The last year has taught me a lot about recovering from trauma and coping with grief. The healing journey is never linear and yet it remains a steady part of my daily life. As anyone who has endured trauma will tell you, it can flash in and out of your life with unpredictable speed and timing for days, weeks, months or even years. Trauma often involves layers. After one layer is peeled back another is revealed, and then another, until you reach the core of the crisis. I’m not a mental health professional but as a wellness writer I feel that it’s my responsibility to point fellow moms in the direction of people who can help them.
Traumatic experiences in motherhood are common and yet we seldom label them as such. We brush aside birth and labor-related trauma when it happens because it’s an assumed “rite of passage” for mothers. Personally, I haven’t met a single friend who has experienced unmedicated labor and said it was a breeze. Rather, these women shudder at the memory and sometimes have flashbacks to the birth in the first few weeks as a mom. I experienced this firsthand after the birth of my second son. Thinking about the pain evoked a physical trauma response throughout my entire body for over a month after he was born.
Similarly, some mothers who have gone through C-section births recollect their nerves and fears while being conscious and cut open on the operating table. One friend of mine asked for anxiety medicine while having her fallopian tubes removed after her last child’s C-section delivery while another became temporarily paralyzed from the C-section spinal tap. It was an experience that scared her so much that she doesn’t want to have any more children now.
I also know of friends who experienced fear when birthing their own babies because of what happened to me last fall; I had a pregnancy loss followed by a D&E and my uterine artery ruptured during the procedure resulting in an emergency C-section. If that doesn’t spell out trauma then I don’t know what does. Unfortunately, the concerns for mothers don’t stop at “a friend of a friend’s” anecdotal experience; the maternal mortality rates in the United States are trending upwards, not downwards, for the first time in over 30 years.
Women’s fears are not unfounded. Women’s trauma experiences from pregnancy, pregnancy loss, childbirth and infant complications are very real. And yet…where is the support?
If you’re a mother, let me ask you this:
Did anyone offer to help guide you towards professional resources after your own personal trauma (if you’ve had any)? Were you able to find accessible, affordable and meaningful help? Or, like so many women, did burying the trauma feel like the easiest option within reach?
Whether trauma is related to having babies or enduring a scary hospital stay with your child, it’s a part of mom life at some point for almost every mother. As caregivers, it strikes us deep. I experienced trauma when my oldest son was unexpectedly born a month early and I thought I was losing him. I experienced it again in the PICU when a nasty case of bronchiolitis nearly took his life, and again when we learned he had a small hole in his heart. Traumatic flashbacks haunted me during night nursing sessions after my second son’s unmedicated natural birth and in a bigger way than ever before in the wee night hours upon losing my third son during the second trimester. It was a loss that felt far greater and harder to bear than a first trimester miscarriage I had endured years earlier that also left me reeling.
Even before having children I experienced trauma – when biking to work and getting hit by a car – and yet this mom stuff?
Anything involving my children’s well-being in addition to my own carries extra weight. As much as I always want to protect my children, sometimes real life steps in the way. Even though my boys are still very young I know that this feeling will come back to me when my oldest goes to kindergarten next year and when he learns to drive a car. When my boys move out of the house and into the real world as young adults, these raw emotions will likely pay me a visit again. I hope these emotions will be healthy and normal, without past trauma hovering over them like a cloud, but if I don’t deal with my trauma experiences over time or with professional help then normal milestones and rites of passage can come at a heavy price.
Here’s the thing about trauma:
It sticks with you even when you don’t realize it.
According to Psychology Today, “trauma is the inability to deal with a certain stressful situation, which leads to feeling overwhelmed and powerless. In short, it’s not being able to process difficult emotions to completion and then enact the solution. This is when trauma is internalized and has a life of its own inside our brain and nervous systems.”
Signs of trauma may include:
- Anxiety that manifests as edginess, irritability, sleep disturbances, poor concentration and/or mood swings
- Emotions such as denial, anger and/or sadness, and experiencing emotional outbursts
- Physical symptoms such as lethargy, fatigue, racing heartbeat, panic attacks, and fuzzy thinking
- An inability to cope with certain circumstances
- Withdrawal and detachment
- Feelings of intense helplessness and fear
This list is not exhaustive of the signs and symptoms of trauma, nor does it demonstrate how “invisible” trauma can be. Some people display it very openly while others experience it internally and out of sight. Either way, trauma begs to be resolved on mental, emotional and physical levels. As moms, dealing with trauma is especially important so that we can stay present as caregivers. It’s our responsibility to deal with it so that we don’t pass it to our children. This doesn’t imply that we have to be “perfect” parents, but it does mean that we must hold ourselves accountable for healing and tending to our mental health.
We deserve wellness and our littles ones count on it.
A good friend of mine, Lauren Goldberg, who owns Secure Base Mental Health, LLC explained to me years ago that babies and children co-regulate their nervous systems with their parents’ nervous systems, especially their mother’s. I think most moms would say anecdotally that this is true (plus, it’s backed by science). For example, when I returned home from my emergency C-section, my oldest son had a peculiar stress response for a few weeks and I knew immediately that it was because of what had happened to me. Although he didn’t know all of the details, children are intuitive and their bodies’ feel the energy that we adults put out. With this in mind, it’s important to recognize that addressing and healing from trauma are important processes for the entire family unit’s wellness.
The word “trauma” can apply to a swath of trauma-inducing situations, some of which are acute and others chronic. Sometimes, healing from trauma happens without interventions or professional help. More often though, trauma necessitates some professional help along with plenty of self-care, balance and boundary setting. This is where personal time and boundaries are critical for moms. It’s back to the analogy of “put your oxygen mask on first before you help put someone else with theirs.” We have to prioritize our needs so that we can self-regulate in a healthy way and positively influence our children with their own emotional regulatory needs.
Again, I’m not a mental health professional but I’m an exercise professional who passionately pursues wellness in all its forms. Thus, I think this topic deserves some pause and reflection for moms. If you find that you don’t have any trauma to heal from – that’s great! But what about anxiety that tears you apart inside? What about depression that makes you sluggish through each day? What about low self-esteem that gets in the way of your goals and happiness? Mental health support is a crucial element of wellness and it deserves center stage in this whole mom thing.
Being a parent isn’t easy nor is it supposed to be. Other humans depend on us! We deserve to get the help and support we need without fear of guilt, shame, rejection or judgement.
Below I’ve compiled a list of resources for moms who have experienced trauma and are seeking mental health counseling, support services, and resources:
Post-Traumatic Stress After Traumatic Childbirth:
Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support:
Poor Prenatal Diagnosis Support:
Grieving the Death of a Child:
Postpartum Depression (PPD) & Anxiety Support:
Mental Health & Substance Abuse:
Yours in health and wellness,