How I Reclaimed Power Over Trauma During PregnancyMay 20, 2021
Trigger Warning: This article contains references to sexual violence. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. For support in a time of crisis, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
It wasn’t long after I peed on the stick and found that I was pregnant that my triggers surfaced. Initially, I wrote my behaviour off as pregnancy hormones. I blamed the medical system, work pressure, my partner, back pain, birth fear, my support network and my family. No one got it. No one got me. At least that’s how I felt. I isolated myself from the world, and instead hid out in the world inside my head.
During this time, I was also writing my first book, a memoir about reclaiming power after sexual assault. I started to realise the same triggers I experienced in my 20s, were the same monsters that were resurfacing now. I couldn’t believe it! I thought I was passed this shit.
There are 736 million of us around the world who have been subjected to sexual violence, and as most of us know, abuse has long-lasting effects that vary in severity. It doesn’t matter how much energy, money, and time we put into our healing; our trauma can still be triggered unexpectedly during times of extreme stress. Our healing is a work in progress as we navigate our relationships and new life experiences, applying the coping skills and techniques we have picked up along the way.
I knew my triggers well. Just like those ‘bitchy girls’ at school you ‘pretended’ to like to survive high school, I knew it was important to keep my enemies close. I knew how my triggers played out in the past and my behavioural patterns. It was this insight, that helped me to quickly realise what was happening. I was full of fear. Afraid to trust. Trust. Trust. Trust. That word fucking haunted me. I was desperate to feel safe. Safe. Safe. Safe. That word fucking haunted me too.
Research shows that during pregnancy, a woman who has experienced sexual abuse will experience higher levels of fear and anxiety than those who were not sexually abused.
It wasn’t until my first midwife appointment when I was asked if I had any experience of sexual assault that I connected the dots. The midwife explained that it was important to prioritise my self-care because it can be a very challenging time for survivors. And my triggers, those ‘bitchy girls’ I thought I’d escaped, came back to play havoc with my emotions again. The research was right!
What do I mean by triggers?
Focusforhealth.org suggests imagining yourself as a person who has experienced sexual abuse, and your body becomes one of those triggers and a reminder of the traumatic experience. Trauma can be triggered during pregnancy, labour, birth and parenthood; during routine prenatal care, exams and/or exchanges with medical personnel have the potential to trigger memories of abuse, cause flashbacks of the abuse, or unconsciously trigger the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response in sexual abuse survivors. Invasive physical exams, the pain of childbirth especially sensations felt in the vagina, but also in the abdomen, back, breasts, and perineum, the unequal power dynamics between the mother and care providers — authority figures who may expect compliance and trust — may remind us of our perpetrator or perpetrators, with whom we may have felt helpless, unequal, submissive, or overpowered. Control over our bodies, our contractions, or the emergence of the baby and being controlled by the baby, whose needs come before our own, can be major issues for us. We may have learned that remaining in control is essential to safety and being out of control is threatening.
Reminders during pregnancy or labour to relax and it won’t hurt, to yield or surrender to the contractions, to trust your body or do what your body tells you to do may have an effect opposite to the one intended, if we have learned to guard against giving up control in abusive situations and we may feel that our bodies are damaged and trustworthy.
My triggers surfaced when I found out the gender of my baby was a girl. I had intense anxiety about her safety in a world where 1 in 3 women will be sexually abused during their lifetimes. I threw myself into finishing my debut memoir about reclaiming power in my twenties. There was now a sense of urgency. This gave me some sense of control. I could contribute to ending sexual abuse by sharing my story. When I wasn’t working nine to five or driving the hour commute each way, I pushed through the fatigue to spend every hour of my first trimester working on my book and surviving on takeaway food. It was my fight response; to become a ‘workaholic’ to make the world ‘perfect’ before my baby girl’s arrival.
I fought my partner, family and friends about support; I was afraid of being abandoned, isolated and unloved during pregnancy, labour, birth and parenthood. I did everything possible to push away the people I needed the most. I convinced myself that if I did this alone, I wouldn’t be disappointed or hurt. Just as I had learned to do after my experience of childhood sexual abuse.
On one occasion, I threw a plate of food on the ground in my living room and stomped off like a teenager. I ran away right before a family Mother’s Day breakfast to the beach contemplating staying in a hotel for a week. I almost sabotaged my own surprise baby shower. I experienced some big lows on a few occasions that really sucked, not just for me but for my friends and family who worried if I was ok. I got stressed at ultrasounds, prenatal appointments and if I had to see a male doctor. I kicked my partner out of our house and built walls higher and colder than any wall I’ve seen or touched.
I’m ashamed to admit it but I unleashed my black belt ‘text’ combat skills. Gratefully, my partner is a very patient man. He knows me very well and I do him. And he knows how to reach me to bring me back into the present and back into my body. During my pregnancy, he asked me two great questions.
“What do you want? And what do you need from me?”
I had to get honest and vulnerable. I wanted him and our little growing family. I wanted to connect with friends and family in deeper ways. I wanted support. I wanted reassurance from my community that what I was experiencing was ‘normal’. Even though I fucking hate that word. I wanted to meet like-minded women who were experiencing becoming first-time mothers too. But most of all I wanted to feel safe.
But I had to share with my nearest and dearest how I wanted to receive this love that would help me feel safe too. It was this conversation that helped my partner and me understand what we could do to help and heal.
This was the first time I had felt completely out of control since I decided to accept a sailing trip from Gibraltar to Phuket with no experience. The trip I had been writing about in my book. I knew that those experiences left me feeling powerless but I needed to take responsibility for the trauma that was surfacing because it demanded a different kind of attention.
I knew what I had to do.
First, I had to STOP fighting and surrender.
To allow all the love, my beautiful partner, our family and friends had been generously trying to share with me and our baby. And then, I needed to do what I do best. Research!
I discovered knowledge was POWER!
While it is not possible to know exactly what will happen during birth, many women find they can reduce their anxiety by preparing themselves. Pregnancy and childbirth represent a distinctive part of a woman’s lifecycle that is intrinsically linked to her overall health and well-being throughout her life. Therefore, I felt it was a rather important time to get underneath this and find some solid ground.
Ourbodiesourselves.org offers some great suggestions on how to respond to these concerns:
1. Recognise and accept that some fears and concerns make sense. Sexual abuse (or any other abuse) rarely leaves survivors free from aftereffects. Give yourself permission to be afraid or concerned.
2. Try to separate your present pregnancy and upcoming birth and parenthood from your past abuse. Now you are older and more able to bring your wisdom and self-knowledge to these new challenges. Consider working with a trauma therapist or counsellor who is knowledgeable about childbearing, or reading books for survivors that contain suggestions for dealing with triggers and reducing your concerns.
3. Decide whether to disclose your abuse history, along with issues it has brought up for you, to your care provider. Most caregivers are interested in emotional issues and are both willing and able to respond to your needs, while others may not have the skills needed to help you. If you are comfortable disclosing your history to your midwife or doctor, you can work together to plan your care so that it will be sensitive to your history. If you are uncomfortable with your provider, you may want to change to another person with whom you can establish a trusting relationship.
4. If possible, have a doula (birth assistant) at your birth, one whom you trust. Share your fears or concerns with her, so that she can help you deal with them. She does not need to know about your abuse history in order to provide emotional support and help.
5. Write out your birth preferences. This can be a flexible plan around your choices during birth in response to your fears.
6. If you have a partner or other support person, enlist his or her support in dealing with this. You may want to tell your support person about specific settings or examinations that make you uncomfortable and work with her or him ahead of time on some ways to help you in these situations.
With good communication, self-help tools like hypnobirthing education classes, positive birthing education books, prenatal yoga classes and caring support from your loved ones, doula, and health care providers, your chances of having a rewarding pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experience are greatly increased.
Now, at 36 weeks I can honestly say, I’m feeling as confident, calm and in control as I possible. I’m excited about childbirth, our family’s future and embracing the generous support of our friends, family, and partner who I adore even more so for his support. I’ve surrendered to trusting my body knows what to do and I’m feeling safe transitioning into this new beautiful world called ‘motherhood.’
Sending lots of love to you and I hope these words hold you in a way that empowers you to seek out safety and trust in the ways you need.
Please contact professional support services if you require additional support.
- 24hr Sexual Assault Counselling and Support Line
1800 806 292
- PANDA (Post and Antenatal Depression Association Inc)
1300 726 306
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