I have recently worked with a series of partners, one after the other, who have been traumatized as they supported their birthing partner through the birth of their baby. And in one case at least, it was only the partner who had experienced trauma after witnessing an intervention performed on their newborn baby to which the birthing person had been oblivious.
Our window of tolerance for dealing with stress often shrinks in the highly sensitive zone of birth. Add to that sleep deprivation, the exhaustion of both parents and the Great Unknown of Birth that lies ahead of the couple, and we have a potent mix. And add again the loving, open-hearted partners who empathically support their birthing partners through the experience – where they start to merge rather than just join their partners in that space, where they feel their partner’s feelings, where they might vicariously register the impact of epidural anaesthesia in their own bodies, and become equally affected by the whole situation.
Partners also bring their full life histories to the birthing room – implicit memories of their own birth experiences, the births of their older children, memories of previous hospital visits, of medical and surgical interventions, blueprints of tense interactions with authority figures and the like are all added to the melting pot. These again may predispose them to high stress levels where they may be easily tipped over the edge. Feeling powerless while witnessing their birthing partner or baby in any apparent distress during birth may be the final straw which precipitates a trauma response.
The words secondary trauma in my opinion minimize the significance and impact of birth-related trauma on partners. Their trauma is theirs alone, no matter that they are “simply” in a witness and support role at birth. Only they can say how their experience feels, from the inside out. Not with labels that fit a list of pre-determined mental health criteria. But as normal responses to overwhelming situations which may linger with a sense of incompleteness. And these then become entrenched trauma responses.
These are also cases in point where wearing our own proverbial oxygen mask and remaining as differentiated (i.e. not merged) and as grounded as possible in our bodies is perhaps the most useful way of not adding to these highly charged situations. As human mammals our nervous systems are constantly read by those of other humans around us and inform them about the safety or lack of in those situations. If we are highly anxious or no longer present in our own bodies, it is picked up by those sharing our space. The message to their nervous systems is Danger Alert! All of this happens in a split second without our conscious awareness. And this resonance can then create a spiralling situation of one person triggering the other.
For a family to thrive and not struggle to survive following distressing birth experiences, the trauma experienced by birthing partners must also be taken seriously. Partners are often in protector and provider modes peri-natally and tend to put on hold their own feelings and needs in my experience. Expressing their vulnerability may not come easily with a “Who am I to feel this way when it’s my partner who’s right in the thick of it and has done all the hard work?”
The growing numbers of those who experience birth-related trauma are often riddled with self-blame, guilt, shame or anger. And this is not to mention the debilitating primary symptoms of trauma such as anxiety, hypervigilance, dissociation or numbing out, sleep disturbances, depression and more.
Trauma can be an incredibly isolating experience.
It keeps us imprisoned by our past.
But it need not become a life sentence.
Early resolution of trauma will offer the best chance of moving forward in our lives with greater ease, vitality and freedom of choice. Partners who experience birth-related trauma may require specific encouragement to seek professional support when necessary – for their own sakes, for their families and for their communities.
Nisha Gill is the founder of Feminine Instincts ~ Melbourne Wellbeing & Birth Services.
She works holistically in the fields of childbirth education, bodywork, counselling, Somatic Experiencing® (trauma resolution), pre- & post-natal yoga, and supporting women in birth as a doula.
Link here to more information on Trauma Healing.