Secondary Trauma in Childbirth : Partners and Support


When we experience loss of control in our environment and fear for the well-being of a loved one, we may experience secondary trauma. The proximity and emotional attachment to the person at the center of the event directly relates to our own level of distress. Furthermore, a sensitive personality can internalize traumatizing events even when the person at the center of the event is not traumatized.

Partners of birthing people can often be the ones that feel these effects of secondary trauma. The birthing individual may feel more in control when targeted instructions and physical cues give a sense of direction and purpose in the process of birth. It may feel natural to push and get on top of contractions at the time of delivery when a support person is overwhelmed by what’s happening. A medically complicated birth or emergency situation may leave a support person outside the operating room, lost in rapid decision making that by-passed logical and emotional processing of the events.

Simply put, trauma interferes with bonding. When there are multiple people traumatized by a medical event, there can be a phenomena of shock that inhibits healing. Relationships can suffer, and those to whom you may turn for comfort may be unable to give from an empty cup. This can contribute to resentment, blame and an increased sense of isolation and victimhood. It’s why so many divorces follow the loss of a child - it can be so painful to share our vulnerability and grief.

Admitting to ourselves that we are not impenetrable to suffering is the first step. Sometimes when we aren’t the patient, it’s confusing to have such a painful burden. We may not feel justified in acknowledging the pain. It may manifest as distance from our partner or an aversion to being looked to as a source of comfort. There may be a wall of defensiveness, perhaps a refusal to discuss the event itself. Symptoms of PTSD like intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks can all arise from secondary trauma.

Recognizing feelings of lack, shortcoming, even failure at protecting our loved one’s from what may have felt like a horrific event are often at the root of this painful rupture. All these feelings are valid, and admitting them is the starting point of the healing work. The next step is self forgiveness and ultimately the healing is about acknowledging our own humanity. We are not in control of the events around us, but we can affect how we show up to process those events and in what capacity we are able to help others. Integrating the event and finding a way to tell the story that evolves into one that actually highlights your courage, fortitude and resilience is a path through suffering to healing.

Sharing our process and witnessing one another’s experience is essential to rebuilding intimacy. Attending to our own healing in order to then provide comfort and support in another’s healing is one of the greatest expressions of love. When we recognize our own hurt and meet it with self compassion we are able to demonstrate self-love and when we bring this power of witness to others, we are able to see their suffering with loving eyes. It is the bridge back to connection.

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