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Caring for Survivors of Sexual Abuse Throughout the Childbearing Journey

A guest post by Deborah Issokson, Psy.D.

Childbearing is a vulnerable process.

Regardless of our profession within the childbirth world, we are working to facilitate an experience that has a positive emotional outcome accompanied by a healthy psychological adjustment to motherhood. It is incumbent upon us to understand and be sensitive to all the ways in which childbearing can be both triggering and potentially healing for women with abuse histories.

It is crucial to remember that not all survivors will have the same experience of pregnancy, birth, postpartum and breastfeeding. And we cannot assume that all women experiencing difficulties with aspects of childbearing such as pelvic exams, touch, immodesty, language, and pain are abuse survivors.

For an abuse survivor, abuse memories may be triggered by the physical changes, social and psychological tasks, medical procedures, and rituals of childbearing.

For some, abuse memories and emotions will be familiar, expected; others may experience these memories as regressive in their healing. For still others, the memories and emotions will be unexpected and intrusive, signaling the first time they are coming forth.

Preserving the Mental Health of Sexual Abuse Survivors

From a mental health perspective, the task with an acknowledged sexual abuse survivor during childbearing is threefold: help her maintain her current level of functioning, help her contain the memories, and facilitate further healing using childbearing as a vehicle for growth.

If the woman is unaware of her abuse history, we may be in the position of suspecting it or listening to her share her own inklings based on the feelings, concerns, fears and distress that she is experiencing and we are observing.

However, the Pandora’s box of sexual abuse memories must be opened delicately. Ideally, pregnancy is a time of containment as a woman grows a baby inside her body, preparing psychologically and spiritually for motherhood. And while birth is a time of opening and transforming, it is also a time when we want to limit extraneous, stressful stimuli so that a woman can immerse in her transformation to motherhood.

Strategies for Childbirth Professionals

So what do we do, in our respective roles, to meet these goals, implement these tasks and stay mindful of pacing, timing and professional limitations and boundaries?

  • We can encourage a woman to review coping strategies she has previously employed.
  • We can encourage her to seek support from a therapist, partner, friends, a support network.
  • We can help her stay grounded by contextualizing her physical changes and discomforts, reviewing the real and appropriate changes happening in her body, reflecting on her health and resilience and helping her pace herself as she adjusts to the changes.
  • We can be instrumental in helping a woman explore her choices for place of birth, care providers, and birth intentions. Her choice of provider and the manner in which she makes her choices may be affected by her abuse history and by the gender of her abuser. She may choose a provider and a place of birth that could facilitate a healing experience for her. On the other hand, she may unconsciously recreate the dynamics she experienced with her abuser.

Women wonder about sharing their abuse story with everyone who cares for them, be it the medical provider, the educator, the doula or the breastfeeding counselor. While it isn’t necessary to tell the entire story, it can be helpful for certain providers to have a general sense of the history in order to be sensitized to the woman’s issues as they pertain to prenatal care, labor and delivery, postpartum care and breastfeeding assistance.

If a woman is working with a group practice or being taught by a revolving set of educators, she may not want to repeat her story for each provider. Rather, we can encourage her to share with one provider with whom she feels most comfortable, asking that a brief note be put in her chart to inform the others. We can also suggest she write a brief statement herself, highlighting what she most wants her providers to know about her story, her vulnerabilities and her coping strategies.

Emotional dynamics of birth and transition to parenting
For an abuse survivor, normal fears, anxieties and concerns about birth can take on additional psychic charge due to the physical and sexual nature of birth.

On one end of the continuum is the experience of giving birth as healing; on the other end is the feeling that birthing is tantamount to a recurrence of sexual abuse. In between are shades of gray.

Most births have healthy, uncomplicated physical outcomes; the emotional outcome is not so predictable. There is no telling how a woman will experience her birth and how she will make meaning of it. As a witness to her birth, we may perceive it as wonderful, empowering and successful, while the woman may have a completely different emotional experience and perception.

Furthermore, the emotional outcome is an unfolding process for the postpartum woman. The new mother spends part of her postpartum year reviewing and dissecting her birthing experience. It is not unusual for the survivor of abuse, years later, to have a new perspective on her experience. Sometimes it is a more healing perspective.

For an abuse survivor, the postpartum period can be a time of consolidation of past healing efforts as she enters a phase of parenting and protecting a new human being.

For other women, parenting can be the catalyst for new memories and flashbacks, new conflicts with extended family, and even regression in the healing process. Survivors of abuse are at high risk for experiencing postpartum depressive and anxiety disorders. These mental health issues require attention and treatment as soon as possible as they have a detrimental impact not only on the woman, but also on her baby and her entire family.

Empower by Giving Space to the Individual Woman
As providers of care, we are often witness to great courage, strength and healing as survivors of sexual abuse journey toward parenthood.

Empower your client to shape this childbearing experience for herself. Ideally, your work together can culminate in a positive emotional experience of pregnancy and birth, a healthy connection between mother and baby, and a sense of self-efficacy as a mother.

REFERENCES

Issokson, Deborah. 2004. Chapter 11, Effects of Childhood Abuse on Childbearing and Perinatal Health in Health Consequences of Abuse in the Family: A Clinical Guide for Evidence-Based Practice, K. Kendall- Tackett, editor. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Kendall-Tackett, K. 1998. Breastfeeding and the sexual abuse survivor. Journal of Human Lactation, 14(2), 125-130.

Simkin, Penny and Phyllis Klaus. 2004. When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Childbearing Women. Washington: Classic Day Publishing.

Sperlich, Mickey and Julia Seng. 2008. Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse. Oregon: Motherbaby Press.

Deborah Issokson, Psy.D, is a licensed psychologist in Massachusetts specializing in Perinatal Mental Health. She is a contributor to several editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves. She was a faculty member of the Boston University School of Public Health, lecturing on Maternal and Child Health (now closed). She  can be reached at info@reproheart.com. Visit her website at www.reproheart.com.

Childbirth Education, Depression, Evidence Based Medicine, Guest Posts, Healthy Care Practices, informed Consent, Maternal Mental Health, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression, Research, Survivors of Sexual Abuse , , , , , , , , ,

  1. April 25th, 2012 at 14:48 | #1

    Kathy,

    The theme I appreciated throughout this post was the idea that each woman will experience pregnancy, birth, and postpartum from their unique spot on the continuum. I really like the reminder that the best help that we can provide is often to empower women to define their own experience, rather than imposing expectations of experience on them. Thanks for this important perspective on a very painful topic.

    Warmly,
    Ann

  2. April 26th, 2012 at 19:46 | #2

    Dr. Issokson,
    This is a wonderfully comprehensive and compassionate piece.

    If any birth or mental health professional is able to attend Penny and Phyllis’ When Survivors Give Birth training, it is well worth it!

    Thank you again,
    Walker Karraa

  3. April 27th, 2012 at 13:41 | #3

    @Ann Becker-Schutte, Ph.D.
    Thank you for your comment, Ann. Given that those of us in this field are passionate about birth, it is always helpful to be reminded to step out of the way so that each woman can make her own meaning of her experience. I wrote a short piece about this issue of meaning-making and it can be found on my website:
    http://reproheart.com/meaning_distinction.html

    Take care.
    Debbie

  4. April 27th, 2012 at 13:44 | #4

    @Walker Karraa
    Thank you Walker. If you are interested in more detail, you can read my entire chapter “Effects of Childhood Abuse on Childbearing and Perinatal Health” at http://reproheart.com/images/apachapter.pdf

    Take good care.
    Debbie

  5. April 28th, 2012 at 15:00 | #5

    @Deborah Issokson, Psy.D.
    Hi Debbie,
    This was a wonderfully kind offer. I have downloaded and saw my friend, KK-T as the editor! If I wanted to cite this piece, APA–how do you prefer?

  6. May 6th, 2012 at 14:31 | #6

    @Walker Karraa
    Hi Walker & Debbie! I just had to jump in here and say I am SO glad you two connected! I love Debbie’s chapter she mentioned above. It is well-rounded and provides depth psychological depth. And yes KK-T is the editor, another wonderful scholar! take care, Kathy

  7. May 6th, 2012 at 14:37 | #7

    @Deborah Issokson, Psy.D.
    Hi Deborah – I wanted to let you know I really enjoyed your piece on meaning-distinction. Really eye-opening in nuanced situations where there is often alot of opinionated rhetoric, thanks, Kathy

  8. May 6th, 2012 at 14:38 | #8

    @Ann Becker-Schutte, Ph.D.
    Hi Ann – I loved Deborah’s article about meaning making, it helps us remember our professional boundaries & ethics.

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