How I Found Post-Traumatic Growth After My Birth Trauma

Like countless mothers across the US, I have lingering trauma from my birth experiences.

After retaining the placenta not once but twice, I felt like I’d hit the bad luck lottery. I wonder why my body keeps not showing up as expected. I’ve experienced regular worthlessness and self-doubt in my life, so when providers didn’t listen and dismissed my symptoms as “normal,” it felt like my biggest fear had come true. The experiences happened three years apart but combined with each other. Feeling the pain, convincing providers of my pain and having my postpartum experience interrupted left lasting scars on me. But it also helped me grow as an individual.

“Transformative experiences often occur during the most difficult times of our lives,” says Ashley BonhommeMS, PMH-C, a master’s level psychotherapist certified in perinatal mental health counseling.

As a result of the trauma of my birth, I grew up, developing necessary skills and community along the way. I also learned a lot about how we as a society are building the new motherhood, a time that leaves us vulnerable and in need of a cultural shift to heal. However, there are many things I wish I had known long ago.

What I Wish I Knew About Birth Trauma

After my experiences, I feel like I’m going into battle every time I walk into a medical office. I know my awareness and intellect will not save me, but they will be instrumental in making it clear that I will not accept medical suggestions without questions and explanations. I felt pressured to prepare for every doctor visit and was incredibly anxious and occasionally sick. Back then, I didn’t know what I was experiencing was called birth trauma.

Up to 45 percent of new mothers and people who give birth experience birth trauma, research said. According to March of Dimes, birth trauma is “any physical or emotional distress you may experience during or after childbirth.” Complications in childbirth, unexpected interventions and not giving birth as expected are some of the many reasons why mothers and parturients experience birth trauma.

Unresolved birth trauma can lead to low self-esteem, relationship issues, aggression, stress and anxiety. Bonhomme says watching our moods for “significant changes that are outside of your ‘pre-pregnancy’ baseline,” especially hypervigilance and anxiety, is important. “Due to the threatening nature of traumatic experiences, your brain may respond by being alert for similar threats in the future, which may manifest new fears, excessive worry and efforts to avoid certain that trigger.”

Birth trauma can look “normal” on the outside. Divina Johnson, a birth trauma coach, says this is called “functional trauma.” “The indicators that are often missed are the woman who has nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, [or] who feel numb and feel a great deal of shame and guilt about their experience,” she says. Some people become “shells of their former selves,” as they hold in their feelings, fearing judgment, she says.

My own experience of birth trauma was full of anxiety, feelings of exhaustion and irritability. However, my biggest disappointment is that it never happened—it was because no one prepared me. Central to my healing journey is making sure others know the symptoms of retained placenta, how to alert their doctor to concerns and the risks if the issue is not addressed. I sought counseling, but my biggest outlet was telling my story. As I wrote and shared my stories with publications, individuals and health care organizations, I felt stronger that my experience would play a role in the greater good.

“While we don’t want to invite trauma into our lives to prove how resilient we are, there can be power in making sense of traumatic experiences,” Bonhomme says. “One of the most rewarding parts of accompanying people on their paths to healing is witnessing how they grow through it.”

The American Psychological Association (APA) says that some people experience post-traumatic growth (PTG)—which can manifest as greater appreciation of life, personal strength and passion for helping others—after trauma. Researchers note that openness to experience and extraversion may help facilitate this growth.

Johnson said the birth trauma helped her learn to advocate for herself. “Going through my experience gave me a lens to see it and then do something about it,” she said. “My voice will never be silenced again.” The life-changing experience empowered her to support clients and live life on her own terms.

“There is a journey of personal growth and self-discovery that often follows a traumatic birth,” Johnson said. “It’s an opportunity to embrace resilience and recognize the positive changes that have emerged from the experience.”

To manage trauma and heal, experts recommend the following steps:

  • See a professional. “A trained therapist can help spot the signs of trauma and can normalize your experience in a nonjudgmental or nonjudgmental way,” says Bonhomme. She says that therapy, whether with an individual or a group, allows you to process your experience, voice your pain and use healing tools. “Community not only facilitates healing, but it’s something I consider mandatory,” he said. She recommends in-person support groups or virtual communities such as Postpartum Support International.
  • Practice thinking and breathing. The effectiveness of breathing in promoting healing and reducing stress is well documented. Johnson says it’s also a tool to calm the nervous system post-trauma. He recommends starting with a five-minute breathwork session. “Slowing down and finding calm each day is essential for healing,” she says.
  • Share your story. “Writing is a way of reprocessing an experience that can help you feel validated and access emotions you may not have realized were there,” says Bonhomme. Writing and sharing your narrative verbally can also be impactful as you frame your experience through the lens of survival and overcoming.

What Post-Traumatic Growth Looks Like in Motherhood

Despite my struggles, I learned that the trauma of my birth was a catalyst for growth. The further I got in my experience and advocacy, the more clear it became that my body was not the problem. Rather, it is an issue with how we frame birth and motherhood in much of the world. We’ve normalized people’s mothers and births at every stage of the journey. Because of this, the symptoms are not taken as seriously as they should be. Before I could reframe my approach to motherhood with this new information, I had to examine how modern motherhood messages left me vulnerable to trauma.

“Not only what happened to you, but also what didn’t happen,” Johnson said. “Not having your needs met or not having the birth you thought was enough. Your experience is valid. It’s not your fault it happened; you deserve to live the life you love.”

I took this message to heart and learned how to express myself in healthcare experiences as I became more adept at helping others. Like Johnson, the more research I did to educate others, the more tools I needed to navigate the experience myself and heal.

“Having the ability to recognize the signs and understand what questions to ask medical providers and how to ask them confidently through live experience can position you for a more powerful subsequent experience with pregnancy and childbirth after a traumatic one,” says Bonhomme.

It has been five years since my last birth experience and eight since the first. During that time, I wrote hundreds of stories helping black mothers and others recover and share their own birth stories.

I find so much joy in supporting my community and I feel more like a mother. I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone. But I’m thankful for growing up.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult a qualified physician or health professional regarding your specific circumstances.

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