I woke up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, but there was already water breaking between my thighs. Amniotic fluid rebirthing and baptizing grown woman legs humming towards the moment of birth, of breaking and of becoming. At that moment, I realized that I was never going to be the same.
As both a trauma survivor and a birth worker, I have witnessed and experienced the profound need for coping and recovering strategies that support those living with trauma stored in the body throughout pregnancy and postpartum.
Because sexual trauma creates a profound level of disturbance to the body and the psyche long after the trauma has passed, it’s fairly common for pregnancy and the birth process to re-trigger memories and emotions related to past sexual violence.
Trauma echoes can impact a survivor’s pregnancy and labor in the following ways:
disbelief about the pregnancy
increasing anxiety related to an ever-changing body
unfamiliar sensations in the pelvic and vaginal areas may reactivate trauma or emotional disconnection (to oneself and the growing baby)
trepidation and fear about the birth and experience
flashbacks, nightmares, disturbed sleep patterns
harmful coping practices
delayed access to prenatal and perinatal health care
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Research on the long-term effects of sexual violence across the spectrum — child sexual abuse, incest, sexual violence, sex trafficking, sexual coercion, rape — indicates higher rates of physical issues like obesity, cancer, high-blood pressure, fibromyalgia, uterine fibroids (which often cause hemorrhaging), preterm labor, miscarriages, fetal growth issues, placental abruption, and frequent C-sections. These correlations warrant significant further evaluation and examination urgent in perinatal health.
Despite 25% of patients in labor having a history of sexual violence, it’s not typically discussed or addressed. It’s imperative that health care providers adopt a trauma-informed approach to care for pregnant mothers, especially given the commonality of abuse and violence against people of color which can ultimately lead to fatal outcomes.
A community-supported care work and birth has always been an essential way to move forward with pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting outcomes for all people across experiences and life circumstances. The time is now for us to reclaim our bodies, our spiritual homes, the sacred temples we choose to love in spite of trauma and violence. Honoring rituals, songs, recipes, and memories can very well be the first step in healing and reconciliation for everyone, but especially for survivors of trauma.
In order to exercise as much agency, autonomy and healing during my birth, I chose a home birth. I was aware of each and every thing that could go wrong. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to evolve. I had to.
I remember the midwife whispering Ugandan prayers, and my doula singing Ghanaian ritual songs as my hips rocked back and forth for the baby’s arrival. I remember soft moans and a crescent spine. I remember oils rubbed at my sacrum and woven fans ushering in a mighty presence. I remember wise palms at the crown of my head and ancestors under my feet. I recall surrender to my body and forgiveness to my truth. I remember the quiet and then the loud. I remember ohm’ing to the sky and tears falling with courage and rough tides. Meditation, soft speak, and firm hands. Black beans on the stove and my mama’s reassuring voice that “I am all that I am.” Daughter, wood, earth, amethyst, moon, solar, blood, righteous, legacy, jasper, deep well, tigers eye.
I sat under the insurmountable strength of the moon’s tides, weeping in fear and bliss. I remember the moon’s eye that guarded and protected me, and the strategies I used to support my whole being throughout the process. Below are some of the ways I managed to manage, the ways I learned to lean in, and how I created sacred space with an intentional and loving birth team at home.
Listen to your body, lean in & breathe.
Keep in mind that contractions can begin as early as two weeks before the baby comes and while these new sensations are no cause for alarm, they can be a site of trigger or trauma response. Trusting your body is key!
Be gentle and have grace with yourself as you adjust to these signs that labor is near and think of these new sensations like rehearsal for contractions on labor day. At times, contractions can feel like colossal waves you are riding out, and staying above water can be difficult.
Navigating the emotional landscape through contractions is a practice, and sustained breathwork is a trauma-centered approach that helps with tolerance. Lean into these sensations and dance with the discomfort — you may even discover pleasure within a contraction (yes, some people enjoy contractions!).
Record these patterns and listen closely. Keep a journal where you document and engage in sensation tracking physical sensations and emotional responses.
I recall surrender to my body and forgiveness to my truth. I remember the quiet and then the loud. I remember ohm’ing to the sky and tears falling with courage and rough tides.
Labor contractions, which might start out as an occasional, uncomfortable tightening and hardening of your stomach, will slowly build to something more—like really bad menstrual cramps or gas pains. As labor progresses, these contractions will help get your baby into position and will become stronger, more intense, and closer together.
You might feel each contraction wrap around your entire body, or your legs could also cramp. Contractions in active labor generally last between 45 to 60 seconds, with three to five minutes of rest in between. A contraction timer can be a very useful tool to support you through each wave. Breathe, stay active, and acknowledge your hard work along the way.
Affirmations, affirmations, affirmations!
Perinatal and birth focused affirmations can be incredible for the soul, body, and heart to connect while preparing for a transition. The brain and body are intrinsically connected, and when negative self-talk creeps in, countering with positive affirmations is critical for progress in labor and delivery.
If you find yourself seeking tools or guidance outside of your inner compass, reground and remember that you have everything you need inside you. Write positive affirmations down or post them on small cards throughout your home; create art and visuals around the words that nourish you to serve as physical reminders. You will be astonished at the power and medicine of these uplifting statements as they become your mantra. Repeat aloud or meditate on them for holistic and abundant results! Supportive affirmations include:
I belong in harmony with my healing and health I am a safe passage My body agrees with me My body is wise When I exhale, I create space.
Invite a Doula to your birth team to help you navigate the birth process.
A doula is someone who provides emotional, physical, and educational support across reproductive life experiences. While doulas are often thought of as birth companions, they can also support with surrounding events including postpartum, preconception, or miscarriage. They’re trained to provide you with tools to help navigate tension, manage pain, build endurance, resilience and tolerance in preparation for a number of life transitions. They hold a mirror up to you to show you who you are, how you cope and manage discomfort.
Doulas are birth workers are essential workers who are in part responsible for responding to the perinatal health crisis in a way that is reflective of the needs of families and local communities. Solutions for mortality and morbidity in birth actually reside in the resilience of people facing inequity every day, and a doula is an invaluable resource and emotional support system.
Herbs are allies for stress management.
Think of herbal medicine as your ally, companion, or partner during pregnancy and labor/delivery. When prepared as medicine, herbs have the profound power to defend our bodies against weathering, toxic stress, and underlying tremors that result from past or present traumas. They can help you manage physical aches and pains, but they can also help our emotional landscape, reshaping our relationship with ourselves and others.
Incredibly supportive herbs in pregnancy include Red Raspberry Leaf, Nettle, Lemon Balm, and Oatstraw. We all need, deserve, and should have access to this natural medicine, but please be sure to consult your physician before adding herbs to your regimen, as every body is different.
Increase your Oxytocin levels for natural comfort and support.
Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, is a chemical messenger in the brain that controls key aspects of human behavior, and in effect the reproductive system, including childbirth and lactation. It is a MUST have for labor and it is already inside of you.
You can activate oxytocin production with intimate acts like cuddling, or self-massage with an organic Body Oil, nipple stimulation or even masturbation.
You could also create an oxytocin playlist with your favorite and most relaxing and juicy tunes and if you’re hungry, reach for magnesium and Vitamin C rich foods like guava, papaya, or pumpkin seeds. The probiotic strain Lactobacillus reuterialso helps augment brain oxytocin and can be found in cultured foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso, although it’s also safe to take a probiotic throughout pregnancy.
Increasing your oxytocin levels can naturally help move labor forward, intensifying contractions, increasing dilation, and opening the cervix when some survivors may experience stalls or prodromal (early) labor.
Use a mirror to re-establish confidence in your body.
Disengagement, disconnection, and disassociation from the birth experience are all common trauma symptoms that may show up during childbirth.
To promote a safer, gentler and more effective labor, I encourage you to use a standing or held-held mirror to watch what’s happening with the body. Seeing the physical movements can help one feel more in control over their faculties as the active agent in birth. This really worked for me to re-establish confidence and was a simple but useful tool during the most intense part of my labor and delivery.
Prioritize your postpartum healing.
Postpartum, sometimes referred to as the fourth trimester, starts as soon as the baby arrives.This postnatal phase can be incredibly rich and ritualistic, but if we aren’t careful, it can be a challenging time full of depletion, discouragement, and raw, unbalanced emotions.
For many folks, the postpartum period lasts well beyond the 6 weeks our medical system defines it as. I am three years postpartum (and I claim every day of it!), and still at times feel like I need extra warmth, love, and nourishment.
If you’re hit with postnatal depletion, or depression in the early weeks, I recommend The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother. The physical and emotional healing process is crucial — and so is eating food from your cultural background that affirms restoring the body and preparing to feed, nourish, and care for another human being.
In order to prepare my family, birth team, and community for postpartum, I created an 11-page detailed plan for food, newborn care, family healing, and processing. You don’t need to write 11 pages like I did, but writing out my priorities and my plans truly helped my community know how to support me to avoid depletion. You can’t get what you don’t ask for.
It can be difficult to know what to say to pregnant and birthing people, especially as we enter another wave of COVID and as our lives have taken a form we have never seen before. We can only remember what it means to be near those we call family — whether that’s our own birth parents, or life-guardians and caretakers who have sheltered us from storms.
Keeping everyone safe during this time is absolutely necessary. But this particular moment not only calls each of us to radically imagine a better future, but to strategize – to be wise, to respond with intuition and care, and to listen and observe our bodies and ourselves. Everyone, everywhere deserves a birth that is safe, gentle, and supported.
Eat warm, soft and soupy foods full of healthy fats.
Avoid drinking anything cooler than room temperature.
Let your village cook for you, or grab something warm for you to eat.
Up your water intake and if you’re re chestfeeding, triple it.
Postnatal herbal infusions can be helpful for your physical and mental health and recovery. Always consult a physician before integrating botanicals in your routine.
Remember that family care is communal care is village care.