We are living in a time in history where one in three women will describe their birth as traumatic.
Therefore, if someone chooses to share their birth story with you, there is a reasonable chance that they are confiding in you about a traumatic experience they had been through.
And if they didn't have a traumatic birth? Even if they had the opposite of traumatic - an incredibly positive, empowering, and fulfilling birth? A birth story is a deeply personal account of a moment in that woman's life where she was forever changed, and the story is deserving of reverence and recognition. Understand that if someone is sharing their birth story with you, you're being invited to listen to and share in something sacred.
It's for that reason that, yes, I do think we can do with a bit of a guide on how we can give that to the story we are being trusted with.
Firstly, if you are speaking with or visiting a new mother and she hasn't offered or automatically started telling you her birth story, you can ask her. She may not know how open people are to hearing it, and doesn't want to assume and overshare, but might be bursting to talk about it.
However, she may also not be willing or ready to share it. A simple question of "do you want to talk about the birth?" can show that you're ready to listen if she wants to tell you.
But I must add - please only ask if you are in a position where you feel able to listen and respond free from your own judgements or assumptions about birth in general or her decision making process, or any challenges or trauma from your own birth experiences. That's not to say that you can't ask if you've had a difficult or traumatic birth experience, but if you are aware that you have a lot of unresolved emotion about it and can't be certain that won't affect your ability to listen to someone else's experience - whether traumatic or not - then just be conscious of that and respect her right to hold her story separate from yours.
Firstly, the obvious: listen actively. Nod, make eye contact, and appropriate reactions. Let her simply tell her story as it comes.
If she does disclosure trauma or express distress or sadness over any of the story, avoid the temptation to gloss over it or engage in toxic positivity cliches such as "at least you're both alive" or "all that matters is you and the baby are here and healthy". It can be deeply uncomfortable to just sit with someone in these moments, and our instincts are to try and make things better, but those sorts of statements are far more damaging than they are encouraging. Toxic positivity can exacerbate someone's negative feelings about an event by making them feel like they don't have a right to be upset or hurt or angry because "things worked out okay in the end" or "at least... XYZ". It can make her feel ungrateful on top of everything else.
I realise that's not the intention of those sorts of statements, and it's more just a social habit we have all picked up because as a society, we don't like the feeling of just sitting with these sorts of feelings and we just want a way to shake them straight off and "focus on the good". But try to consider that it's only making you feel better in that moment by shaking it off - she is still holding and feeling all of these things regardless of what you say or don't say. Having someone just be present for her can be the most helpful thing.
In the same way, refrain from asking for more details if she is disclosing trauma. By asking follow up questions, it can seem like you're discrediting her experience of what happened, or trivialising it. As an example of what I mean might be if she explains that she is having trouble coming to terms with having an episiotomy; don't then ask her about whether the baby was in distress or whether a doctor told her she would have otherwise had a third degree tear. Give her the space to express her feelings about what happened without it needing to be rationalised, excused, or explained.
Something you can say that could be helpful to hear is "I'm sorry that happened to you." It shows her that you can see she is hurting and validates her emotions. It tells her you are there to listen and hold space for her, and she is free to express whatever feelings she needs.
When she has finished telling her story, tell her how strong and incredible you think she is. What an amazing mother she is to her new baby, and what a brilliant job she is doing.
And before you leave, make sure you hang out some laundry or run the vacuum around, top up her water bottle or make her a cup of tea, and check if they need anything else before you go.
My name is Katelyn Commerford and I am a doula and next birth after caesarean guide who has completed comprehensive doula education. If you want to know more about what I do and how I can help you, please visit my website where you can get your free cheat sheet of my favourite VBAC resources, or find me on instagram @thenbacguide where I answer commonly asked questions about planning the next birth after caesarean and share loads pregnancy, birth, postpartum and parenting content.
Business Name: Katelyn Commerford - Doula and NBAC Guide
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