I’ve blogged about my two birth experiences before. Let me first say that I have never experienced what is known as birth trauma: a feeling akin to post-traumatic stress disorder for those women whose birth experiences were so awful and psychologically unnerving, that they can have a profound impact upon the woman marked by depression or anxiety following the birth. For the uninitiated, this is different from the physical trauma to mother or child that can result from the birth, although the two may co-exist and be related. We’re talking psychological harm from what the woman experiences as a traumatic birth, due to numerous reasons, such as the mishandling of the birth by the professionals in attendance, or pain or fear experienced by the birthing woman during the course of labor, or some other negative experience. I’m no expert on the matter, but from what I have read, although this seems like a largely subjective experience (i.e., what one woman views as traumatic, another may experience with little or no consequence), there nonetheless appear to be certain commonalities among mothers who report experiences birth trauma. For example, unnecessary and/or unwanted c-sections are often cited as a source of birth trauma, and the theory goes that because the woman felt out of control during an emergency (real or perceived) surgery, and was made to feel like her body “couldn’t work,” a feeling of extreme despair and fear results from the trauma surrounding that experience. My desire to avoid this scenario was my primary reason for seeking homebirths with each of my pregnancies.
Aurelia’s birth last year was so awesome. I won’t repeat the details here, but for weeks afterward I was crowing to my friends and family about how cool it was that she came so fast that we “missed the midwife.” What that really means is that we timed things a little poorly (to be fair, based upon my THREE DAY labor with my first kid), and called our midwife too late, which in part led to her arrival just minutes after I pushed Aurelia out into a tub of water in our bedroom, with assistance from my husband and doula. That wasn’t traumatic, although I see how it could be for some reason. If you’re planning on going to the hospital, I’m guessing that giving birth in your bedroom may be experienced with a good deal of fear. Even if you’re like me and planning a homebirth, having the baby before the midwife can get there may sound not so fun to you. But I had read up so much on the subject, and I knew that when the baby comes that fast things are usually going to be just fine, and I also knew that our midwife was racing up the highway at that moment, so it was actually kind of fun and cool to me … I did it, all by myself!
In the days following Aurelia’s birth, I lounged around the house happily nursing my fat little baby and incorporating her into my routines with Big Sister. Those were happy days! I already had the new mom thing down, and I was simply bursting with joy in my little family of four. In those days, I didn’t notice that my husband was annoyed whenever the baby cried, or that he avoided holding her unless I insisted. I cooed over Aurelia’s chunky thighs and amazing head strength, while my husband sulked in the kitchen and stressed about leaving me to return to work. I didn’t pick up on the fact that he was drawn closer and closer to Mackenzie, our first daughter, leaving me to tend to the baby almost exclusively.
Recently, my husband came out and told me that he felt traumatized by Aurelia’s birth. I was confused — we got everything we wanted, right? The point of a homebirth was to avoid unnecessary surgery and other interventions that can make birth so painful, for both mom and her partner. He was right there with me in our bedroom. No being shut out of decision-making, no being ordered around by whitecoats more concerned with liability than what is right for the family, no stress — right?
Wrong, apparently. While at the time of Aurelia’s birth, I felt emotionally and physically prepared for not only a homebirth but an unassisted birth, my husband was fully relying upon our midwife being there to send him the psychological cues that this birth would be safe. He did not share my comfort with what was happening, when I was so focused, so in the zone, so accepting of my body and my baby and trusting her innate wisdom that now was the time to be born. He looked down and saw his wife, groaning naked in a tub of bloody water, with disaster scenarios playing in his mind of a blue, lifeless baby floating helplessly below me. Where I felt strength and confidence, he felt panic and anxiety. Even when Aurelia surfaced pink and healthy and vibrant, his thoughts turned to whether she would survive, not joy over the amazing birth I had just experienced. I understand this now. I had no idea that he had trouble bonding with her in those early days, and in the family’s focus on ME as the birthing woman, it seems that Aurelia’s father was taken for granted as “just the dad” whose wife and baby turned out a-ok, despite (insert laughter) “missing the midwife.”
Things are ok now. Dad and baby are superbly bonded, and her smile lights up my husband’s face as well as his heart every time. I don’t recall Mackenzie smiling so much this early on, in comparison with Aurelia. Or maybe I didn’t notice because, come to think of it, Mackenzie’s birth was long and difficult and my recovery was different with her. It is different every time, with every baby and with each parent. I feel fortunate that my partner is comfortable sharing his experience with me, and it is my hope for every birthing woman and her partner that they have as strong a relationship as we do, so that each parent can acknowledge the other’s birth experience, and promote the healing process that is sometimes necessary following the birth.