As a society we have the opportunity to improve the birth culture by individually learning to offer more compassionate support to those who have had a difficult birth experience.
We’ve all heard a horror birth story or two, where everything went wrong that could go wrong, where the person telling the story is clearly still affected by their experience. Sometimes the birth might sound fairly straightforward on paper, yet the person can still be left feeling upset by the experience. Or maybe we have experienced an emotionally difficult birth ourselves.
It’s common when someone has been through a difficult experience like this that they might need to share their story. Part of sharing could be an attempt to process what happened (which doesn’t always help), an attempt to warn others about the reality of birth, or to help others learn from their experience. If they were met with a lack of understanding or invalidation when they first tried to share their story, some people who have had difficult experiences might learn to only share in certain places. They may be left feeling like they are ‘too sensitive’, ‘weak’, or even ‘wrong’ for feeling the way they do.
In general, as a society we aren’t taught how to cope well with other people’s difficult experiences. Whether it be loss, grief, trauma, or pain of any kind. Often when someone shares his or her pain, we don’t know how to respond. We can feel uncomfortable because we internally start wondering how we would cope if it was us. Or even how we might have done something different. Instead of just listening and really hearing, empathising and responding mindfully from our hearts, we often reply with accidentally unhelpful comments. ‘It happened for a reason’. ‘That’s life. You just need to move on’. ‘My birth was much worse than that’. ‘I had the same thing happen and I don’t feel upset about it’. ‘You are both healthy, so what are you complaining about?’. All these similar comments that may be well-meaning are usually not experienced as being supportive or helpful.
When we have had a difficult, scary, or painful experience we all want to be understood and have our feelings validated. When we feel validated this can be a great start to our healing process. As a listener we don’t need to say much in these situations. Rather just listen and let the storyteller share what they need to. As humans we all go through similar emotions throughout our lives. We all understand what it’s like to have our plans fall apart. To try really hard and not get the outcome we want, to not be supported in the way we wanted or expected, to feel blindsided, not listened to, or feel unprepared.
Empathy and the human experience
When listening to a difficult birth story, if we try to tap into that part of ourselves that may have at some time in our life felt similar to how this person feels, we may respond with more understanding and empathy. Even if our experience was nothing to do with birth, human experiences have so much in common.
In responding, depending on what has been conveyed to us, we could simply empathise with what the person wanted to experience, yet didn’t. We could try to understand and express to them how hard they tried or how well they prepared for birth. Perhaps that they just wanted to be heard and have their wishes respected, or be supported in a different way.
Some examples are: ‘Your experience must have been so intense! Much more than you ever expected and you just felt floored by it’. Or ‘You put so much time into preparing for your birth. I guess it must have been such a let-down to have things turn out the way they did’. Or ‘That must have been so frightening! Most of us don’t like feeling so out of control. How did you get through it?’. Maybe; ‘You had so much trust in your body and in birth, it must have been so disappointing to feel like your body failed or didn’t work’. Something that helps the person feel heard.
Changing the culture of birth
To validate someone else doesn’t require agreeing with them or their point of view. It’s simply acknowledging and understanding how they were left feeling and some of the reasons why they might feel this way. Every one of us can listen and give others space to share their feelings and pain after birth. It’s not always an easy task, as it requires us to put our own judgments aside and to listen deeply. Which is not something not many of us are taught to do.
Some birth stories may need more specialised support with a birth story healer, counsellor, psychologist, somatic experiencing, EMDR, or a birth trauma expert. However, to validate someone’s pain and difficult birth story is something all of us can do. This is a great first step. As a society, if we could learn to hold others’ birth stories, what difference would this make not only on an individual level but to our birth culture as a whole?
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