Birth. Trauma. Rape. Compassion.

[Editor’s note: Trigger warning for frank discussion of sexual violence.]

In less than three months’ time, my son will be five. It will be five years since I gave birth to him. Five years since my husband and I cried with joy as he was laid on my chest. Five years since one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

I don’t feel I should have to detail what I went through in order to talk of all that happened but so many make judgments and feel it is their inherent right to have that private knowledge if what I say is to have any legitimacy.

When he was born, my son was eight days late. He was born at 10:31 p.m. on a Sunday night. I had been in labour since 03:20 a.m. Friday morning. By some point on Friday evening or Saturday morning I was 4cm dilated. I stayed that way until approximately 5 p.m. on Sunday night. Constantly contracting. I had two forms of pain relief offered: paracetamol and a TENS machine. I was not properly instructed in using the TENS machine, and even then it is far from a guaranteed success for every woman. By 5 p.m. on the Sunday night, I was moved from the Midwife Unit across some corridors to the Labour Ward.

The process here in the UK is that with a low risk pregnancy, a midwife will usually deliver a baby. Otherwise the midwife or obstetricians will deliver a baby with additional assistance and help in the Labour Ward. My hospital was such that both were within the maternity hospital.

By 5 p.m. on that Sunday, my husband and my mother were at their wits end. For three days I had barely eaten, I had barely slept, I had no pain relief of consequence. The midwife, like a petulant child, went to the Labour Ward at their begging request. The Labour Ward was furious. I was very ill with pre-eclampsia. I was exhausted. Taken immediately into their care, I was hooked up to machines to monitor our son, and myself. My waters were broken soon after and I was given morphine and Entonox. Within five hours my son was born. Within those five hours, there was a surgical team on standby for a crash caesarean; they were in the room as the obstetrician did his best to help me give birth to my son as quickly as possible. Yet, I have no memory of the surgical team. I was exhausted. My blood pressure had skyrocketed. I had to be told by my husband and mother of all the events that had happened. The obstetrician had to use forceps, too, after which there was shoulder dystocia. The latter, again, I did not learn about until later.

Many women will say they have forgotten the pain. Perhaps they have. I remember every day of it in a way that frightens me. I remember it when I think about if we will have another child. The pain terrifies me.

Once he was born, and placed on my chest, I am at last able to remember something other than the pain. I remember my husband and I crying. We had made it. He was okay. We knew he was a he. He had earned his name, the meaning of which is “fair warrior.”

My son has a teddy bear named after the obstetrician who delivered him. I am thankful for the male obstetrician and the two female midwives who showed compassion to me. I will forever be thankful for their compassion. Those three people are some of the few outside my husband, my family and my close friends to show compassion for me.

If there was more acceptance of birth trauma, more compassion, I perhaps wouldn’t have been awake until near 5 a.m. on a recent morning going through it all, and still unable to sleep once in bed.

What I went through was a traumatic birth. Society suggests that I merely had inappropriate expectations. That I had visions of rejecting the medical approach and embracing nature. That I deserved to be brought back to earth. That I was naïve, too. I was a young mother, and as such, should suffer. That my youth rendered me a dumb slut for becoming a mother at all and I should be put in my place. That I should surrender my body to those who know better. That, in short: I deserved it – deserved the pain and the trauma.

There are many other women who have had traumatic births. There are many women for whom their traumatic birth has included birth rape. There are many women who would deny those mothers the words: birth rape.

In the UK, marital rape wasn’t illegal until 1994. Some women view birth rape in the same light that marital rape was up until 1994. At some point consent had been given, it didn’t matter if they changed their minds.

The World Health Organisation defines rape as: “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration – even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.”

Many mothers, those who would call their trauma birth rape, have been through what the WHO defines as rape. They are coerced, threatened, until they bow to penetration: examination or interference they don’t want. At times, it is simply forced. Midwives or obstetricians penetrate these women, with either hands or objects, against their will. Protesting or not. Their pregnancy is deemed their consent. At her most vulnerable, a woman is denied her autonomy. Outside of maternity hospitals, many continue to deny these women their autonomy. Many of those that consider these mothers to be misusing the word rape, are women.

The mothers who have endured traumatic births, whether that includes birth rape or not -– many of whom live quietly with Post-Natal PTSD – are all around. If you meet one of these mothers, please don’t deny her a word because her violation and trauma aren’t up to your standards. She has been denied the inherent right to consent. She has been derided and mocked as simply being a woman with high expectations. Please don’t deny her a straw at which she’s grasping as she tries to make sense of what she’s been through. Please don’t deny her trauma. She is a woman. She is a Human Being.

21 thoughts on “Birth. Trauma. Rape. Compassion.”

  1. I too had a traumatic birth experience. I had planned to have a natural birth. My 10 lb son prevented that from happening. My plan for no drugs and an easy vaginal delivery turned into hours of labor WITH an epidural, the use of suctions and eventually an unexpected c-section. I’m lucky though, that my doctor was very aware of the fact that things were not going according to my plan and he went to great lengths to explain and ask my permission for everything he did. Before the c-section, even though time was of the essence, he did stop to ASK me if it was alright if we proceeded with the surgery. Just having the pretense of a choice there helped me immensely. Even though I knew the c-section was my only option. He at least had the courtesy to consult me first.

    A few of the nurses were not so accommodating. I was refused water for something like 8 hours despite begging and pleading and sobbing in my bed. When I was still trying to push the child out, I screamed bloody murder with pain and frustration, and one of the nurses said, “Use your energy for pushing, not for screaming” in this totally judgmental, annoyed tone. After my c-section, a nurse held my son out to me for all of five seconds and whisked him off to the nursery before I even had a chance to touch him or get a good look at him. And once my doctor was gone, the next four days were a blur of me pressing the button multiple times before finally getting assistance, shoddy advice and guidance with breastfeeding, overworked, apathetic and annoyed nurses who rolled their eyes when I’d ask questions, and refusal to talk to me about things I found really important, like whether or not to use formula or have him circumsized. They were less than interested. And they didn’t care if I knew it.

    I can’t imagine how much more horrible it would have been if the doctor had just taken my plan into his own hands and done what he wanted without consulting me. I already felt invisible because of the nurses – had he ‘turned’ on me too, it would have been unbearable. I’m not a big fan of the ‘smug pregnant lady’ with her immaculate birth plan who shames those who have pain meds and c-sections, but in the same vein, a birth plan exists for a reason. Doctors and nurses should at least attempt to follow it to the best of their ability, and if they can’t, they need to keep the mother in the loop. After all, it’s her body and her baby.

  2. Thank you for writing this article.  In light of current debates surrounding bills for forced vaginal ultrasound in women seeking abortions, I think it’s very important to recognize that medicine and gynecology are not blameless in the disempowerment and abuse of women. It’s shocking how many women have experienced birth trauma/rape.

    I count myself among them–at 19 I was able to get free prenatal care and give birth at a hospital in Dallas.  I suppose because the program was free to low-income women, the doctors (many of them in training) thought they could do whatever they wanted.  When it came time for me to deliver, I was assigned a doctor I had never met.  She prescribed procedure after procedure that I had not asked for (I had written a birth plan–it was utterly ignored)–enema, drugs, episiotomy (for the record, episiotomies are much more painful and slower to heal than 1st degree tears). I was confined to the bed–on my back!–, not allowed to move. I protested all of this–the nurses scoffed at me and my husband (who also very young). None of this was necessary in my healthy birth (my labor was 11 hours).  I felt shamed, and I’ve described the experience many times as a kind of rape.  I continue to worry about what especially low-income and young mothers face in the medical/obstetric world.

    My next two children were born in a midwife center and at home (planned home birth) respectively–and I was powerful and empowered.

  3. My birth was traumatic, too, and it took me awhile to think of it in those terms.  My husband literally nearly punched the – I don’t even know who she was, she wasn’t in scrubs, she hadn’t been there for the first part of the birth process, she just appeared to “help.”  And in the end, she did help, but I had no idea she was going to jump up onto the table and start driving her shoulders into my abdomen.  I felt like I was being attacked, and started to yell and beg her to stop.  Which is when my husband almost knocked her off of me.

    I would have been okay with it had I known what was going on, I think.  It was just such a shock – I can’t remember another time when somebody has put their hands on me without my permission and in such a violent way.

    In the end, it prevented me from having a C-section.  It was really, really, really awful, though.

    1. I’m not any kind of expert, but from what I’ve read, one of the biggest factors that contribute to post-birth PTSD and trauma is when people in authority (usually medical staff) start doing things without the woman’s consent, or warning. It’s not hard to see that a nurse/whoever taking literally 30 seconds to say “I have to push on your stomach to help get the baby out, I’m sorry, it will be very uncomfortable but shouldn’t last very long” would have helped you feel more able to cope. It boggles my mind that some medical people still don’t realise how important this is.

  4. Here in the U.S., not sure how the culture around birth differs?

    I had a scheduled c-section.  The attitude around this tends to be that it was done merely for the doctor’s convenience, but in my case, it was the best possible option for a number of medical reasons. And should I have another child, this is what I would want, again. For a variety of reasons. I’ve noticed there’s a significant degree of judgment surrounding that – akin to the ugly-ass judgment surrounding women who would prefer a “natural” birth in their own home, albeit with midwife professionals trained to recognize when further intervention is needed. The bottom line here in the U.S. it seems to be that women cannot be trusted with their own bodies, and I think that shows up every where from legitimate obstetrics care to politics. Ugh.

    And no. Women who describe their experiences as being “obstetric rape” are most certainly not exaggerating!

    1. Your post and the original article blow my mind. I’m 20 and childless and plan to always be childless, and I’ve talked to some women who have had children about their birth experiences, but I had never really heard about the idea of birth rape before.

      It pains me to the core; I feel like so often, when it comes to the process of pregnancy and motherhood, women are denied any sort of real personhood. And this is just another terrible terrible facet of that.

      1. As to denial of person-hood? Yes. When you are pregnant, your body is perceived as public property – people will attempt to touch it, they will comment on it. It is fucking disgusting.

        “Explaining” that you are not pregnant, but merely have a “beer belly,” provides minimal satisfaction. Even if you get really vulgar.

        1. In all honesty people touching me is one of the hugest concerns I have about getting pregnant in the future.  I hate being touched, and can really only handle it if it’s someone close to me.  I like your method of explaining that you aren’t actually prego, I think if I ever become pregnant I will be doing the same thing.

    2. I’d say here in the UK we have more of a respect for women’s choices in healthcare (mostly because they’ve never been focused on as a hyped-up political issue like in the US, or at least not recently) but on a personal level, people make a lot of judgements if you choose the not-typical medical route. Most people I think feel that doctors know what they’re doing and that women who birth at home are exposing themselves to unnecessary risk; I generally feel that yes, they are likely to be exposing themselves to more risk that could be avoided, but there are plenty of reasons why birthing at home would still be better than at hospital and some women merely choose that.

      Also, I’ve heard the argument that since we have UHC here, if you’re using state services and you birth at home you’re using up more resources that could be used elsewhere by the NHS (apparently it costs more to birth at home than it does at hospital) but if you actually said that in front of a pregnant woman she’d probably punch you in the face for caring more about money than babies.

      1. It costs more to the NHS, because two midwives must attend every birth. In hospital, those two midwives can be in and out of your room, looking after other women as well, whereas at home they’re just focused on you. Purely on a cost-per-attendant basis, I can see why some NHS trusts aren’t enthusiastic about it, but it is their obligation to provide midwives to women. Plus it sounds like a better deal for the woman, frankly:)

      2. To be fair to the NHS it’s less about money than it is about ensuring that all wards are properly staffed at all times. Like QoB said, two midwives have to attend every home birth, and since births can’t be ‘scheduled’ it wreaks havoc on the midwives in the ward. It means more midwives have to be on at all times, or on call and available, than just the number needed to cover the ward. In addition, home births that go wrong and have to be rushed to hospital quickly throw even more spanners into the works and make it very difficult for doctors to divide their time between patients properly. There’s already a glaring shortage of both midwives and obstetricians in the NHS, partially because of this problem – people don’t want to go into obstetrics because they don’t want to work unpredictable hours when they’re in their 40s and have kids of their own. So home birth just puts a really big strain on the system.

        Having said that, the blame for that strain shouldn’t go on women who want home births, but on the government and NHS management for providing wholly inadequate resources to enable women to give birth in the way they choose.

        (sorry… I’ve got a doctor sister who seriously considered obs and gynae but found it too stressful for the above reasons!)

        1. Exactly. Plus the numbers of women who opt for home birth are very, very small even in the UK.

          My doctor sister also considered it but couldn’t get behind all the crap that comes along with the ‘active management’ model that’s used in Ireland for labour and birth.

        2. The midwife shortage actually isn’t what it seems. A few years ago the government removed the funding given to midwives-in-training, because there were too many qualified midwives already without jobs. It isn’t that people don’t want to do it – it’s that the positions aren’t available.

  5. Thanks for this. This cements a change in opinion I have been undergoing on this issue. Before I thought that sometimes birth is just a terrible experience and that everyone has the same goal, a healthy mother and child, and that things had to be done when things had to be done. Now I get it, though. I feel awful about having denied these women their experience based on my own.

Leave a Reply