Childbearing 101 for Sexual Abuse Survivors

Childbearing is never easy, but for sexual abuse survivors it can have some unexpected and unpleasant hiccups.

  • For that first birth, I was in the dark about how labor can affect sexual abuse survivors; I wasn’t able to connect my freaked-outness about childbearing and my personal history.
    Photo by Fotolia/pirotehnik
  • “Dear Sister,” by Lisa Factora-Borchers, shares the lessons, memories, and vision of artists, activists, mothers, writers, and students who share a common bond: they are all sexual abuse survivors.
    Cover courtesy AK Press

Dear Sister (AK Press, 2014) goes beyond traditional books on healing that use “experts” to explain the experience of sexual abuse survivors and speaks directly to, and for, other survivors. Author and editor Lisa Factora-Borchers has compiled a multi-generational, multi-ethnic collection of letters and essays that create a moving journey through the hearts and minds of over fifty survivors. The following excerpt from “From Trauma to Strength” shares a lesson in childbearing.

Surviving Birth

Cradling a strangely endearing plush toy pelvis in her hands, the childbirth instructor had just asked our group, “What do you expect of your labor?” I hadn’t thought as far ahead as labor. This was my first pregnancy and I was keenly sensitive to every minute change occurring in and on my body. I was all consumed with the actual pregnancy. I was exhausted. And mildly nauseous, and a little hungry—yet always having the presence of some indigestion. I had a wintertime heat rash in New York and another weird rash on my eyelids, which my hip co-workers had mistaken for me trying out some retro new-wave trend with pink shadow. Being fashionable wasn’t a pressing issue for me in those harried months; "pregnant” was all I felt and thought about. 

While some of the couples in the class had a great deal to say, all I could hear in my head was “I expect to live.” Finally, when my turn came, that is what I said. I expect to live. After a prolonged pause of silence in which I was intensely stared at by a room full of strangers, the instructor asked me to elaborate. I begrudgingly explained that “with all the medical technology and stuff, I expect to live.” My husband has my unconditionally loyal love for even less eloquently grunting out in his turn, “Well, uh, yeah. That.” I was surprised that no one else seemed to be remotely freaked out by labor like I was. The couples all shared shiny-happy feelings of what they were expecting: to have their partners support and coach them through the delivery, to use breathing and meditation techniques instead of pain relievers—to have fabulous and empowering birth experiences.

I didn’t expect to puke. I started puking with the first notable signs of labor—which were simply stronger, more painful contractions than the little ones I had been having for days—and I continued vomiting for hours. My water broke, or “partially broke,” but when and how much I wasn’t sure because I was puking when it happened. I had been told to try and eat before coming in for delivery, so my husband dutifully and excitedly brought home a complete shawarma and falafel mezze from our favorite kosher spot on Coney Island Avenue. I savored it, helping my husband to devour every bit, as the midwives had advised me to “eat like an athlete” since I was preparing myself to go into hard labor. Before the empty wrappings were gathered up I resumed puking. I puked in the car and at the intake and for hours in the delivery room. My midwife, who had been giving me ice and sips of cool water, finally went against the implicit instructions on my birth plan and offered me something for the nausea—but I would have to be hooked up to an IV to get it. Panic vaguely pulsed through my tired and weakened body. Surely I had expected this to be hard, but the vomiting was rendering me nearly incapacitated. I was worried that I wasn’t able to think clearly. The offer for sweet relief had to reweighed against my being on an IV; that would be the first intervention chipping away at my autonomy. My movements would become limited, a snowball effect of interventions could occur in which I would become simply a body without say, made pliable and easy for a medical team to “work on.” I wanted to remain in control of what was put in my body, and I wanted to do the labor myself rather than have it done to me.

Where I had once found comfort in the idea of being saved from the pains and uncertainty of labor with the use of medical technology and a thoroughly trained staff, by the time I went in to delivery I understood that medicine would not magically save me. After the birthing classes, I started to accept that the pregnancy would end and that I would have to do the actual labor process. In a last ditch attempt to opt out of labor, I casually mentioned to my husband that maybe I could just have a C-section. He was shocked by this suggestion and reassured me, “It would be better to just have the baby natural, like everyone else, than to be cut into for no reason.” I hadn’t admitted to him or anyone else that I was completely freaked out by the idea of being in labor; on the surface I didn't even understand that I was unusually frightened. I didn’t know where to begin addressing my anxiety, but finally I realized that I had to stop thinking only about the fascinating phenomenon of “pregnancy” and began voraciously reading everything available to me about labor.

I learned that birth was a process that unfolded, and that, when attempting to control the process through unnecessary medical means, both physical and emotional damage could likely occur to the mother and the child. I heard about making a birth plan ahead of time as I would be, well, distracted during the labor process. Care providers could refer to the plan rather than disturb me or force me to make a decision hastily. So I did that and I wrote in it that I didn’t want to be given any drugs and not to even offer me any, in case I should buckle. Perhaps I would have reconsidered my rigid stance had I known that anti-nausea meds may be needed, but in my self-led crash course on What to Expect in Labor, I hadn’t read about puking.

1/13/2019 8:44:37 PM

Thank you for sharing this. All this time I just thought I was overreacting and there was something wrong with me. I guess there is, but now it makes sense. No one ever told me that I could have a more difficult labor because I'm a survivor. Or about the puking. I'm at the halfway mark with my first and had the thought today to google about trauma and labor... low and behold they're related. I thought I was being paranoid, I am, but for a reason. I feel less crazy now and can better prepare myself for birth. Thank you from my heart. Thank you.

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