For some reason, pregnant women are often an open invitation for other women to spontaneously share their own experience around birth and delivery—particularly their horror stories about everything that went wrong and how awful it was. In the spirit of compassion, we might ask ourselves why this is, and also what to do about it?
Firstly, I really don’t know why the women who do this don’t think through whether this is welcome input. However, one hypothesis is that to the extent that a woman has had a traumatic experience with the birth of a child, a pregnant woman may serve as a trigger that brings back her own unworked-through trauma.
Much as a truck backfiring might trigger a traumatized veteran to re-experience memories of bombs, if a mom with a bit of post traumatic stress disorder gets triggered, she may find herself experiencing flashback memories and a flood of emotions that can grab a person and compel them to do something to discharge the anxiety.
One of the key components to treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is for the sufferer to talk about the trauma. When a trauma is overwhelming, be it just before a car crash or when the doctors start snapping into emergency mode in the delivery room, we tend to sort of leave our bodies and float a bit outside them. Emotionally, this protects us, but we do not then process the trauma and store it in the brain as a proper memory. Instead, the experience stays in the mental equivalent of a computer’s desktop from which it pops up and fills the screen of consciousness—sometimes at unexpected moments.
Now if you are pregnant, to a woman with unresolved birth trauma you are the emotional equivalent of a masked gunman to a former bank robbery victim. Thus your belly manages to hit the play button on the story of their terror, and they are unconsciously trying to work it through by talking about it. However, the pregnant receiver of the story is in a vulnerable and protective place, so no matter what else they do, their mental energy and unspoken message is to shut the story-teller out. This makes for a very unsatisfying dynamic where one mom is trying to pass a hot potato of bad feelings to another soon-to-be-mom who is in no position to take it.
Thus, if you have had a bad birth experience, I send compassion and the hope that you will find someone who can hear about it and help you work through the trauma. This trauma is often exacerbated by the birth fantasy that a mom may have brought into the experience (i.e. of a natural birth, etc.) that may have turned out to be both scary and completely medical in the end, in contrast to what was desired. On top of the trauma then sits a sense of loss, and sometimes of personal failure (mistaken, but feelings are often far from rational). If it helps to share the experience here, feel free; and this brings us to the next point.
If you are pregnant, it might be helpful to have a strategy for what to do if someone starts to share their negative experiences. The first step is compassionate recognition of the pain and fear of the story-spiller, but the second is a healthy boundary; something to the effect of, “I’m sorry if you had a difficult experience, but I’ve decided to really focus on positive experiences in the hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to spare my baby the fear and pain that you too must have tried to avoid.” Or you might try, “Why don’t we compare stories after I have one to tell.”
As you become more conscious, you may even be able to see the negative story coming and avoid getting pinned down in the line of fire, because while the one with trauma needs to tell, the one carrying baby needs not to hear. You need not feel guilty or responsible for others when you are pregnant.
So, while we want to serve the interest of all our collective children (and those who “parent” them at every level from friends, to teachers to doctors and nurses) we also want to honor and protect boundaries so that traumas can heal rather than spread and create vicarious trauma in those that hear it when they are not in the right space to receive it.
On the other hand, as we build our resilience (and if we find ourselves fortunate enough to feel ready to hear some hard things now and again), we can do the mental/emotional reach-out and give compassion rather than judgment and criticism when we find people spilling over (be it other parents or our own kids).