Welcome to the survivor moms speak out blog!

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Claire's Story

I’ll tell you right from the start that this is a story that has a good ending. Well, a good enough ending. “Super mom,” I’m not. But my child is eight now, and, by my standards; I’d have to say that he’s having a normal childhood. And he seems to think I’m a normal mom. Isn’t that great?

I’ll tell you the story of my childbearing year, but you have to know that understanding about the incest and other abuse and trauma came a few years after the birth. It was mostly my sinking efforts to mother a toddler that eventually made me seek help from a therapist. Only well into the process of coping with the posttraumatic aftereffects of the abuse in therapy did I have it come clear how me and my pregnant body worked out a way through the minefield of the maternity year.

We planned to get pregnant. We’d been married nearly a decade, and it seemed like it was time. The day my period should have come, the nausea started. Except for rare moments of distraction and during my sleep, it didn’t leave me until the 22nd week of gestation. It was my 24-hour companion for about four months. It is the main reason I will never be pregnant again. Carsickness or a bout of stomach flu always confirms for me that I could not tolerate another moment of that awful sensation—not by choice. I didn’t vomit except twice. I just had the sensation that swallowing my own saliva or food would make me vomit. I could drink. And anytime I got the slightest sense that I might be able to eat, I did. Often I could accept food if I was watching a good movie or eating out in a restaurant.

Things got easier in the fifth month, and they stayed that way until the seventh month. Then I started to contract. Since I was at 34 weeks, a point where the baby would be okay if my contractions became labor, my caregivers did not intervene with medications. I just took it very, very easy for a few weeks because it made me feel that I was giving the baby the best chance to be born near term. I was especially motivated to do this because I had planned to give birth with nurse-midwives in a freestanding birth center, and if I went into labor before 37 weeks, I would have to deliver in a hospital.

The contractions only made me worried, but they didn’t hurt. By this time my baby was dancing around all the time, and I felt reassured by his everyday pattern of activity that he was fine. I cried a lot during this time. The Persian Gulf War had just started, and thoughts of suffering and war seemed to fill me with grief, especially because I could not help but wonder if I would someday have to surrender my first born son to war. I just cried and cried.

The 37th week came and went. I kept contracting. I assumed that my resting was keeping that baby in there, so, wanting to get this labor business over as soon as possible, I got up and got busy. I expected my cervix to open and let him out. So you can imagine how completely beside myself I was when my due date was 10 days behind me. I’d been contracting for 7 weeks. My baby felt huge. I had gotten to the point where I refused to think about labor. All I could let myself think about was holding that baby.

When I’d discussed feeding plans with my nurse-midwife at the beginning, I’d said that I planned to ‘try’ to breastfeed. She said that I shouldn’t be tentative about it. Either do it or not do it, but sitting on the fence usually means you’re looking for an excuse to stop doing it. That made me mad, and I blurted out to her that I’d been molested and ‘breast stuff’ was complicated for me, so I meant exactly what I said when I’d said I’d try: If it didn’t go okay, that’s it. End of pressure tactics. She wrote in pencil, discreetly, on the inside cover of my chart ‘history of sexual abuse’.

Oh. Is that what that was?

I’d been molested by an adult at a camp the summer I was thirteen. I’d remembered this twelve years after it had happened when, in a conversation with my husband, we’d been reminiscing about the awful times in gym class during puberty when we’d felt so very bad about our bodies. Remembered emotional state. Zap. Remembered experience of body and soul shame. As the flashback was happening, my husband saw it for what it was, and gently drew the story out of me. So when the midwife asked me about breastfeeding, I knew about that…episode. From this vantage point, I can call it an episode. It was only the tip of the iceberg, it turns out. But knowing about that night of abuse and how it had affected my relationship with my breasts, I was able to tell my midwife to back off and let me cope according to my own needs, taking the baby’s needs into account as best I could.

Turns out that breastfeeding was a challenge in the extreme, but he and I managed it for seven months. I consider it to be one of the crowning achievements of my life. A grueling victory snatched from the hands of a child molester. And an act of sweet generosity to my child and myself, full of warmth and comfort (after the sore nipple stage). I would not trade knowing and remembering that I nursed my infant for anything. I had no idea I had that kind of fierce perseverance in me.

But I jump ahead. Had I been the first woman to remain pregnant forever, you’d have heard of me. Of course I did finally begin to labor in earnest. (Just in case any of you are pregnant and experiencing pre-term contractions now and wondering how you’ll know if they become real labor…trust me. You’ll know.). The deep achy tightening of productive contractions came –welcomed—with a deep rush of adrenaline. My hours in active labor were wonderful. Challenging, but wonderful. I was the center of a small universe: midwife, nurse, husband, sister, bedroom, and bathtub. Finally it seemed my cervix was all gone, and they said I could start to push whenever I felt like I needed to. And I lay down on the big double bed on my back, and I drew up my knees to bear down, and…the paperwork about my labor says I pushed for an hour and fifteen minutes there. My husband and sister say I pushed for a long time there. I wouldn’t know. It’s a blank. But eventually they got me up to empty my bladder, and I was present again. The baby was born minutes later as I knelt on the bed. No more of that recumbent position. No. No. And the baby was huge and happy. And I was fine.

Over the next days and weeks, I had several follow up visits. Some were routine, but a few were because I just had a lot of trouble breastfeeding. Then too, I was glad of the contact with the midwives because I just couldn’t stop crying. I felt bursting with pride at this incredible thing I’d done, and yet all I could feel when I looked at that perfect little one was grief, grief, grief. I could not understand it. The emotions were so intense that I could not sort them out or make them calm down. I thought the tears would simply never leave me. I thought I’d float away, and he would miss his mama, but he would not be able to find me because it would all have gone blank as soon as I finally wore out my ability to tolerate the intensity of the grieving pain.

Eventually I wore out. I wouldn’t say I felt peaceful. I just felt like a dry autumn leaf. Resigned. Powdery. Lightweight. Just waiting to blow away or disintegrate. And, by turns, I began to feel normal things too. Like fatigue, humor, boredom, longing for grown-ups to talk to, longing to go to work again, longing for a babysitter. Reassuringly normal feelings.

It is true that there was a sort of gap between how I’d envisioned myself mothering and how I was managing in reality. But I think this is normal. I felt normal.

Until my boy started to get on toward a year or more. There came that time when they start to have a will of their own, and they sometimes cry in anger, asserting themselves. And it terrified me. I had to get him to stop. When he out and out cried like that I’d fill with adrenaline as though my life were in danger—as though his life were in danger. It all became very confusing. I was afraid I’d hit him or shake him to get him to stop it, so I’d find myself sitting outside on the front stoop while he wailed in the safety of his crib. I prayed that the social worker who lived across the street wouldn’t turn me in for neglecting my baby. But we were safer if I got outside where the piercing cry was muffled for me.

Other things start being obviously ‘not right’ then too. I sometimes would cry uncontrollably and feel nauseated. I’d spend whole days lying on my bed the whole time he was at daycare instead of working. I felt the gap between how I wanted to be with him and how I seemed to be as a mother widening. And then came some way, way stronger than usual reactions to things that were related to memories of being molested. Adrenaline rushes and strange sensations and panic and dread. I started to feel as though I was ‘losing it’. Or worse. Maybe I was becoming mentally ill, like my mother.


No. That would be intolerable for me and for my family, and I would NOT allow it.

It was time to go back to see that therapist who had helped me process the initial flashbacks of being molested at camp.

I did not know then that that decision was the first step on an odyssey of remembering and adapting and growth that has run right alongside all the other events of my life over the past several years. I understand now that when I was my baby’s age, crying like that…well, it WAS dangerous. Little by little flashbacks and body memories and emotional memories have come up to the surface enough for me to learn about my history what I need to know to heal. And what I need to know to mother my son.

The four months of pregnancy nausea makes perfect sense to me now. So do the endless contractions. I understand them as body memories and expressions of distress and anxiety, which came from a place in my knowledge of my life where there were no words. And ‘going away’ from the labor pain when I found myself in that awful position again…it was a well-practiced form of self-protective dissociating. And the ceaseless feelings of grief during the pregnancy and postpartum? That makes sense to me if I understand it as being ‘triggered’ by the feelings of bonding with my baby. I had long ago turned off all intense emotion because usually it was bad: terror, despair, and loss. So when the feelings of maternity started raging around in me, those wonderful feelings that seem to make so many other women ‘glow’… they made me wail with grief. It got all mixed up. Who is the baby/Who is the mother? Which role am I feeling? I feel motherlove, and it zaps me into feeling babyneed. Round and round. So much loss.

But the baby I mothered is a schoolboy now. He still freely expresses his needs for being occasionally babied a bit. Sometimes he curls up next to me on the couch to read. Sometimes he still holds my hand when we cross a street. Sometimes he asks if he ever had a pacifier when he was a baby. He laughs straight-out and simply when I tell him that he was never fooled by any size or shape of rubber nipple, and so, no, he’d had several given to him, but he’d never adopted any of them. This is a kid who flat out relishes having been a baby and having his mother nearby to give him tiny tastes of youngest childhood as needed during these rough and tumble days of elementary school where he is having to leave the joys of being mothered for more rare moments.

I was lucky. Mine was a wanted pregnancy. My partner was present and unquestioningly willing to carry the weight of caring for baby and mother when I was not capable of carrying my load. Many times he was able to give me the reassurance that meant the most to me, saying, “You feel like you are going crazy, but you are acting okay, and our son is fine and loves you just like any kid loves a good-enough mom.”

Being a ‘good enough’ mom is not how I ever would have described my goal for mothering. My therapist gave me that term; “No need to berate yourself for not being ‘supermom’. ‘Good enough’ parents will do just fine for most kids.” I sense this is true. And I know that all of the work that goes with being some ideal of a ‘supermom’ was not humanly possible for me. I had to spend too much time in therapy and learning to take care of myself to be able to achieve any pinnacle of maternal accomplishment. But I have kept my child safe, as far as I know. And he is not afraid of me. He has faith in me and expects that I’ll do what he needs me to do for him when it’s important. And I am strong and mostly good-humored. And I look forward to the rest of my life as his mom. I look forward.

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