said she wasn’t allowed to eat them. Pregnancy and birth seemed wonderful and glorious and potent, a true expression of love and womanhood. Having an actual CHILD to raise was scary, but nothing about pregnancy or birth could scare me, even when I could finally recognize and experience fear.
I got pregnant easily, but pregnancy wasn’t very easy on me. I had morning sickness, a bad case of sciatica, genetic counseling (regarding a disorder that runs in my family), and a strong, extremely active baby who even ruptured the muscles around my navel and left my ribs aching where he pushed off of them on his half-hourly wanders around his home inside me. I had all manner of ills and aches and pains. For a change, dissociation helped: it kept my physical discomfort from affecting my feelings about being pregnant. I loved pregnancy, and the discomforts were completely irrelevant to how much I loved it. I tracked the development of the child within me, greeting each new stage with passion and delight. I loved guessing if the current lump bulging from my tummy was head, or foot, or baby butt. I patted out drum rhythms on my son’s behind, and delighted in feeling his reactions to music. I wrote happy and funny emails to family and friends detailing the latest fun or interesting developments. My husband would smile with pride as he described me as having such a great attitude about being pregnant, even if my pregnancy itself wasn’t perfect.
I dissociated my experience of pregnancy from the negatives, and that was great. But I also separated my experience of pregnancy from actually having a child. It seemed so peculiar to me to have people tell me anticipatory things about babyhood and parenthood. I was pregnant, thanks, and the goal was labor and delivery, not a baby. Baby development and even my interaction with my growing child was a DIFFERENT process, happening at the same time, but not on the same track. Baby was one process, pregnancy and birth was another process. The two were related, but only vaguely. During labor, I wanted to grind my teeth every time someone said; "you'll soon have that baby in your arms." They didn't get it at all. I didn't want to be distracted from my labor by focusing on something that to my mind was fundamentally unrelated to what I was doing. I'd enjoy the baby totally when it got here, but until then, I was just in labor, thanks!
My son is totally familiar to me. He and my two other yet-to-be-born children helped me survive that terrible seventh summer. Without their kind assistance, I might not have been able to grow up to be the mother they wanted me to be. Actually, those three sweet and fun and caring boys are almost all I remember of the time that is otherwise a blank. Many times in that summer, I dreamed wonderful dreams about doing normal summertime kid stuff with three boys, one of them a bit older than me, the other two about my age. I knew in the dreams that they were my sons, and that I would have them when I grew up. We spent the dreamtime riding bikes, hanging out, splashing in creeks, and doing everyday normal kid stuff. I looked forward to going to sleep, so I could freely enjoy the summer I wasn’t enjoying at all during the day. While the dreams were very real, and have stuck with me all my life, they were just dreams. Still, the certainty of having three sons settled on my mind like the understanding of gravity. It just WAS, and nothing would change that.
Reinforcing the idea that these boys exist outside my own mind, my best friend called me when I was five weeks pregnant. I had just that morning received confirmation from my doctor that the blood test was positive. This friend asked in a very careful tone if I had something to tell her. She didn't even know we were trying to conceive, and she hadn't seen me in months. After I finally gave in and admitted I was pregnant, she told me about the powerful dream she had had the night before, in which a boy with bright blue eyes told her that I was pregnant, with himself. The dream was so loud and potent; she woke immediately after, feeling like someone had been shouting to her. She never has those kinds of dreams.
The independent-soul concept kept popping up throughout my pregnancy. Instance after instance of visions and dreams, showing me what my son would look like (accurately – and some features are total surprises!), telling me about upcoming health issues with the pregnancy (like not eating enough protein, whereupon my blood pressure went up), and so forth. When I tell these stories, many people make Twilight Zone noises. I don’t know how it happened, or why, but it happened, and those contacts are part of what gave me faith that everything would turn out well. The rest was plain survivor stubbornness.
I have always been pretty comfortable with medical practices. My doctors have been almost exclusively excellent, good at diagnosis, ethical, respectful, and supportive. I had no reason to believe that pregnancy would be any different. I wanted a natural birth, though. I wanted to be free of drugs, free of encumbrances, and able to experience what my mother had. I found an OB and visited her before I was even pregnant. She was perfect. Her attitude was that pregnancy is normal, and should not be interfered with. The same was true for birth. She was the backup, and I was in charge. Wonderful! But unfortunately she was not the only doctor in her practice. The other two OBs did not have the same attitude. One leaned toward pregnancy as a managed process, not a natural one. And the third misrepresented medical opinion as fact, and when I politely asked for confirmation she declined to provide any. And then she wrote in my chart that I was difficult and argumentative. My husband was stunned when we saw that note later. He was there, and while I can be forceful when necessary, I was just being reasonable and firm, as far as he could tell. That doctor’s attitude could easily have loaded me with shame, guilt, or self-doubt. A few years before, I would have meekly accepted her word as fact, no matter how much I privately disbelieved her.
That experience left me nervous, even without having seen the note in my file. We were looking for a house, and when we found one that was just a little too far away from that OB practice, I let out a silent sigh of relief. I really liked the one OB, but I could easily have had either of the other two attending me in labor. I started talking to my friends in that area, and began to consider a midwife. Two friends had used midwives, one with a VBAC. Their stories and reassurances relieved my initial concerns about leaving the "traditional" medical world. The local birthing center had treatment privileges at the very nearby hospital. I wouldn't even have to switch to unknown doctors in the middle of labor if I was transported. When my records were switched over from the old OB practice, I found the note about being a difficult patient. The midwives thought it was a sad comment on the doctor, and not on me. Their reaction was very reassuring.
I liked midwife care in particular because it put me in control. (Control being a major issue with anyone who was abused.) I checked my own urine protein levels and glucose, and recorded them on my chart. I weighed myself, and I was personally involved in other aspects of my care. They easily adjusted to my preference for fetoscopes rather than Doppler. My two favorite midwives slowly became something like professional friends, and I enjoyed working with them. I trusted them for quality care, with compassion, support, and empathy – and that is what I got.
Having so much unknown stuff inside my head, I found that I had a serious need to prepare for the unknown events ahead. I knew my dissociative process well enough not to trust that I would make it through labor without losing connection to the birth. (Connection to the baby was a whole different problem, and one I anticipated no trouble with.) I watched for pitfalls in my thinking, looking for flaws of logic, or of emotion. I made lists, and read a lot of books. I re-committed to having a natural birth if possible, but accepted that I could not control how my labor went. After some discussions with the midwives about pain-management, I decided which drugs I could take without risking a bad trip. Since even laughing gas makes me paranoid and brings up flashes of buried emotions, blood-stream narcotics were not an option. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that feeling mentally out-of-control would be a good idea, even without a history of abuse. I read up on the Bradley Method, knowing that focusing outside myself (as in Lamaze) would only make me more prone to dissociation, and that working with my body and keeping my visualizations based on what was happening inside me would keep me connected (as in Bradley). I also knew that I should trust my body, and Bradley Method encourages that.
I worked out a birth plan with my therapist and my husband, and then presented it to my midwives. I felt it was necessary to be honest about my abuse history. If I had a flashback during labor, I wanted to be able to deal with it appropriately, not bury it again or have my midwife think I was losing my mind. Most of the midwives in the practice dealt with the idea well. They noted that many women come up with abuse memories while in labor, and many have their very first or most intense revelations at that time. Frankly, I’d rather not have that interfere with what I expected to be a wonderful event. Unfortunately, one of the midwives was deeply uncomfortable with my history, and did not think I was a good candidate for a birth center birth. Fortunately for me, wiser (and more senior) midwives made the final decision, and that one midwife was overruled. Less fortunate for me, it made that midwife very unhappy about attending me at appointments, and she was sending out very nasty vibes. I decided I really didn’t want her to deliver my child, even though I had no idea at the time why she was being so negative.
In the course of preparing for birth, by both reading and asking questions of my friends, I realized that birth was more than just a "couple" process – it was a personal process, a generational process, and a female process. That opened me up to the possibility of having other women there with me for the birth; women who could help me, and help my husband, if needed. I decided to ask both my best friends to be my doulas (labor support people). They would provide the extra encouragement and support to help me through the birth. One of them had already been a doula for the other, and the other was training to be a Bradley Method instructor, so there was some experience there already. It felt strange and a little scary to ask for their help – that was against the rules of abuse. But it also felt right, and good.
I also invited my mother to the birth. This was a tough decision. I love my mom dearly, but I was sure she would annoy the heck out of me at some point. Not wanting to promise her anything, I invited her for the labor, and said I’d decide at the time if she could stay for the birth. I also made a list of rules of “no-no’s” – no eating when I can’t eat, no distractions, and so forth. I honestly thought there was a 75% chance I’d kick out my mom and everyone else (except my husband) for the delivery part – and I was wrong, wrong, wrong. There could have been a busload of frat boys in there and I would not have cared one whit. Yes, my mom did annoy me at one point: while I was pushing, she was grinning at me so hard I thought her face would split and the top of her head would just fall right off. I made her move to a spot where I couldn’t see her – last thing I wanted to see while I was working that hard was someone just enjoying themselves! Still, I didn’t really mind it. She was remembering the power I was experiencing at that moment, and that was okay. I just didn’t want the distraction.
Once the birth team was arranged, we began to plan. We reviewed the birth plan, the doulas’ roles, and what we expected my husband to need. I personally just planned to need everything. In the end, I didn’t use most of the things I planned for, but it was good to know that people would respond appropriately if I did flip out.
So, what did I plan? I wrote about 12 pages of birth plan, including what I wanted to eat, what procedures I did not want, what drugs were acceptable if I needed any, and what things to bring with me, including clothes, food, pillows, and a comfort item (a small stuffed bunny). I specified that if I needed a c-section, they could not bind my hands down at the wrists, since my reaction would be blind panic. They could, however, bind my arm just below the elbow if they needed to, but I preferred to have at least one hand free. I also included specific responses for emotional reactions. For example, if I appeared to be dissociating, anyone could ask me if I actually WAS dissociating, because asking me is enough for me to identify it and break away. I figured out all my probable responses to pain, fear, or feeling out of control, and what the best actions to counteract them would be. I wrote all the information down, checked it with my therapist, and then handed out the list to my doulas, my husband (for reference), and my midwives. In the end, I didn’t need any of it. But I was still glad I had worked it out so carefully.
Having a child includes so many decisions! Two of my most important ones were whether to breastfeed and whether to circumcise if I had that boy I had dreamed about. Both of these brought up serious abuse-related issues.
Breastfeeding seemed an easy choice. My mom had managed it, even with her abuse history, and even though it was not supported in general by society at the time. And I knew how good breast-milk was for babies – their perfect food, designed just for them. I guess I planned to breastfeed all along. Still, I worried that the sensations of breastfeeding would too closely mirror sexual sensations, and that somehow I would respond inappropriately.
I needn’t have worried. I generally find that the sensation of nursing is not sexual at all. For me, it is like the feeling you get when someone scratches your back and hits a place that has had an itch for so long that you have started to ignore it. A feeling of relief, and pleasure, but not sexual in nature. My comfort with it has extended as our nursing relationship has continued, and I find myself still nursing him at almost two years old, and STILL not finding it damaging or sexual. My pediatrician has been amazingly supportive, especially because both my husband and I have allergies. Starting nursing was hard – I got some bad advice at the hospital, and ended up with blisters on one nipple. But since there was no abuse pain associated with my breasts, the discomfort of the first five weeks of breastfeeding didn’t tie into any of my history. Besides, I was so tired at that time, I was functioning on brain stem – and the mommy-baby thing was taking up every available space in my head.
Circumcision was a much harder issue to deal with. My husband is circumcised, and I have never slept with a man who was left as he was born. I did a lot of research, and actually read a bunch of articles at the source, from medical journals. What I found was that there was no agreement in the medical community. The risk of injury from the surgery is about equal to the risks of problems without the surgery. The health issues seemed split pro and con. (Though by breastfeeding, I could erase the risk of urinary tract infections.) Religious issues were not a factor, either.
But, what about behavioral and social issues? Two studies caught my attention. One showed that masturbation was more frequent in boys who were circumcised, and the other showed that circumcised adult males participated in a wider range of sexual behaviors than intact men, including activities considered “outside the norm.” That rang a bell for me. Both those things are also true of people who were sexually abused in early childhood. That was too close for comfort. Combining that with my deep feeling that nature made us this way for a reason, I was strongly moved to avoid circumcision.
Still, I worried. Would being uncircumcised cause more trauma later that I was avoiding now? So again, I asked my friends and family. One of my friends put to rest another myth – that kids would torment a boy who was “different.” Her son was considered extra-cool in his peer group for having a neat-o penis (not circumcised), even at the tender age of five. Circumcision status has nothing to do with whether a guy is deemed cool or not. My sister-in-law also pointed out that there would be a mix of types anywhere you go, and that her sons were not circumcised, either. As for care and cleaning, the answer was leaving it alone until they can wash it themselves. That eased another abuse issue: I would not be handling my son’s penis more than I was comfortable with, if I treated it properly.
My husband voted to leave any son of ours as he was. While he is not upset about it himself, he argued that if it weren’t absolutely necessary, why would you even consider it? It isn’t as if it is all that hard to explain the difference between father and son, either. “They used to think it was medically necessary, and now they don’t.” Come on, my husband said, if we can’t handle saying that, how will we handle talking about sex later? The last straw was finding out (more medical journal reading) that most of the conditions that “require” circumcision in adulthood are effectively handled with minor plastic surgery. Much like we used to do full mastectomies for breast cancer, and now many cancers are handled with lumpectomies instead. Radical measures are seldom needed. Done, we were decided. If we had a son, he would be left as he was made.
I've already teased you with bits and pieces of my labor… so now I'll tell you how the whole labor and birth went. The short form is 66 hours of patient, fairly calm, and well-supported non-productive labor (no dilation), followed by an epidural so I could sleep, pitocin to keep the contractions strong, and then 14 more hours of labor. That comes to 80 hours. The pushing part was about two hours, though again, the first hour and a half was unproductive, so the “real” pushing was less than half-an-hour. My mind kindly put me in time-warp mode, and I had no idea how long my whole labor had been. I judged how long I had been in labor by how my body was doing, not by the clock, and if you asked my body, it had been 24 hours. Letting my body tell me was a good idea; time is relative when you are in labor. In part, I suspect that my labor was so long because the midwife I so strongly disliked was the one on call when I started having contractions. So even the length of the labor was a good thing – I got a different midwife!
My support system was incredibly helpful. Having so many people around me, offering support, massage, conversation, encouragement, and basically jumping to order at the smallest request was wonderful. My doulas walked with me, and put counter-pressure on my back as I leaned on my husband. My doulas and my mom cooked me soup and reminded me to drink plenty of fluids. They also rubbed my legs when I was getting numb from the epidural, and that helped stabilize my son’s heart rate the few times it got variable. My husband got help from them, too. They went out to get food for him, and they sat with me feeding me ice chips and frozen juice pops when he needed to take a nap or go to the bathroom. They even helped the midwife, sitting with me while she slept.
My body did me proud, and that was immensely healing on its own. I was a survivor once again, but of a natural process this time. I eased my way through 50 hours of labor without even thinking of drugs, and even the next six hours (before I moved up to the hospital for the epidural), which were more painful, and were hard work and very frustrating, didn’t bring up unreasonable fear or anxieties. Somehow, labor and birth were so profoundly different, so welcome, so natural and so right, that the patterns of abuse had no foothold. Here, finally, was a place that had remained untouched by the men who had hurt me so profoundly that my internal form had warped. Here I was whole, and human, and pure of self and intent. Here I was completely in contact with my body, my mind, my feelings, and my soul. For the first time since I was a very small child, I was really and truly ME.
Transition, the phase where most women experience doubt, was a point of stillness for me. I turned inward and found a vast reserve of strength, as if all the strength that had been kept from me over the years was there, waiting to be used. As I pushed, my whole being pushed, all parts working in harmony, not even a flicker of a shadow moving anywhere in the corners of my mind. Even when I finally doubted for a second that I would be able to do this … even then, I was of single purpose, single mind. All the fractured bits of my self and my life for once reflected the same image. All the separate bits snapped into place for the long moment that is birth.
I honestly could have done the entire 70 hours again within minutes of my son’s birth. I ended up with no standard birth injuries - no perineal tearing, no episiotomy. No stitches at all. I only had a few “skid marks” on my vaginal walls - basically some abrasions similar to stretch marks, probably from my son’s ears catching as he came down. The lack of physical trauma may be part of why I’d willingly do it again so fast. That, and the fact that the process was never taken from me, and where I had faith in myself, my midwife had faith in me, and my son was strong throughout. Yes, they discussed the possibility of a c-section – I was in labor for a VERY long time, after all – but it was never discussed where I could hear and be bothered by it. If it had become necessary, they would have brought it up with me, but until then, I was allowed to continue in peace. A c-section would have been different, but not bad, as long as I was a full participant. I believe there is value in intentionally sacrificing the wholeness of your body for the safety of your child. A different gift, but still a good one, as long as it is freely given, and not taken without good reason or without your consent. That is only my speculation, since my path was not that direction. I know the birth I made was a good one, and that is enough.
Nobody in the world is as strong as you are when pushing your child into the world. No athlete ever worked so hard. No conquering warrior is as triumphant. Nobody is as divine, as humble, or as whole as you are right then. I did it. Me, with this body, this mind, this will. No matter how damaged I was in the moments before labor started, this primal, potent process made me real, and whole, and finally, fully me. I welcomed my baby with my hands and heart wide open, with not even echoes of anyone else present in my mind or soul, except those welcome reflections of all the mothers who labored before me to place a new life in the world. I was given the power to birth, and where it wasn’t given, I took it for myself. I was a mother, and I was just beginning to understand what that meant. I was a Goddess incarnate, the Changing Woman of one thin but beautiful thread of my heritage. I breathed the same air, felt the rhythm of the same beating heart, and held my child to my breast with the same arms as have an eternity of mothers in both directions, before and yet to come. The connection to my foremothers was profound; an ancient river of life had poured through me in the shape of my son, and washed me clean. I grinned back at my mom as I held my messy, sweet, and perfect son, and marveled at myself. I was as new as he.
There is a reason why we say someone "gave birth." Your child’s birth is a gift. A gift not just to the child, to the father, to the grandparents, or to the world. And the gift is not even of the child itself. Your child’s birth is a gift of yourself, to yourself. It is yours. Take it.
My son is now 21 months old. I marvel every day at his growth and his constant changes, but mostly at his HIMness. He is a whole person, real and present. He has likes and dislikes that have nothing to do with me. When I look at him, I see how he is shaping his own internal form, free of the damage that was already warping me at that age. I am learning from my son how my own shape could have been, and the knowledge is bittersweet.
I still have warped places. Having a child did not magically heal everything. I still have bad days, but I have a lot of good ones, too. I still dissociate sometimes, and I still find my history subtly interfering in how I want to live my life, affecting the kind of woman I want to be. But the damage that was done cannot grow beyond where it was. I am slowly but surely hammering out the dents in my internal form, reshaping my daily self into the "me" I discovered during my son's birth.
Giving birth also changed me. Partly the change is from becoming a mother, and being genuinely and passionately willing to die for another person. Part of it comes from re-working my roles, my image of who I am. Part of it is from taking charge of my son's birth. Part of it comes from asking for and accepting support from my husband, midwives, friends, and family – on my own terms. And part of the change is from finally knowing that there are places in me that are pristine, untouched by the pain of my childhood. I know, to my core and in all the corners of my soul, how strong and able I truly am. That knowledge can never be taken from me.
Now, passionate emotions fill my life – I love my son passionately, I love my husband passionately. I take each dancing step on the strong and nourishing earth with deep love and humility for the gifts I have been given. I have survived and even conquered more than once. I experienced more pain than any child should know, and while I struggled for a time, I still came out of the experience a good person. I am humble, grateful, and sure of my strength. And I am still learning. I know what despair is, and so I find myself willing to embrace hope. I am becoming comfortable in my body and even with my face. Having been deadened to the meaning of my emotions, I now revel in them. Love, joy, contentment, and even anger, fear, sorrow, and grief have a depth of texture and color that satisfy me immensely.
Life does not pass me by. It is still pouring through me.
For those of you who are walking this same path, may your journey be filled with discovery of the perfect places within you, and may it end with joy and harmony. Walk in beauty.
In beauty it is done,
In harmony it is written.
In beauty and harmony it shall so be finished.
Changing Woman said it so.
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/
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/