Monday, December 17, 2012

6 Things to Never Say to a Mama Processing Birth

If a mama you know shares her feelings about her birth experience with you, what do you say? What do you do? What we say and do when mamas share their pain with us should be about acknowledging, supporting, encouraging, empathizing and loving others. Remember that it shouldn't involve us, our discomfort, our judgment or our opinions on the matter.

Mama friends build up, support and accept each other.

1. "At least you have a healthy/live/normal baby." The top cliche in our culture, this statement simultaneously tells the mom she doesn't matter and that whatever happened to her and her baby is justified, even if the things they experienced during birth were abusive and illegal. If a mama shares something with you that makes you feel uncomfortable and gives you an urge to be positive, try something with acceptance in it. "It's okay to feel that way about your birth. You have a happy baby who loves you and needs you to process these things. Thanks for sharing your story."

2. "You're exaggerating things. It seems that way but it wasn't/didn't happen/it's all in your imagination." When a mama is reeling with shock and pain after birth, telling her that she can't rely on her own perception and emotions is crippling. You also aren't the judge and jury and she's most likely sharing with you out of a desperate need for support and a listening ear. If her experience sounds crazy to you, imagine how it must feel to her. Instead of doubting her and accusing her of lying or looking for attention, encourage her to write down her memories so that the details don't become blurred or lost over time. Encourage her to document names, times and any medical info she can recall. If you feel uncomfortable, reframe it. Your job is not to judge, but to listen and acknowledge her. "That sounds really serious. Would you like me to write any of this down for you?"

3. "That's it? Susie's birth was way worse! Be thankful for what you got, it could have been worse!" This statement is a common response in grief interactions. It's called grief hierarchy and is actually a form of judgment, where you judge how bad the other person is allowed to feel in comparison to other forms of trauma or loss. There is nothing productive or compassionate about a grief hierarchy. It doesn't help the mama who bravely shared her pain and it doesn't help "Susie" or the other people used in your comparison It also isn't reasonable, because everyone reacts to trauma in different ways. Additionally, the mama might not be sharing all the details at this point. If you feel what she experienced was trivial, instead of measuring and judging her experience and emotions, focus on acknowledging her feelings and validating her as a person. "I'm sorry to hear that happened. I hear that you feel hurt and upset. It's okay to feel disappointed."

4. "You're always so angry/sad about your birth! Maybe you have a mental illness." First, it is important to offer support and to encourage mamas to be aware of symptoms that might need additional assistance. PPD, PPP, PTSD, anxiety and more can all occur after any birth and mamas deserve support in those cases. But here's something really important to remember: whether the mama has a case of depression or not, she still has feelings about her birth. And in fact, her birth experience might be contributing to depression and anxiety. If you are truly concerned about a potential medical or mental condition, certainly share this with her gently. But never use a label as a reason to dismiss her feelings or invalidate her. "I'm really worried for you. Your birth experience was really hard on you. Have you considered talking to a therapist or getting a second opinion? You deserve to feel better."

5. "You can always try again/have another baby/heal after another birth." First, this one might carry a heavy blow. For many women, they can't try again. Never assume you are aware of all the details. Some mamas experience emergency hysterectomies after their births. Or they might have decided it was too dangerous or otherwise not right for them to have more babies and have ended their fertility. Or the physical results (scarring, complications) might have risked them out of a basic midwife-homebirth or other natural birth options. Second, it goes without saying that having another baby won't erase the first experience. You can't erase or replace tangible life experiences. Third, even if you or others you know have experienced healing with subsequent births, that's not a guarantee. Fourth, a mama who is trying hard to process her grief and pain over her current birth experience is not in any place to consider another birth down the road, nor will that help her here and now. Fifth, babies are human beings, each of them unique, who come into this world with their own birth stories. It's not their job as siblings to take on the task of replacing previous birth experiences. What can you do in this situation? There isn't a replacement statement. Never talk about future births or future babies, replacements or trying again. And this includes later on, if/when the mama announces another pregnancy.

6. "It was God's Will." "God wanted it to happen this way. "God must have a plan." "Don't complain; God's Will, not your will." These are also all judgments, although they attempt to use religion to ease their way past the mama's defenses. Only the mama can decide how she feels about her faith when it comes to her birth experiences. Those statements are things she can decide on in her own time and way. It is not your place to tell them to her, nor will they bring comfort for the vast majority of people, regardless of their religions. The only thing these statements represent is your discomfort with the situation. If you feel uncomfortable or unable to make sense of what's happened to your mama friend, just say that. "I'm so sorry. I don't understand why that happened to you. I don't have the answers. It's not fair. I'm here for you. I'll keep you in my prayers/thoughts."

And sometimes all a mama needs is a true hug. 
Photo credit: Jason Johannessen


A list of links on post partum depression and related issues:

A post about healthy babies:

A story and resources on birth trauma:

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