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/

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Erica's Story

My parents were ahead of their time. Though I am technically a Baby Boomer, I have always felt a greater kinship with those that are a few years younger than me. When the characteristics of Generation X are compared with the Boomers, I identify more with the former, and I never could quite figure out why until I looked at my parents’ lives. They were both artists, and the social revolution of the sixties and seventies, which blew through our culture leaving so many warped and wounded children in its wake, manifested itself just that much earlier in the art community and on the university campuses where they taught. I was acutely aware that there were quite a few behaviors and topics of discussion that were normal in my house that would shock my friends at school. It made me feel schizophrenic and frightened that I would do or say something way over the top without even realizing it. The atmosphere was wide open and sexually supercharged. I don’t remember not knowing about sex, and it seemed to be the entire goal of adult life. There was lots of alcohol and switching of partners and fighting about sex. It was overwhelming and exciting and I couldn’t wait to grow up and find out what it was that had such enormous power over the adults around me. If it could make grown-ups act so strangely, then clearly sex must be the most incredible thing in the world. Men wanted women’s bodies, and that gave women power.

Modesty was the only sin. Sexual reticence was a major character flaw, I was taught. That the vast majority of this “sexual experimentation” was indulged in by my father and various grad students and other professors’ wives didn’t strike me as imbalanced or unfair in any way, for I was also taught at home that my mother was either crazy or stupid. Looking at their marriage from my present vantage point, sixteen years married and the beneficiary of much therapy, I see that all the rhetoric about sexual freedom and finding the muse was a shabby cover-up for garden-variety adultery. Though I call it garden-variety, my feelings about this betrayal are anything but benign, because I live permanently with how it has distorted me as a woman, wife and mother. It cost me my girlhood, pleasure in my femininity, and the ability to trust my husband, among other things. And it set me up for the first sexual predator that came along.

My father was by far the most powerful person in our home, and, for survival, I adopted his view of the world. I learned to see my body as my currency. It was what I had to surrender to be wanted. My mother taught me to be careful of the tender feelings of men, but no one taught me that I had the right to say no to sexual advances, or that I might want to. When I look at the way young women are now encouraged to dress and express their sexuality, I am troubled. I’ve been there, and, rather than setting me free, it turned out to be a terrible prison that I’ve spent an enormous amount of energy freeing myself from. I want to run up to them and plead with them not to buy into the notion that their sexuality is a currency to be exchanged for a cheap and transitory power. Torn between wanting to preserve my integrity and privacy, and the desire to be valued by men, I began experimenting sexually when I was ten. My roadmap were the porno magazines my older brother gave me, and my partners were boys and girls my age or a little older, my parents’ friends’ kids.

I was twelve when I was seduced by an older man, a med student who was the son of some casual friends of my parents. Years later, he told me that it had taken him an hour to penetrate me, thought I don’t remember it. He also introduced me to oral sex and anal sex, afterwards telling me that the girls he dated wouldn’t let him do some of the things I had. It was all very antiseptic, very calculated, though I had no frame of reference to know if it should be different. I had my first pregnancy scare when I was thirteen. It took me quite a long time in therapy to see the relationship as anything other than my ‘first boyfriend’. It wasn’t until I began imagining my own children being treated this way that I began to see it differently. When I think about someone doing this to one of my kids, I think of how hard it would be to find the pieces of that guy when I got through with him.

In high school and college, I was obsessed with being wanted by men. My radar was finely tuned and always on: if a guy was attracted to me, I branded him a loser. If a guy was at all indifferent, I needed to find out why, to make him want me. And I had no protective barriers. Having a boyfriend eased the anxiety somewhat, but I was still always looking. Looking for the man who would make me feel wanted. My friendships with women were distorted, too. I saw them as dangerous competitors.

The summer after my sophomore year in college, I became pregnant. This was before single motherhood became fashionable, and I didn’t believe I had any other choice but abortion. I did not want to kill my baby, but I believed that once I had given birth I would no longer be desirable to men. After all, wasn’t that what had happened to my mother? My father had wanted her, pursued her, until she had his child, and then she was undesirable to him. Finding a man to love me (and my body was the only thing I believed I had to attract and hold him) was the overriding principle of my life. It felt like the difference between life and death. I dutifully marched myself down to Planned Parenthood and a doctor stuck a hose in me and sucked out my child.

The unexpected outcome of having an abortion was that I stopped caring so much if a man wanted me. I stopped caring about pretty much everything. A part of me that was young and hopeful died and, as winter’s darkness turned the midwestern landscape to gray, so did my interior garden fade. The ‘girl’ had been sucked out of me, too. Though I wouldn’t have told anyone at the time, I now saw human relationships almost entirely in economic terms. I had something men wanted, and I was going to parlay that into as much power as I could. I was not going to ever let myself be vulnerable again.

Given my mental state, it is not surprising that I didn’t give the next guy I met a lot of thought. Nor is it that difficult to understand why it took me years more of running to realize he was the man I wanted to marry. And it has taken me years of marriage to discover I was in love with him.

From the time I was thirteen, I wanted to be a mother. Even through the years of college and working after, when everything was supposed to be career and climbing some stupid ladder, it was what I dreamed about. Almost immediately after marrying Bill, the desire to get pregnant became overwhelming. I wanted a baby so badly, but he wasn’t ready. I bought every book I could find on pregnancy and watched Berry Brazelton’s parenting show on cable TV. When I finally did get accidentally pregnant, I was ecstatic. I thought I knew so much about pregnancy, but what I didn’t know was what was done to women in the name of modern medicine. I thought if I went into see a doctor and said I wanted natural childbirth, that’d be what I got. I wanted to deliver my own baby more than anything, to finally feel, perhaps, like I was a ‘real’ woman.

Four weeks before the end of a healthy pregnancy, my Dr. discovered that my baby had turned breech. A c-section was quickly scheduled. My protests were met with assurances that a vaginal birth would leave my baby dead or retarded and I must stop being so selfish by trying for what was, after all, window dressing. It was implied, and I believed it, that to feel bad about this would make my baby feel unloved and was proof of my selfishness. Once again, I dutifully climbed up on a table and let a Dr. cut my child out of me. I came home with this baby and a frozen heart. I couldn’t sleep, even when he did. I went through the motions, feeling raped, feeling defrauded, and feeling like I was not a real woman. Hidden deep in all this pain however, was a twinge of relief. Since I hadn’t given birth vaginally, that part of me was still unchanged. I had delayed making myself sexually undesirable to my husband, and he might still want me. In my thinking, men did not want women who were mothers. Mothers were used up. Yet, in a way, I was still “unspoiled”. My husband was completely unaware of all this, since I wouldn’t have dared to utter it to another person.

Then my father went nuts. Literally. He, at 67, had his first clinically significant psychotic episode from the undiagnosed manic depression that had shaped his whole life, unbeknownst to any of us. And it set me free. If he was nuts, then I no longer had to see the world through the lenses he’d given me. I got myself into therapy, and began the long, exhausting process of revisiting my past, of looking at my history with a sympathetic other. About this time, I also began to read about cesarean sections and the feelings women experience, and discovered that I was normal. As relief flooded through me, and I began to let the tears out, I took my first deep breath in months. And I set about planning the birth I had always dreamed of.

By the time I became pregnant with my second child, I had pretty much gotten up the courage to attempt a home birth. Actually, it was more out of fear that the hospital bureaucracy would again supercede my desires, and I’d be treated as an ”obstetrical cripple” because of my previous surgery. Twenty hours of active labor and four hours of pushing would have earned me another trip to the surgical suite under an MD’s care, but I had wonderful, caring midwives who believed in me, and I gave birth to my child. During the labor, my hidden fear about “overstretching” resurfaced. I had been pushing for so long, and I finally tried to speak about it, but all I could say was “I’m scared”. Then I looked around the room and realized that I only had two options: to throw in the towel and head to the hospital for another surgery, or forge ahead and risk losing my desirability by pushing the baby out. No one in that room was going to be able to rescue me, and I wanted so dearly to “give birth” rather than “be delivered.” A half hour later I was holding my sweet son and feeling a surge of something that I’d never felt before: true power. Power that comes from having done something difficult and important, not the false power that is conferred by some man wanting to use my body. It was the culmination of the months of uncertainty that had begun with my daring to act on the best information I could gather in deciding a home birth was a reasonable option, despite the doomsayers with advanced degrees. God used the birth of my first child and the loss of a lifetime of dreams to take away the walls of unreality I’d built to survive my childhood. He used the second to begin reconstruction. In the process He planted seeds of compassion and humility. I put off resuming sex with my husband as long as I could and did kegels like mad, but I never dared ask him if he liked sex with me less. I tried to drown out the constant, nagging fear that he would leave me because I no longer attracted him or pleased him. Even if I had, and he had reassured me, I would have believed that someday he was going to run off with someone younger.

My third labor and birth was the sort that women would forfeit body parts to experience. I had learned something from the previous two births. I had learned to relax into it, so much so that I was able to doze between contractions. I essentially woke up ready to deliver, and the midwife didn’t even get her coat off before my daughter slid into the world. I was the first to notice she was the daughter I had longed for, that I had wondered if I was too unworthy as a woman to deserve. Again, fear too deep to name dogged me, but each birth restored a damaged part of me. I sat in my rocker for a month with my daughter, so incredibly delighted I didn’t want to move.

When I was forty- two weeks pregnant with my fourth child, the midwife did a heavy-duty manual exam to see if we could get things going, and discovered that I was having another breech baby. We were living in Dallas at the time, and had no back-up doctor, and not much time to make any decisions. We decided to have another home-birth as planned, since we both thought this baby would be relatively small. I remember that labor as a time of song and being overwhelmed with a supernatural peace. While not quite as quick as the previous baby, the breech birth was in some ways less difficult. When it was all over and we weighed my “littlest” baby, she was a full pound heavier than my firstborn breech, the one who doctors said I could never have delivered myself. I laughed such a laugh of freedom, and of pleasure, and yes, of power. Each birth brought me a piece of myself that had been distorted by fear and shame. Other women are no longer competitors. I learned, in a way much deeper than just head-knowledge, that women are powerful, whether or not someone “wants” them.

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