How to respond to a difficult birth story

What can we say when we hear a difficult birth story?

One all too common response is, ‘well, at least you have a healthy baby’. It’s human nature to try and focus on positives for both Mum, and maybe for ourselves, trauma makes for uncomfortable listening. Unfortunately it’s  most likely impact is to make the teller "close up", hiding her the feelings of distress, sadness and guilt even deeper.

A healthy baby is not the issue

This is the story of a woman who entered the birth room fit and healthy, with dreams of a joyful, albeit intense and powerful birth, gently breathing her precious baby out of the warm cocoon of her body into her loving arms.

She prepared, she read all the right books, practiced yoga and eagerly attended birth preparation classes with other pregnant couples, all sharing the same aspirations.

But it didn’t turn out like that. It was hard, stark, frightening, painful and disempowering. Maybe she heard many voices shouting at her ‘ COME ON! PUSH! PUSH!’ while she lay on her back, exhausted, unable to change position due to the wires and monitors and drips. She may have been cut and eventually her baby was pulled from her with hard metal instruments under harsh bright lights in a room full of people she’d never met before, surrounding her, looking at her, naked, intimate areas of her body exposed to all, areas that even she, may never have seen.

Or it may, on the surface, have appeared a perfect birth. But she wasn’t prepared for the intensity, for what she perceived as the brutal force of nature, causing her more pain than she thought possible.

Maybe it happened so quickly, fast and furious with no time to ease into it, to build up the promised help of her natural painkillers, endorphins. Or perhaps everything went well until she was exhausted that night, asking for help breastfeeding her crying baby only to hear sharp words by an overworked carer- she’d have to wait because others were more needy and anyway ‘Didn’t she go to the classes!’  

Trauma is personal

Maya Angelou said “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

So what can the listener do?

Above all, we have to listen to our own feelings. Are we ready to hear her story... ...her outpouring of pain? Will it be a trigger for us? Do we feel strong enough to witness the emotions and grief that may be revealed? If the answer is "no", then our best course is to respectfully and lovingly let her know we care but don’t feel in the position to hear her story yet.  We can ask what can be done to help right now. Perhaps run a bath, light some candles, hold the baby while she rests a little or make her some nourishing food. Clean the kitchen, wash the dishes... give practical help, show you care, take some pressure off...

If you are ready to listen…

Listen actively and attentively, acknowledge her pain, show signs of understanding, that you are listening, nodding your head as her story unfolds.

  • Sit with her.
  • Don’t judge and don’t say “you should have” or “if only you had”. She’s doing that herself and someone else being wise after the event is not helpful
  • Don’t try to fix her
  • Give her a safe place to be heard
  • Show understanding if you’ve been there too. Difficult births are, sadly, not unusual.
  • Please don’t start telling your story. Not now. This is her time to be heard but it can be helpful to say, I know, I understand. I’ve felt like that too.
  • Do say, You’re not alone. I’m here to help. What can I do?
  • Sometimes it’s best just to listen. No words are needed.
  • There's help and support is out there. Look for associations and support groups she can turn to whenever she is ready.

Above all - Please don’t say “at least you have a healthy baby”.

Image "I am here for you" © Amanda Greavette

Molly is a midwife and birth educator