It’s Not Selfish of You to Feel Traumatized By the Birth of Your Baby.

Did you know that one in every twenty new mothers is diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress following childbirth?

In her book Birth Crisis, anthropologist and birth activist Sheila Kitzinger argues that many cases of postpartum depression are attributed to “hormonal fluctuations” but that, in fact, a good many women are traumatized by the way they’re treated during labor–and many, if not most, beat themselves up for feeling that way. Other people are often less than helpful, saying things like “you expected too much,” “just be grateful that your baby is okay,” and suchlike.

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Last year, I took issue with the Femina bloggers for implying that women with birth plans beyond “being grateful for whatever happens” are selfish. Increasingly, as I read more and gather more stories (keep them coming!) I am convinced that birth matters a lot. Sheila writes:

“a woman who has an intervention will [not necessarily] be distressed after birth. The quality of relationships with her caregivers is what matters most. When that is poor, even an apparently straightforward labour and a normal vaginal delivery can be traumatic.”

In another book, Rediscovering Birth, Sheila points out that in no traditional culture is birth treated as a purely physical/medical event. Instead, it is a time when family and community ties are strengthened, when people come together to support a woman and her baby as she goes through a major life event and transition. 

This is not to romanticize birth pre-modern medicine, or birth as it is for perhaps half of the women in Malawi, for example. It’s to say that there are real reasons why women suffer trauma and depression after childbirth that may have nothing to do with hormones. It’s to say that there are serious reasons why women reject all that the most high-tech hospital could offer and choose to birth at home with midwives, reasons that cannot and should not be brushed off. Women remember the births of their children with surprising accuracy even years later. It is an exquisitely tender time in a person’s life. It matters.

It’s unfortunate that Sheila’s book Birth Crisis is published with Routledge; Routledge produces quality books, to be sure, but at $30 it’s a bit more than people want to spend on a paperback. There is a slightly less expensive Kindle edition, and of course, there’s always inter-library loan–for those lucky enough to be part of a good library system.

If you have had a traumatic birth experience, be sure to check out Sheila’s Birth Crisis page. If someone tells you about theirs, be sure not to brush it off.

About Rachel Marie Stone
  • http://neffreview.blogspot.com LaVonne Neff

    I’ve submitted an interlibrary loan request. Yes, even more than 40 years later my two birth experiences are vivid. One was in a high tech teaching hospital, impersonal doctor I’d never met, husband not allowed in delivery room, baby kept away from me for 12 hours, 3 days in hospital, no after-care – followed by breastfeeding difficulties and depression. The other was in a fairly primitive small hospital with doctor I knew, husband with me throughout, was handed the baby immediately, went home after 12 hours, cared for by parents – followed by no depression whatsoever, and lots of milk. I know that even two swallows do not a summer make, so I’m looking forward to seeing Kitzinger’s research!

  • Regina W

    I’m so glad to see more and more people talking about this. I had a traumatic birth at home with our first in which our trusted midwife pushed many “natural” interventions against my will, bullied and threatened me when I tried to talk to her about the things she was doing, and then cancelled a number of my postpartum appointments even though I was very weak and sick after the birth (and having severe breastfeeding problems). It’s been 4 years and it’s still hard to think about.

    A couple months after the birth, I remember reading about post-traumatic stress disorder and thinking that it sounded like me. I dismissed the idea of pursuing help because 1) I had a homebirth and all the loudest voices insisted that I was making it all up because of course midwives are never awful and 2) everyone else insisted that post-traumatic stress disorder is a silly thing to imagine I have after giving birth. Whether I actually had it or not is still a question, but I definitely had something awful and had no treatment–which was a bad idea.

    I’ve been looking for support in the United States, but it seems like support for traumatic births is mostly very localized. This awareness of PTSD after a traumatic birth must be starting in the UK because that seems to be where I’ve found most of the strong networks. I will keep looking, though, and hopefully find someone to help me work through the mess of emotions that are still left after 4 years.

    (And, yes, I’ve thought about answering your call for birth stories, but I’ve had a hard time answering the questions. I should probably try again. It might be somewhat healing.)

  • http://communicatingacrossboundaries.wordpress.com Marilyn

    Good call! I have delivered 5 babies on 3 continents – and by far the worst experience was in a hospital in Florida. Cairo, Egypt and Islamabad, Pakistan were great! And I agree – it does matter. Along with that as a nurse I am aware that hospitals nurses can be the biggest obstacles to helping a new mom get established with breast feeding. Great post and glad I found your blog. My colleague is from Malawi and we talk all the time about public health here in the U.S. where obesity is our biggest issue versus public health in Malawi, Egypt, and Pakistan.

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