More and more parents are starting to talk about trauma from their birth experiences. If you haven't heard the term "birth trauma" before, you should know that this form of trauma can have its roots in many things. This includes unwanted medical interventions in labor, unkind (or sometimes downright abusive) words and actions by care providers, or in feeling a loss of control and autonomy during birth.
These experiences often impact not only the birth itself, but the early weeks and months of parenting. If parents feel disembodied or disempowered from a trauma that occured during birth, bonding with a new baby can be very difficult. Many parents struggle to put their experiences into words. Some understand right away that trauma has affected them, and for others it takes time to absorb. Once parents know that something is "off," a new challenge begins: finding sources of healing.
There are many common recommendations for healing from a difficult birth - especially within the birth community. These ideas normally include:
Seeing a psychiatrist to be evaluated for postpartum mood disorders and receive medication if necessary
Books like How to Heal a Bad Birth
Making a formal complaint about their experience, especially if their birth was negatively impacted by hospital staff.
While some people may find what they're looking for in these suggestions, they don't do the trick for everyone. Unfortunately, sometimes when trauma isn't recognized soon enough, it can lead to other issues. Postpartum anxiety, postpartum depression, and other postpartum mood disorders can arise. This is not to say that birth trauma causes all incidences of these mood disorders, but the succession from trauma to a mood disorder can happen.
Of course, one of the best ways to heal is to receive practical and emotional support from friends and family. But sometimes, not even that is enough to heal birth trauma.
In our work, we try to soften around seeds of trauma when we see them planted. But in birth (as in life), trauma can take root despite our best intentions. When this happens, our go-to recommendation is Birth Story Medicine®. Like any healing method, it isn't a magic pill. But we find that it can be extremely effective (and much more affordable than some of the other commonly suggested paths to healing).
We asked Brandy Ferner, a local Orange County Birth Story Medicine practitioner, to share about her experience with this healing modality. If you or someone you know has experienced a difficult birth, we can't recommend her work enough.
Tell us about your background, your work with growing families, and how you came to practice Birth Story Medicine.
When I attended my introduction workshop with Birthing From Within, in 2010, there were quite a few attendees who had experienced traumatic birth events as mothers themselves, or as doulas and midwives. Virginia, one of Birthing From Within’s brilliant facilitators, led us through a powerful visualization process. I was shocked how something seemingly simple could have such a profound impact on those that needed it. The healing shift in these wounded women was palpable. They were looking at these birth events with a new lens - the details hadn’t changed, of course, but these women’s agreements about what those details meant about them had softened. When I found out that there was a specific training to learn how to do that kind of work, in addition to the childbirth preparation and doula work I was doing, I jumped at the chance to learn it from its creator, Pam England.
I have been attending births as a doula for 11 years and mentoring childbirth preparation classes for six. To this day, Birth Story Medicine work is my favorite offering. I enjoy meeting with mothers who have been seasoned by birth and helping them sort through their pieces with love and insight. I know that after working with someone, at least one small thing will have shifted within them - and many times, it’s some big things. This work works! To be invited to be a part of people’s journeys and to watch them walk out feeling lighter and more loving towards themselves is such a gift for me. I feel so lucky to get to do this work.
Where does Birth Story Medicine come from?
Birth Story Medicine is the brain and heart child of Pam England, author of Birthing From Within, Labyrinth of Birth, and Ancient Map For Modern Birth. It’s a process that Pam has honed over many years of working with families as a midwife, mother, author, childbirth educator, artist, advocate and more. You can learn more on my website.
When in the postpartum period do you typically work with parents?
Parents come to me at a variety of stages. Some moms quickly know that they need help to make sense of their birth experience, while some don’t realize the effect their birth has had on them for months, or even years. A subsequent pregnancy often has moms questioning how to move forward without fear and pain, and wanting to heal before their next birth, so I see a lot of second time moms. It is normal for it take a year (or more) for a woman to make sense of her birth experience and to seek out help in putting the pieces together. I am awed by anyone who contacts me at any stage because it takes a tremendous amount of self love to be in the thick of mothering and then to also recognize that they deserve to feel a different way about their experience. When they contact me, I feel that their healing has already begun just in them having taken that one step.
To be invited to be a part of people’s journeys and to watch them walk out feeling lighter and more loving towards themselves is such a gift.
Can you tell us what parents can expect from a Birth Story Medicine session?
Most of my private sessions last for 1.5-2 hours. There is a specific process - through talking and visualization, and sometimes some mapping/sketching - that I take them through. At the core of this process is deep listening (from me) and validation. It seems so simple, but it is the very thing that is missing from birth story conversations. Women need to be heard without someone else injecting their own stories into the mix or being told to "get over it.” Birth stories matter - they have a lasting effect and shape the way a woman mothers her child. Whatever we believe to be true about ourselves because of the events of our birth, is a belief that we continue living until it is reassessed and updated. That is what a Birth Story Medicine session helps moms do, in a non-judgmental, compassionate way. Sometimes the sessions are deeply emotional and sometimes not. Sometimes moms are surprised by what comes up, as sometimes their trauma is not actually the thing they think it is, but another event, moment or interaction that they’ve overlooked, or avoided. By the end of the session, clients are relating to at least some piece of their story in a new way as they move towards letting themselves off an inner hook - whether that was the feeling of failing, or wishing they had spoken up, or made a different choice, etc. Each session varies in some way, as I tune into what might speak to each client. And, most clients only need one Birth Story Medicine session with me, but some find that they like to do some upkeep here and there, and come back occasionally, as needed.
Who can benefit from Birth Story Medicine?
Mothers who have had births with unexpected, unwished for and/or traumatic events can benefit from Birth Story Medicine. I also work with partners, as they have their own traumas associated with watching their partners (and babies) go through these intense experiences. If both the mother and partner come to me, I work with them in separate sessions. Also, birth workers and family members who have witnessed traumatic births can benefit from this work, especially if they feel gripped by a certain event or something they wish they could change.
Do you work with non-birthing people as well?
The Birth Story Medicine process and its deep listening and attuned questions do not only apply to birth situations. I have done "Life Story Listening" sessions for people who have had unwished for events or trauma occur in their own lives, or who are feeling stuck in certain situations.
Can you share some details about this service? Fees, whether this work is done in groups or privately, and anything else we should know?
Most of my Birth Story Medicine work is done in a private session. Being able to focus solely on one person’s story allows for the most healing. But, I have done intimate workshops and there is also something really validating about hearing other women having similar experiences to yours.
The cost for a 2-hour, in-person, private session with me is $90. My workshop rates vary, depending on where its being hosted, and those are kept very small - four people maximum. I also offer private Skype sessions for those not local to me in Orange County, and those are $75 for a 2-hour session. For more information, or to schedule a Birth Story Medicine session, please check out my website or email me.
Brandy's contact information: