Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA relates 9 stupid things it would be better for people not to say to women who have experienced a traumatic birth.
After people experience traumatic events, people in our lives can say things that help us heal—or they can make it worse. In the trauma field, we call this “sanctuary trauma.” It means that when trauma survivors turn to friends and family (or institutions) for help and instead are treated unkindly. These kind of reactions compound the original trauma and make things worse.
Birth trauma is common and real. More women in the U.S. are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after birth than there were following September 11 in lower Manhattan. Births in the United States are often highly frightening and interventionist. In qualitative studies, women have described the care they received while giving birth as “uncaring,” “barbaric,” or “horrible.”
Some people have no idea what to say in the wake of trauma, so they just say anything that pops into their heads. More is not better here, folks. If you don’t have something constructive to say, put a sock in it.
Here are some of the stupid things I’ve heard people say to mothers who are still reeling from a traumatic birth.
- “It’s no big deal.” Yes, that’s right. You didn’t suffer a bit. Seriously, how can you possibly judge what it was like for that mother? This kind of comment minimizes and trivializes her experience, and will eventually silence her.
- “That’s just the way birth is.” I’d agree that birth is hard. But in countries where birth is treated like a normal, physiological event, and women have continuous support during labor, about 1% develop birth-related PTSD. In the U.S., the rate is 9% for full-criteria PTSD, with another 18% having posttraumatic-stress symptoms. Birth in our hospitals is causing trauma for mothers. Maybe we need to figure out why.
- “Why are you making such a big deal about this? It’s not like you were in a war.” Yes, that’s true, but in some ways, traumatic birth is worse. In a war, you expect bad things to happen to you. In the hospital, you expect that people will take care of you. With birth, you can have the harrowing, life-threatening experience in a hostile environment, all when you are strapped to your bed, with no say about how you are treated. And then people expect you to be thrilled about it.
- “You have a healthy baby.” It’s great to have a healthy baby. But it doesn’t negate what happened to you. This is people’s way of saying that you are not being grateful enough for what you have. Again, I say, having a healthy baby doesn’t minimize what happened to you. And that’s assuming you had a healthy baby. Some women I’ve known who had the worst experiences also had babies who were sick—or died. It’s a double-whammy. You have a right to grieve about what happened to you. You do not need to be silenced on that.
- “Why are you bothering with breastfeeding?” To which I would ask, “Why aren’t you supporting her?” If you aren’t helping, don’t talk. Yes, that includes you, grandma! Breastfeeding can be challenging after a difficult birth, as a frightening birth can affect the hormones necessary for breastfeeding to work well. However, for many women breastfeeding becomes a way to overcome a traumatic birth. The last thing these mothers need is for a bunch of naysayers to tell them that breastfeeding is unimportant and/or they will fail. Every time you have the urge to say something unhelpful, go get her a cup of tea instead.
- “Get over it.” This one is very annoying. People say this to trauma survivors all the time. Yes, it is true that eventually you will need to move on from a traumatic event. But I’ve found that people who tend to say this are just tired of hearing about your experience and want to go about their trauma-free lives. If you experienced a traumatic birth, I’d recommend steering clear of these folks for a while. They don’t get it and you don’t need their brand of “help” right now. To the people who say things like “get over it,” I’d say, “You probably won’t escape trauma in your life. Then you will find out how insensitive what you are saying is.”
- “At least you didn’t have a c-section.” This is one I heard myself as a new mother. I’d had a very damaging forceps delivery, but somehow that didn’t count as “bad” because it wasn’t a c-section. Interestingly, we now have studies that show that both vaginal and cesarean births can cause trauma. And there are always people who experienced worse things than those which happened to you. The negative experience of others takes nothing away from your experience. Your experience is what it is. You have a right to feel the way that you do.
- “What did you do to cause this?” Wow, I love this one. How about “nothing”? You come in as a patient to one of the most powerful institutions in our culture. You tell me how much say you had about anything, including what you were wearing and when you could use the toilet. No matter how you feel, or what others may say, YOU DID NOT CAUSE THIS.
- “There’s nothing you can do about it.” That’s where they are quite wrong. There are plenty of things you can do. There are many effective treatments for trauma. Some can be as simple as writing about your experience or being a member of a support group. There are also many effective treatments. (The Veterans Administration website, the National Center for PTSD, is a great resource for this. It’s set up for soldiers, but it gives a lot of detailed information about trauma and treatments for trauma. It’s a treasure-trove of information.)
When you are in the midst of recovering from trauma, you need people around who will care for and support you. If you have people in your life saying these kind of dumb things to you, you can attempt to educate them. Or you may opt to limit your contact with them until you feel stronger. It’s up to you. Just be sure to take good care of yourself during this time. You can overcome a difficult birth. Just be sure to speak up for what you need. Get breastfeeding help if you need it, and find someone to talk to (including other mothers). Many mothers have recovered from traumatic births. I know you can too.
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA
Dr. Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and the owner and Editor-in-Chief of Praeclarus Press, a small press specializing in women’s health. She is Editor-in-Chief of two peer-reviewed journals: Clinical Lactation and Psychological Trauma. She is Fellow of the American Psychological Association in Health and Trauma Psychology, Past President of the APA Division of Trauma Psychology, and a member of the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest. Dr. Kendall-Tackett specializes in women’s-health research including breastfeeding, depression, trauma, and health psychology, and has won many awards for her work including the 2016 Outstanding Service to the Field of Trauma Psychology from the American Psychological Association’s Division 56.
Dr. Kendall-Tackett has authored more than 400 articles or chapters, and has just completed her 35th book, The Phantom of the Opera: A Social History of the World’s Most Popular Musical. Her most recent books include: Depression in New Mothers, 3rd Edition (2016, Routledge UK, in press), Women’s Mental Health Across the Lifespan (2016, Routledge US, in press, with Lesia Ruglass), Psychology of Trauma 101 (2015, Springer, with Lesia Ruglass) and The Science of Mother-Infant Sleep (2014, Praeclarus, with Wendy Middlemiss). Her websites are:
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