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, November 6, 2009

Denise's Story

There is no question that my past abuse history had a major impact on my ability to handle even the thought of having children, my pregnancy, birth and adjustment to parenting.

From the moment I fell pregnant I went into a total depression – even before I knew I was pregnant. I felt exhausted, stressed, and irrational at times. It was really most unfortunate timing since my husband (then fiancĂ©) had just organized a wonderful trip to explore Britain and Europe, and we were to marry in Edinburgh just before New Year. I completely lost energy and any kind of joy or curiosity. Everything just felt extremely tiring and difficult.

Four days after our wedding we crossed the channel to France and I was horribly sick into somebody’s coke cup on board the ferry (much to the delight of the other diners, I am sure!) We gathered together our bits of French grammar and got a pregnancy test on the Champs-Elysees. Both tests were positive. I was quite happy about the pregnancy. It wasn’t totally convenient yet, since we had intended doing a lot more traveling, but we were committed and had intended to start a family soon anyway.

I had secret fears that I possibly couldn’t get pregnant, because I had had a termination when I was twenty-four. I had an IUD inserted and the gynecologist had not put it in correctly. I hadn’t realized because he had said that one could experience some pain for a while… so when it was painful and uncomfortable, I thought it was normal. I was at the point of a nervous breakdown when I realized I was pregnant at that time. I was a dancer with the City Ballet where salaries were extremely low and I was fast realizing that my fiancĂ© at the time was an incurable drug addict and a repeat of the “father” pattern. I became very ill and the doctor suggested the termination. All my fears of being abused and perhaps becoming an abuser or subjecting my child to someone who was an abuser came up. (My mother had also played on my fears a couple of years ago when I told her briefly about what had happened. She said that she was totally anti- abortion and that I would probably never be able to have children now. As usual it was much easier for her to make me out to be a bad person and to disempower me than to face the fact that my Father’s behavior had impacted my life so drastically. )

I was very nauseous and depressed for the rest of our tour. When I got home I knew there was no way I could stay in the same city as my parents. I just didn’t feel safe living in the same town as my father. Bruce was wonderful in that he understood, and he organized for me to move cities.

My parents were coming to the wedding and that threw me even deeper into stress and depression. On the one level, they were being very helpful, especially my mother with the making of the dress and decoration of the venue, but I had no way of feeling okay about my father who had reacted aggressively when I had first mentioned the wedding. I had fears that he wouldn’t be able to handle the jealousy and that he would go mad and stab my husband or me as he had threatened to do for so many years. There was definite underlying tension all the time and he kept going off and sulking or getting horribly drunk and high and there was major tension between him and my mother because he kept ignoring her. There was definitely an element of him behaving like the jilted lover. My mother was bitchy and sarcastic with me and made me cry in front of my friends, because of her jealousy and sense of rejection.

On the day of the wedding the tension grew partly because I refused to let my father give me away and my mother was making a big deal of it. At the reception he waited for Bruce to leave the room and then sidled over to me and in a lecherous way ran his hand across my back while I tried to edge away and then got his fingers inside the edge of my low-back wedding dress. It shocked me so much that I went completely blank for a few seconds. Then I turned around and saw that my mother had seen and that she was glaring at me like it was my fault, as usual.

That was a turning point for me. It just epitomized how it had been for all the years. I knew then that I had to get myself away from these people because nothing was ever going to change with them. No matter how much I fought not to be a victim I was just totally a victim in the family pattern and I would just have to break out completely to change anything. I gave up on the hope of normality on my family.

About a month later I went to meet my midwife, Donna and she asked if there was anything coming up for me and I told her about the abuse from my father. It is funny how people assume that abuse from a parent must be something from a long distance past. On my file she wrote that I had been abused and was still very angry about it- the implication being that I was harping on about something from the ancient past. She referred me to a clinical psychologist who works with her. The first day I went to see her what came out of that session was that it was imperative for me to have a complete break from my parents. I felt so relieved that I was finally getting support from her and from my gynecologist to protect myself and get away from these destructive people. I must say that there is almost a level of resentment that it took me getting pregnant first for anyone to take my plight seriously, so that it comes across that they were more concerned about my baby than me. It always seems that I don’t count! Even when the case went through the court again it was all aimed at the fact that I was pregnant and the baby needed protection, not necessarily me!

Anyway, during that whole thing I became so depressed that sometimes I could hardly move for three days at a time. I would just lie on my bed and fret or sleep or read and was only able to get up to go to the toilet or get food from the kitchen. I wanted to go to the gym or go for walks but I just couldn’t, and then my psychologist advised me to just go with this process since she realized that I had always avoided my feelings by being physically active. The dancing is probably what kept me sane, but it also stopped me thinking or feeling too much. Now it was affecting me so much that when my father tried to phone and I heard his voice while I was at a therapy session I spontaneously threw up. It wasn’t because of pregnancy nausea because I was well past this stage in my pregnancy- it was sheer nerves. I didn’t even speak to him, but it was enough to cause a severe physical reaction. I wrote a letter to my parents telling them not to contact me and I did as much as I could in terms of the court and protection. After that I started slowly feeling a little better but I was still chronically depressed.

I went to antenatal classes as my due date drew near…and then passed…and after a week and a half my midwife started panicking. I wasn’t worried because the baby was moving nicely and I even went to have a stress test to put my midwife’s mind at ease. I was getting ready for the imminent birth and I knew that your birth and psychological history can affect the whole birth process and I realized during therapy that the way it would probably affect me is that I would struggle to let go and lose control. I also knew that the whole nausea thing was a big issue, because for me nausea equals fear. My nerves were expressed in nausea and vomiting as a child. I thought that vomiting during the birth would be traumatic for me. So I prepared a copy of my abuse history and I gave it to my midwife Donna so that she would be aware of things that could trigger off a hold-up. She absolutely floored me by saying that other people give birth and don’t even mention abuse in their past and they get through it. I know that could be interpreted as a positive affirmation from her but it really sounded to me like she was saying that she wasn’t really interested and that I should stop being indulgent and just get on with it. We then had a fight about me having to do more tests etc. when I really felt that I just had to go home and relax so that I could go into labor naturally. She insisted on stimulating my cervix and when I said that I was nervous about the internal examination, she reacted as if I was being childish. I was stressing out as she listened to the baby’s heartbeat and when I stress I tend to hold my breath, so of course the baby’s heartbeat slowed for a few seconds. I tried to explain that I had held my breath and that it was definitely connected and we listened again and it seemed fine, but by the time I got home there was a disagreement going on between Donna (on the phone) and my husband about having to go for more tests. Donna and I got into a fight about destiny and I eventually went for another test just to shut her up, and again it was absolutely fine. By this stage Donna was definitely not my favorite person. I had found her extremely abusive, and she had threatened to withdraw from the birth if I got funny about internal examinations and said that I should get myself a “spiritual midwife” (in a derogatory tone.)

I had said that I wanted my birth to be really spiritual and my psycho-spiritual healer and counselor was going to be at the birth. So I felt that she was knocking my feelings, and spiritually disempowering me. It seemed to me, for some reason that my birth and me were bringing her “stuff” up rather dramatically. I know that she was very busy and stressed and in the process of moving etc. but I found her behavior unacceptable. I had to back down and placate her because I knew that I was about to go into labor and I didn’t have the confidence to do the birth myself, but I was tempted. The internal examinations weren’t originally such a big issue- I was just tense because it was the first one I had had, and because I had heard that cervical stimulation could be sore. As far as I am concerned, anybody gets tense for an internal examination whether they’ve been abused or not. In fact, speaking to other mothers in my antenatal group after the birth, they all said (unsolicited by me) that they found the internal examinations the worst of the whole birth – worse than the pain. I think her style is unfortunate too. She sort of closes her eyes and gets a goofy expression on her face and she kind of grunts, and breathes deeply. I don’t think she is lesbian (not that I have anything against lesbianism – lots of my friends are gay) but one gets that vibe somehow… it just doesn’t feel like a straightforward examination. Maybe it’s because she likes feeling the baby, but it feels creepy. I think midwives should be very aware of how they are doing it.

So I went into labor the next evening after typically cooking a huge pot of soup (the nesting thing.) After about two hours my contractions were getting really painful and were already about 2 minutes apart… so we phoned Donna. My husband first spoke to her because the contractions were too much for me to speak, but she seemed to want more information and then when I spoke to her I found her tone rather sarcastic (maybe because it was one in the morning?) She decided to come but from that moment my contractions slowed down and became less intense…my theory is that speaking to her and feeling the context of our very recent argument my body must have pumped some adrenaline into my system and that retarded the birth process. I was 4 cm dilated when she arrived. The contractions built up again but when I was 8cms something happened that just ground everything to a halt. Not the pain and contractions, but I stopped dilating and the labor didn’t progress – I was in transition for 6 hours!

What also affected me was the following incident: I was on my bed leaning forward on pillows, wearing my gown because it was cold and I was having some really big contractions. Next thing Donna whips up the back of my gown, exposing my bare behind and tells my husband to start massaging me. He, poor dear, had been standing by for weeks with massage oils and couldn’t wait to get started so he pounced from the back energetically …and it just totally freaked me out. I started screaming and told him to leave me alone.

The whole scene just brought up too much stuff all at once; the way my father used to humiliate me and make me pull down my pants and bend over the bath edge and made me stay like that while he looked at my exposed rear, and took his time before he whipped me with his belt…and the way he used to massage me or make me massage him, even in front of my brother as a “safe” way of molesting me in front of others and getting away with it. Waves of anger and resentment and fear filled me, and very little progressed in the labor for a long time. Donna also did an internal examination every hour or so and of course I now felt this was something I was being subjected to against my will or otherwise she would leave…so it was just like an abuse situation, “You’ll let me touch you there or else.” She kept saying things like “I’m going to give you another half an hour and then I’ll check and if nothing’s happening I want to give you drugs to increase the contractions.” So there was this time limit thing and I felt that I was supposed to be performing. She even said that my cervix was lazy! I felt like a disempowered failure…and my body was not okay and not to be trusted.

No one there realized the extent of mental trauma I was going through, because like a “good little girl” I just carried on breathing and toning – like a threatened little girl, and I tried to remain in control at all costs and not show the world what was really going on. About five hours later Donna told Joan (my counselor) that she felt that the hold up might be due to emotional issues. Joan hadn’t even realized what was going on. So Joan did some work with me to try to get me to “be real” and let go and scream if I need to. She tried to get me to use this opportunity to get in touch with the anger and to let it out. I had trained as a child not to scream, cry, or react to pain. I was threatened with another beating if I cried…so the letting go of control thing was nearly impossible, and even when I screamed it felt false.

Even though it was very hard for me, I tried, and after about an hour there seemed to be a breakthrough and things started to progress again. During that hour I lay on my side because I was totally exhausted by now. I think it was about 11 hours into this very active labor. Between contractions I would drift away into a different consciousness. I was still aware of everything but I seemed to drift into the past and into my feelings of resentment. At one stage I am sure I astral traveled…because I saw myself at my father’s work just looking at him in the passage and then drifted away and back into my body for the next contraction.

The whole pushing thing confuses me. I never felt this “overwhelming urge” to push. After a while I started experimenting with pushing gently during the contractions and I found that it helped with the pain. But Donna seemed to think that it was too soon to push, because I wasn’t displaying any urgency. Eventually for me it was just a conscious decision to push. I don’t know if this perhaps due to being a dancer and being very in control? Sarah, the second midwife, arrived during transition and she was amazed when I smiled at her and was very aware of what was going on. She remarked that it was nice to see someone still smiling at this stage. I think I cope exceptionally well with pain because of the physical abuse history as well as years of painful pointwork and physicality as a dancer, and then of course yoga/meditation techniques, as I am a yoga teacher as well.

So there was this weird misunderstanding or hold up as a result. I was waiting for permission and they were waiting for something that never happened. I just eventually said that it feels right to push. I pushed for one and a half hours before Xavier made his appearance into this world. He was a great big 4.1 kilos with a head circumference of 37cms. I was fortunate to have only a very small tear. The whole pushing process was very humiliating as well. I don’t know why midwives think that it’s comfortable to push with someone’s face staring up your fanny. They might be midwives, and to them it’s just another fanny, and they are used to seeing fecal matter and so on, but let me just say that when it’s my birth, it’s my fanny and fecal matter, and it’s all very new to me. Even my non-abused friends agree on this point. I felt very inhibited and they kept carting me around the room onto the bed with a leg up to the side…then back on my back, legs up, pushing on shoulders etc. I finally gave birth in a squat position of course because that was the only semi-private position available to me. When I give birth again I will definitely make sure I am left alone to get on with it myself.

I don’t want to seem horribly ungrateful to Donna and her efforts. At least I managed to have a home birth with no drugs and a partial water birth…I got back into the tub after the head crowned. At least I had a birth that was beautiful by comparison to most, at home, with flowers and candles and aromatherapy oils, etc. I just felt betrayed by her because she from the beginning said that she was very aware of abuse issues, and was into the natural way of birthing, and into empowering women, etc., but when “push came to shove” (if you’ll pardon the pun) we found her very conditioned by her medical background, and not very aware or empowering at all. I think a big factor is that she hasn’t given birth herself…so she doesn’t really know how it feels. No matter how much you read or see, it’s just not the same as doing it yourself.

Attached is a list of points, which my husband and I feel are critically important for any labor, whether the person is a “survivor”, or not. My husband had formulated them through extensive reading, and through our experience. He is a sociology researcher and a great promoter of the natural birth movement and stopping violent birth practices, as well as an advocate of the continuum concept/attachment parenting practices. I didn’t even know one could have a baby at home before I met him. My baby and I are lucky to have such an enlightened and aware dad around. Their bonding has been very special and unusual in this day and age.

I had no problem bonding and Xavier Angel latched on like a little trooper soon after birth. He is now six months old and we have a very good nursing relationship and he is thriving and his weight gain has stayed constant and above average. I have struggled to adjust but it hasn’t been too bad. The postpartum blues thing didn’t hit me in crying fits or anything like that. I just felt totally numb and feelingless for a few days, which was quite scary because I didn’t feel anything for Xavier.

As a mother, at first I was very much in the process of trying to show "I'm fine", "I can do this perfectly," and, “ I AM SUPERMOM!” (Which of course is also a "survivor" side effect.) But looking back now I can see the effects more clearly. One major issue for me is that I felt really watched. I had just come out about the years of abuse, and now I felt that everyone was watching me to see if I was going to abuse my child. This is because of that popular psychology theory (which is very destructive) that became very popular in the seventies, and which I actually read as a child while I was being abused. It made me even more fearful and scared of telling anyone what was happening because I felt branded or ruined for life.

Even as a child I was such a nurturing type of person that the thought that I might one day be a terrible mother was absolutely horrible... my fears regarding that were largely instrumental in my deciding to have an abortion later in life. I have met many other survivors who haven't had children for the same reason. It’s ironic that because of 20 years of my father threatening to kill me I opted to end my own child’s potential life rather than bring it into this “unsafe” planet.

Since I fall into the category of the "good little girl" or “over-achiever” type victim, I have put enormous pressure on myself to be the world's most perfect mother. I have this constant inner battle between sacrificing myself and nurturing myself too. I read and study all the right ways of doing things... just after my baby was born I started studying developmental psychology. I am also following the Jean Liedloff, Continuum Concept ideas and the Dr Sears, attachment style parenting system. It is quite sad, because the most important thing should be just to relax and be, and tune into your inner wisdom, which I also try to do... but with me there is desperation behind it... a need to prove that I'm okay.

Because my spirituality is very important I struggled to remain with my original psychologist and then went to a psycho-spiritual healer and lifeline counselor. She really helped a lot with adjusting to my new life as a parent and the birth etc. I try to read a lot on developmental psychology, child abuse, and various spiritual teachings. But I’ve learnt to not be too caught up in the spiritual stuff, because you can wind up being a bigger victim for it. For instance “respect your elders” is very biblical or part of many teachings but so many “elders” deserve no respect at all. And how can you “forgive” if the abuser just takes that as an opportunity to abuse you more? I spent years trying to be a “good person”, and forgive my father or “let go”, but he just used that to continue abusing me up until the age of 31!

The one thing that I also really struggle with is staying "in body". I often just drift off, and go to that place of "nothingness" that I went to when I was being tortured and abused. So sometimes, although I am totally there for Xavier in a physical sense, mentally and spiritually I am miles away. When I catch myself I obviously bring myself back quickly. The problem is that I think through all the years of trauma I have developed the kind of detachment that Buddhist monks spend whole lifetimes trying to achieve. I fully realize it can be a very good thing in the larger context of the meaning of life, but sometimes it worries me in terms of parenting.

I don't think it is affecting Xavier too much… He is a very happy chappie. We are very bonded and loving with each other, and he gets a lot of touch-although-that brings me to another side effect. I find that I touch him a lot less in public. My mother was very touch phobic and my father was totally touch invasive, and I lived with the whole secretive touch thing. I have an automatic reflex to give him a lot more space in public and I suppose that it ties in with the whole thing that I am scared that people will think that I am an abuser. Don't you think that it is just totally unfair? I've lived through the whole ordeal myself and now I am permanently scared that people will think that I am the perpetrator.

I find that I am also surrounded by people who just don't want to know. They have a "just get on with it" and stop delving in your “stuff” reflex. I know that it is because they are not dealing with their own stuff, and my honesty and openness bugs them. It is so weird being in this healing process, (which is one of the amazing things that children bring us!) and everyone just wants you to shut up and pretend, and wear the mask.

Key Birthing Tips

* Being relaxed and being able to maintain this is pivotal

* Also absolutely essential is the woman must learn to have self-reliance and empowerment, backed by a strong feeling of inner calm.

* Respect the woman’s intuition.

* Respect the wisdom of the woman’s body

* Those present must have a harmonious relationship with the mother. Any disruption of trust or trace of conflict can disrupt the labor badly. Be confident enough and able to have anyone you’re uncomfortable with in any way leave immediately (including your midwife or family or doctor.)

* The birth experiences of those present have a profound impact on the labor. The mother has to process it.

* The more we encourage a woman to find her voice, tell the truth, let go and be all that she is and feels during pregnancy, the less likely pathology will develop in labor.

* Patience in all aspects of labor – especially if the woman birthing is calm about the situation.

* “I had the overwhelming feeling that what we needed to do was nothing.” (Elizabeth van der Ahe, midwife)

*“My real work as a midwife has been to get out of the way and let women do their work.” (June Whitson, CNM)

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