Why some women tell their birth horror stories to pregnant women

pregnant friendsFor some reason, pregnant women are often an open invitation for other women to spontaneously share their own experience around birth and delivery—particularly their horror stories about everything that went wrong and how awful it was.  In the spirit of compassion, we might ask ourselves why this is, and also what to do about it?

Firstly, I really don’t know why the women who do this don’t think through whether this is welcome input.  However, one hypothesis is that to the extent that a woman has had a traumatic experience with the birth of a child, a pregnant woman may serve as a trigger that brings back her own unworked-through trauma.

Much as a truck backfiring might trigger a traumatized veteran to re-experience memories of bombs, if a mom with a bit of post traumatic stress disorder gets triggered, she may find herself experiencing flashback memories and a flood of emotions that can grab a person and compel them to do something to discharge the anxiety.

One of the key components to treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is for the sufferer to talk about the trauma.  When a trauma is overwhelming, be it just before a car crash or when the doctors start snapping into emergency mode in the delivery room, we tend to sort of leave our bodies and float a bit outside them.  Emotionally, this protects us, but we do not then process the trauma and store it in the brain as a proper memory.  Instead, the experience stays in the mental equivalent of a computer’s desktop from which it pops up and fills the screen of consciousness—sometimes at unexpected moments.

Now if you are pregnant, to a woman with unresolved birth trauma you are the emotional equivalent of a masked gunman to a former bank robbery victim.  Thus your belly manages to hit the play button on the story of their terror, and they are unconsciously trying to work it through by talking about it.  However, the pregnant receiver of the story is in a vulnerable and protective place, so no matter what else they do, their mental energy and unspoken message is to shut the story-teller out.  This makes for a very unsatisfying dynamic where one mom is trying to pass a hot potato of bad feelings to another soon-to-be-mom who is in no position to take it.

Thus, if you have had a bad birth experience, I send compassion and the hope that you will find someone who can hear about it and help you work through the trauma.  This trauma is often exacerbated by the birth fantasy that a mom may have brought into the experience (i.e. of a natural birth, etc.) that may have turned out to be both scary and completely medical in the end, in contrast to what was desired.  On top of the trauma then sits a sense of loss, and sometimes of personal failure (mistaken, but feelings are often far from rational).  If it helps to share the experience here, feel free; and this brings us to the next point.

If you are pregnant, it might be helpful to have a strategy for what to do if someone starts to share their negative experiences.  The first step is compassionate recognition of the pain and fear of the story-spiller, but the second is a healthy boundary; something to the effect of, “I’m sorry if you had a difficult experience, but I’ve decided to really focus on positive experiences in the hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to spare my baby the fear and pain that you too must have tried to avoid.”  Or you might try, “Why don’t we compare stories after I have one to tell.”

As you become more conscious, you may even be able to see the negative story coming and avoid getting pinned down in the line of fire, because while the one with trauma needs to tell, the one carrying baby needs not to hear.  You need not feel guilty or responsible for others when you are pregnant.

So, while we want to serve the interest of all our collective children (and those who “parent” them at every level from friends, to teachers to doctors and nurses) we also want to honor and protect boundaries so that traumas can heal rather than spread and create vicarious trauma in those that hear it when they are not in the right space to receive it.

Friends after the babiesOn the other hand, as we build our resilience (and if we find ourselves fortunate enough to feel ready to hear some hard things now and again), we can do the mental/emotional reach-out and give compassion rather than judgment and criticism when we find people spilling over (be it other parents or our own kids).  

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Why some women tell their birth horror stories to pregnant women”

  1. A.N. Says:

    I just red your post for today Bruce… I haven’t gotten a chance to teach pregnancy yoga for a month now (it just so happened that we were out of town during the classes) and your story made me aware of what kind of potential “mess” I might find there when I teach again (today). Hopefully it won’t be too bad….I agree with you-some people are not very conscious of what might be hurtful to others (and that includes teachers and even doctors and midwifes sometimes too-unfortunately!).

    Although there is a time and a place for everything, pregnancy yoga is usually a very safe and protected place, and in this manner also a sacred place, where woman can share their fears and concerns with other woman, and with a skillful teacher’s help, steer it all towards a more positive intention and projection.

    As in life, pregnancy’s worst enemy is: 1. ignorance (not exploring the knowledge that is available about it and not finding out all the possible choices and by the grace of those choices, moving towards what one thinks is the right one for their family) and
    2. attachment (to know what and how is there for you, have a positive projection for your baby and yourself and family, but then, on the day of the birth to be able to let go of those projections and how you want the birth to be, etc. and to stay in the moment-with what is present for you and your baby right now-in the birthing room, your home, operation hall etc. equally….one breath at the time, breath after breath.

    In our classes sometimes we compare birthing with surfing and contractions are the waves. They have the beginning, the peak and the end…and your breath is your greatest friend that will take you to that place of allowing the wave to come and open you up with each more and more intense wave, as they come. Having an image of the wave and “surfing it” also enables the woman to allow the intensity and the hugeness of the wave, knowing that the end of that wave is near and thus hopefully not getting overwhelmed by it….and than another one comes.
    In this space between two waves you can rest for couple or minutes or less, or relax or even talk and dance if you feel like it, or kiss your partner ☺): this space is the gift where you can let go of the previous wave’s intensity and gather your focus and breath for the next one).

    We also have a very challenging exercise to prepare us for dealing with the waves. It is called a “keep up” exercise and it usually involves a repetition of hand movements that nobody can endure to the end unless they go “inside” and really pay attention to their breathing, making it deeper and slower, allowing the arms to do their job while focusing the mind (that might be freaking out from the intensity) onto the breath. We often use a chanting CD or mantras (chanting words) that enables the voice out during the keep up exercises. With this we encourage devotion and celebration, embracing the discomfort and pain as our ally, which helps us to open and embrace, rather than letting the negativity of the mind control the experience and contract our body (that is being open in the process of contractions). I know this is a paradox to the mind and there is an irony in it, but we do not birth from our mind anyway. We birth from within our heart’s mind. From that place of knowingness that as a woman, we have an intuitive memory imprinted in each cell of how to be pregnant and how to birth. Yoga, meditation, and expressing the fears that might be in our way (to our community of pregnant ladies and teachers, etc.), all helps us to connect to that place of ancient knowing and birthing from within.

    And the last, but not least I do not believe there is such thing as ” bad or good” birthing experience, only the ability to let go and be in the moment, while trusting that there is a divine plan and a gift in everything we might have endured and the big one is to owning the experience as such (rather than being victimized by it as if it’s not ours) by letting go of whatever doesn’t match with the vision we might have carried around for 40 weeks.

    p.s. I apologize for the long post Bruce, but pregnancy comes around a lot on your page and tickles me to say something. Today is my son’s 5th birthday and this is my giving a present to anybody who might have a need to read it-for his birthday, in honor to the way his birth was while celebrating his life. It’s by no means meant to take away from anything you wrote, on the contrary I rejoice in the courage of the versatility of the subjects you bring to the plate and the depth and mindfulness and beauty you bring to all of them! AND I LOVE THE PHOTOS!

    Namaste
    Aleksandra Neil

  2. Beth B Says:

    Beautiful photos for this post Bruce!

  3. Water « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] although I’ve noticed that many women (due to unresolved trauma I suspect) tell their birth horror stories to pregnant women, my hope is that today’s boneheaded recollection might serve as a smile of connection to all the […]

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