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, October 9, 2009

Hope's Story

My mother left my father, my little sister and I when I was 5 years old. It’s very hard for me to separate the damage that was caused by sexual abuse from the damage caused by my mother’s abandonment (especially when it comes to my mothering journey). Then I have to consider what damage my father’s neglect and emotional abuse following the divorce caused. I was a pretty mixed-up kid. However, I don’t think very many survivors out there are only dealing with sexual abuse. Life is never that simple. So I’ll tell my story as best I can, for this all part of who I am.

It was May 3, 1971. I was 3 ½ years old. While playing outside with a couple of older neighbor boys, I was sexually violated with a stick after being bribed with candy to remove my clothing. The pain was so intense that I was unable to pee for over 24 hours and was eventually taken to see my family doctor. After the whole story came out, my parents were shocked into silence. They didn’t speak a word to me all the way home and the incident was never referred to again.

My child’s mind knew exactly what was going on. I had done a very bad thing. Apparently there was something wrong with me and I had embarrassed my dear parents with the knowledge that their little girl had a defect. No one mentioned to me that it might not be my fault; no anger was directed toward my “playmates”. I was cast adrift in a sea of pain and silence. It was then that I internalized two very profound teachings. 1) It was OK for people to hurt me and 2) It was not OK to tell anyone about it.

I guess that was when I got the invisible “tattoo” that so many survivors talk about. The one that tells every creep and degenerate out there that I’m easy pickings. The “victim sign”. I was abused by my elders and my peers over the next 15+ years. When I finally gathered up enough courage to tell someone again I was 11 years old. I received such a long and abusive lecture from my father on how evil I was for spreading those ugly lies that I buried my secrets and went on in silence, again. I entered puberty under the impression that the sexual abuse had damaged me so badly that I would never be able to conceive. I now know that this belief is fairly common among survivors, in fact, two other survivors passed it on to me. One of them was my aunt. My mother’s little sister has accused her parents of sexually abusing her (among other things.) Her only “proof” has been that not once in her fairly promiscuous life has she ever conceived a child. My aunt and a school friend of mine both confided in me, separately, that due to early childhood sexual abuse their doctors had assured them that they would never bear children. I both believed and feared that the same fate had befallen me. Surely I was too badly damaged to become pregnant. I began field-testing this theory and proved myself wrong when I was 18.

I quickly made an appointment and got the abortion I desperately wanted. The procedure went well. I was well supported. I recovered easily. I have no regrets. The relationship I was in was turning abusive and I am grateful that I was able to leave him, no strings attached.

At 19 I met the man of my dreams. David was my only experience of love at first sight. We married quickly and decided early that we would never have children. We used to sit in restaurants watching young families and count the reasons why we did not want to be like them. It all seemed so noisy, messy and chaotic. We didn’t need the trouble.

Ben was an old friend of David’s. He was one of our roommates back when David and I first moved into student housing together. He was kind, eager to please and very attracted to me. It took quite awhile before I realized what was happening. David was absorbed in Graduate studies and a full-time job. I was a homebody who did a little theater work for “candy money” and watched too many soap operas. I didn’t want to sleep with Ben but I had no clue how to say No. He was persistent in his pursuit of my favors and, eventually, I allowed myself to be seduced. I was too ashamed of what I had done to tell my husband. I was also unable to extinguish Ben’s desire for me and unsure of my own true feelings for him. When I became pregnant with Ben’s child I was devastated.

I was willing to abort if Ben never found out. David refused to keep silent and pretend nothing had happened, so I chose to find a childless couple to adopt my baby. I spent one last highly emotional week with Ben early in my pregnancy while David was out of town and then cut off communication completely. I allowed David to convince me that Ben did not love me and that there was no hope of a future with him. I knew that if the child I were carrying were a boy, I would have no choice but to give him up. I was unable to imagine David raising Ben’s son as his own; it seemed too unpleasant for all of us. I prayed for a girl.

My pregnancy was awful and miraculous. I loved being pregnant even while I hated all the pain it caused David. I would stay awake at night holding my belly and crying. I wanted to be able to love my child without having it hurt everyone so much. Our families were dumbfounded by the idea of us giving our child away. My friends told me that I’d never forgive myself. My stepmother offered to raise the child for us as my half-sibling. I had to say something to her, something that would make her stop hounding me about my decision. I told her I’d been raped. It became my truth. It did have some truth to it and it became easier and easier to tell to people as time went on. I told it to my family, my in-laws, my doctor, our adoption worker, the couple we’d chosen to raise my child and eventually, my midwives.

I wanted to birth at home. I had attended a friend’s homebirth a couple of years back as a support person for their 2-year-old son. I had already developed an acute fear of hospital birth. I knew I would not do well under a doctor’s “control”; it still makes me queasy imagining it. I began prenatal care with a female OB while my search for a midwife began. I had already rejected one when I realized that the author of the book I was reading on birthing lived in my town. I decided that she was the one for me but she had serious misgivings about my having a homebirth when I did not intend to keep my child. Better to give birth elsewhere and not have to live with the memories of the birth in my home space. Lucky for me she happened to run a birth center not too far from my home. I decided to have my baby there instead. I met my midwife’s partner when I began going to the birth center for my prenatal care. I felt very blessed to have two such warm and loving women caring for me.

At some point in my last trimester, I told my midwives my cover story about having been raped by a friend. Probably to avoid some pointed question about my reasons for giving my child away. The effect it had was profound; it transformed our relationship. I became a special case, I suppose. I know that they really wanted to help me keep my child despite my husband’s objections. I don’t believe they had ever come up against a problem they couldn’t solve and they were determined that I would not be an exception!

I went in for my 35-week check and was given an internal exam as a matter of course. They wanted to get a sense of how my body was arranged before labor started in order to better gauge the changes I would undergo during labor. I don’t know how or why but I was found to be 50% effaced and 2 cm. dilated. Under normal circumstances this would have been a bad sign. I would have been advised to rest and try to avoid having the baby before 37 weeks. They might have begun to talk of transferring me into the care of an OB. Instead they took it as cause to rejoice. My belly was big enough for them to convince everyone (including me) that my dates had been wrong. I was told that my baby was full term and it seemed that David was most likely the baby’s father. I was told that I would have a baby by the weekend (this was a Wednesday). I went home in a fog. Deep down, I knew that my dates were right, I was keeping very close track of my cycles, but I wanted to believe them so much. I prayed and squatted and walked all week long trying to speed things up. By Sunday, I was a mess. I didn’t know what to think or who to believe anymore. David was only slightly more interested in his own child than he was in Ben’s. We did select our baby names during those days of waiting, but they were only chosen to look good on the birth certificate 18 years later when he or she found it.

Late Sunday night my backache began and we headed off to the birth center. Everyone was tense, edgy, waiting for the answer to the unspoken question, “whose baby is this?” My body fought giving birth. I didn’t want to let go. It was too soon. I’d only gotten 8 months of pregnancy and I wasn’t ready yet. I remember repeating the word “open” over and over through clenched teeth, a classic symptom of childbirthing fear. It’s a miracle that I was able to dilate at all. I stalled out at 9cm in my body’s last-ditch effort to avoid letting go of my baby. No such luck, the midwife between my legs reached in and pushed my cervix over the baby’s head. She was born with the cord wrapped around both her neck and her body. My body had done all it could to hold her back but here she was, a perfect little girl. As the midwife lifted her up onto my belly, I swear that she looked at me and said “Hi.” (I’m not the only one who heard her say it either.) She looked enormous to me and as I held her to my breast, I felt my heart burst with joy and break from pain all at once.

She was born at only 36 weeks. The midwives checked and double-checked every feature of her tiny body looking for signs of her being term. Finally they regretfully agreed on her age although the quickly added that while she was born early she was in no way premature. She weighed in at a very healthy 8lbs. 13 oz. They even sent a sample of her cord blood in to the lab to have it typed in case that could tell us anything about her true paternity. It was the same blood type as mine. No help there either. Looking back I can’t help but appreciate everything they did for me, for all of us. We called the adoption worker to come down to the birth center. That really flustered the midwives who were busy with another birthing mom at the time. They thought she was going to take her away right then and there but I wanted my baby to come home with me, and David reluctantly agreed to it.

The ride home was tense and silent. We both knew what an impossible choice we were facing. The reality of raising a child we didn’t even know if we really wanted was overwhelming but the idea of giving her away forever was like a knife in my heart.

She was born on a Monday. We brought her home Tuesday. On Thursday, we called our family to announce that we were going to keep our little girl. I knew that if I had given her away I would only want to replace her. Neither of us felt it made sense to give away the perfect child in our arms just to turn around and try again. I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been for David to agree to keep her. I hope I never have to experience such a decision myself.

All of a sudden, I was a mother. I had not prepared for it. I had read no books, gotten no advice, made no plans. All I remembered of my own mother were the traumatic events that led to her leaving and the weekend visits when I was older. I had no clue what I was doing. I did know one thing, though. I knew that I was going to protect her from sexual abuse. My mother’s family has a history of sexual abuse that goes back into obscurity. It had touched every family member I knew, but it was not going to happen to my baby. I became the ultimate “attachment parent”. I never left her with anyone I didn’t fully trust. I slept with her in my bed for years. I taught her the word “Stop” and I made sure everyone respected it when she used it. I taught her that everyone has a right to their own space. I avoided any mention of sexual abuse persay, but made certain she was safe and strong. It was a lot of work. I didn’t go out alone much. I couldn’t take a job because I was terrified of leaving her in daycare. It ticked off more than a few people who didn’t think tickling a child was a big deal, even after she said, “Stop”. It wasn’t easy for me but I knew what I had to do in order to live with myself. I was obsessed, but happy.

Then, one day last fall when my daughter was 7, we were laying on my bed talking when the topic turned on sex. I can’t remember why or how, but my daughter pressed me in to giving her information on sexual abuse. I knew it would happen eventually. I’d been involved in survivor support groups on the Internet for 6 months or more by then. She couldn’t be kept in the dark forever. Anyway, she asked me questions for awhile before I broke down and decided to give her the information she wanted as simply and gently as I could. I told her that there were adults in this world who liked to have sex with children.

She was stunned. It took her a second or two to process this new information. She looked at me incredulously and said, “Mom, that’s so gross” or some other equally sophisticated comment like that.

That’s when I felt it. This power surge, this overwhelming feeling of success, of achievement. It’s hard to find the words to express how complete I felt at that moment, how triumphant. “I did it! I won! I broke the chain of abuse, here and now. It’s over.” My little girl won’t grow up with the shame of sexual abuse in her life. Even if someone raped her now it wouldn’t be the same. She would know she could tell, she would know it’s not her fault. Sexual abuse needs silence in order to thrive; it only grows in the dark. My daughter no longer has those vulnerable dark places in her soul. She is no longer ignorant about abuse; she can no longer be shamed into silence. She will never believe that it was her fault. She now knows the truth and somehow, that truth had set us both free. My years of hard work and dedication to her safety paid off big for me. I now hope to be able to help others work through the hidden wounds of childhood sexual abuse or, even better, protect other mothers’ children from ever experiencing it at all.

If I could give only one gift to my daughter, to all daughters, it would be for her to have all the knowledge, all the strength and all the self-assurance to allow her to choose if, how and when she becomes a mother herself. I feel that childhood sexual abuse took that choice out of my hands, and, while I feel very blessed to be a mother now, I cannot help but wish that I had been able to embrace motherhood willingly. If I cannot have that experience for myself, I will do my utmost to create it for my child.

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