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, August 21, 2009

Margaret's Story

A memory: I was perhaps two or three years old. My brother was born when I was four, so I know it was before then. My parents, two older sisters, and I lived on the third floor of a brownstone in a city. I could see the kitchen out of the door where I napped on my parents’ bed. It was during my naps that someone, a man, would touch me. I would feel as though I was not breathing. I slept on my stomach, and think I had my head pushed up against a pillow, or maybe the wall. To this day, I do not like it if something is against my head while sleeping or making love.

A memory: I was 12 years old. I went with a friend while she was to baby-sit. The two children were sleeping and she invited two men to come over. I don’t remember where or how she knew them. They were from another city and didn’t go to school with us. In fact, they were older than we were by several years. I watched television while she went into the parents’ bedroom with both of them. After a while, they called me in. One of the men had his hands down her pants and up her shirt. The other guy grabbed my arm, pulled me into the bathroom, pulled down my pants, pushed me onto the floor and raped me (although I didn’t know that’s what it was then). I wasn’t even sure what happened other than it was extremely painful and, somehow, I knew not to tell my parents. Once again, my head was involved in that it was shoved against the wall of the bathroom. I heard a noise out in the kitchen, and managed to push him off of me, stand up, and put myself back together. When they left, the guy said, “God, you’re ugly. You look like a Mac truck ran over you.” I went home and never said a word to anyone. I did know that something about what had happened was bad.

A memory: That same girlfriend’s father snuck up from behind me as we were walking down the narrow sidewalk between his house and the next. He grabbed my front pubic area with one hand while he grabbed my breast with the other and whispered in my ear that he could make me feel happy.

A memory: A friend of my father’s would ask me to sit on his lap. While sitting there, I always noticed that he had something hard under his zipper. I didn’t know for many years that it wasn’t a wallet. I was between the ages of seven and 12. After my friend’s friends raped me, I realized what that was in his front pockets and refused to sit on his lap any longer, even though my parents would try to insist.

A memory: I was a committee member on my high school health club. A speaker came to do an assembly on sex and condom use. I was assigned to take the speaker, in his car, down the road to the offices and back. On the way back, he drove several miles out of the way and raped me. I told no one, as he threatened to let my parents know that I’d had sex with a grown man and had asked for it.

The sexual abuse and its results or effects on my life are sometimes hard to separate from lots of other things for me. My father was a blue-collar worker with the government. He was a hard-working, hard-drinking Irishman, and very proud of his WWII veteran status. My mother was a homemaker because my father insisted on it. I can remember that some years she worked part-time in early winter to make extra money for Christmas gifts, but always worked at food counters so she could be home for us after school and in time for dinner. My father’s shift was over early and we ate dinner at 4:30.

I am the middle of five children. The fifth child was born after the first child had married and left home. My early years included many episodes of watching my parents fight, of watching my father hit my mother, and of being hit hard and often by both of them. As a young teenager, my father once pinned me against the wall with his hands around my neck. At that moment I’m pretty sure I learned that men could not be trusted, and they had the power to kill. It wasn’t long after my father began to hit my mother, and from somewhere came the strength to punch him in the stomach. He doubled over, and he never hit me again.

Twice my siblings and I were placed in a local orphanage for several days while my parents were jailed for their behavior. My cousin was a state policeman, and my first experience with the law was his what appeared to me to be enormous boots. While my father always had a job, and we had a car, we rented an apartment, partially due to my father’s outlook on what was “taking charity.” My father did not take advantage of any of the veteran’s plans for WWII returning soldiers. I always believed that because of my father’s drinking and my mother’s unskilled knowledge of money management, we never seemed to have extras. I wore hand-me-downs except at Easter. My father was paid every two weeks, and typically lunch on payday was non-existent or strange things like catsup sandwiches. We did go on a camping vacation each summer where we tented or rented a cottage for a week at nearby lakes. With all that went on, somehow my parents managed to make camping trips and Christmas time fond memories.

My childhood also included some very strange messages that I was unlikable, too smart for my own britches, a bookworm, overweight, and unattractive. I had two older sisters. It always seemed to me that I paid the consequences for their misbehavior. I was forbidden to date at all. My first date out of high school was the first man I chose to make love with, and I am still married to him today.

I had no recall of most of the memories until my father’s death in 1985. I was working as a nursery school teacher, and attending college for my BA degree at an adult off-campus program. My father died the day before my youngest child’s 7th birthday. As part of the college program in which I was enrolled, students resided at the campus for nine days of intense classroom lectures, curriculum development, etc. My father died in early November, and I went to attend a residency in early February. There, probably because of some of the people I met, and because I had so much time to be with my grief, all of these memories began to flood back. I became a friend of a man who shared with me that he had been sexually abused, and somehow that allowed me to open the dam. It didn’t stop for months, and it was frightening as hell.

Through thick and thin, as they say, stood my husband. My husband comes from a completely different background, class status, educational status, and religion. This meant he truly, no matter what he tried, could not understand, and in some cases barely believed, it was all true. But he was and still is the one of the few people in my life who loves me unconditionally. His real support of me through life is unending.

Because most of my memories returned after my children’s births, I’m a bit unclear how to fathom or pull apart how these things might relate. I feel, though, that what was most important to my ability to not have these things affect my birth experiences and mothering was that I believed, as I still do, that I could do all of that really well. Loving children, loving babies, doesn’t involve or have any relationship to my weight, my looks, and maybe even my “smarts.” I didn’t even count on books to tell me how to do it right. I knew I knew how to do it. Maybe because my mother didn’t tell me anything about sexuality or a woman’s plumbing, I could believe in myself to know I could do it. I knew when I became pregnant the first time (and I was only 21) that I could make this child’s life completely different from my own. It wouldn’t just be from overprotection, but it would be from teaching my babies that they were worth something, that they were important, wanted, and loved. It is openly stated in our family that it is the action you take that may have a consequence, not the feeling. All feelings are okay, all actions are not. Sorting out our feelings can be learned. This is another place my husband enters this picture, because he was raised in an emotionally cold home and knew that his children had to know how to recognize and experience their emotions – all of them.

During my childhood, although I lived in a city, we were near a river and a park. To be outdoors for me was my escape. To read a book outdoors in all kinds of weather was true heaven on earth. When I became pregnant, I knew that it was built into me to know what to do, as it’s built into a river to know where to flow, and that I could trust my body to know what to do. I was never afraid. I had and have a strong and clear belief in my ability to give birth and to be a mother.

As my children grew older, and I began to remember and deal with the memories of my childhood, I began to realize that this equated with power. That I, although I still didn’t think anyone but my husband thought I was pretty or smart, could change history, so to speak. That I had what it took to raise children who were loved for who they were, that I could break the cycle of violence, and that I could have children who were taught about the bad things in the world, but who didn’t have to experience them.

I honestly can’t tell you where I’ve gotten the strength to deal with what I’d been dealt. Sometimes I think it’s because I always felt someone else had it worse. I’m grateful each day for life. I call myself a survivor because I believe I lived in a war zone for the first 18 years of my life; the next 18 years of my life I spent trying to “catch up.” Fortunately, I’ve slowed down a little and realized that just appreciating what I have is really living.

Giving birth is something I’ve always wished I could have done a dozen times! My husband and I had compromised with three children, but two became a great many to afford some days. The experience of giving birth, the feelings, both physical and emotional, I completely enjoyed. And I know it isn’t just remembering the good things now – during my labors I knew nothing was more wonderful to be doing than that.

My early experiences have made me who I am. To deny the experiences is to deny the source of what makes me a strong woman now. Through my recovery I sought out books to read on alcoholism, psychology, family dynamics, and self-help books of many kinds. For a while I attended a women’s support group. I went to a counselor for about two years right after my memories began to surface. But always, somewhere inside of me, I knew I had the answer – that no one else had my answer. I would also become impatient with the other women I met who seemed to use their memories and experiences as excuses for being who they are. Sometimes there was just too much whining and making excuses for not getting on with getting stronger. During my recovery I wrote a lot. I wrote in journals, and I wrote a poetry of sorts – most of which is filled with anger and sadness.

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