by Jenna Brown
Recently, during a post-birth debrief with a colleague, we had a misunderstanding that stayed with me. For context, the labor I had just attended as a doula ended in an unplanned surgical birth. My client had a voice every step of the way, and the final say in all decisions that were made. They had a great team of collaborative providers, and neither their OB nor midwife rushed their decision making process. I shared all of this (and other details) with my colleague, and also mentioned that my client had told me that they felt traumatized, so I was helping them find the appropriate postpartum mental health care.
“Why?” my colleague asked.
“Why… what?” I responded.
“Why do they feel traumatized? It sounds like their experience was a good one.”
I honestly can’t remember what I said in the moment, but I do know that I was taken aback. I have had more time to think about this interaction, and I wanted to speak to it here, as I think what I have drawn from it may be an important reminder for many of us.
We do not get to decide what is traumatic for someone else. Full stop.
Anything that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope can be traumatic. Trauma is relative and subjective. Whether or not someone experiences an event as traumatic has to do with a number of situational factors, and the degree to which something may be traumatic to an individual is influenced by resiliency – which is not a fixed point. There can be, “big T Trauma,” and, “little t trauma,” which is not an invalidation of anyone’s experience, but rather an acknowledgement that trauma exists on a spectrum.
I think that what my colleague questioned during our debrief is summed up by something that family professional Robin Glasco Jones, often says, “not every drama is a trauma.” So then what is the difference? One of the key distinctions is that trauma is sensory, not cognitive. Trauma attacks, distorts, and disfigures a person’s identity.
Which brings me to a conversation I had with a different colleague who was feeling distraught about the last several births she had attended, who said, “as a doula I am supposed to protect people from trauma, and –“
No. Full stop.
If trauma is relative and subjective, and we don’t get to decide what is traumatic for someone else, how can we possibly protect someone from it? How can we protect someone from the unknown? Also, this kind of framework for understanding our role as birth workers in relationship to trauma edges dangerously close to a martyr complex.
Instead, I suggest that in the same way we can assume that all people have experienced trauma at some point in their life (and that we should treat everyone accordingly), we can also expect that trauma will occur in the birth space. Birth is inherently traumatic. It is sensory, not cognitive. It has the capacity to completely distort a person’s identity, both in the moment and over a lifetime. If this is true, we should prepare our clients for an experience, or series of experiences, that will overwhelm them by providing them with tools, resources, and validation, rather than promising them that we will protect them.
It is important to realize that by trying to prevent trauma, you could end up causing harm and even creating a traumatic situation, especially for a person who is already traumatized. I often think about this when navigating the complexities of philosophies around reproductive health, pregnancy, labor, and parenting that sound something like, “trust your intuition.” Many people who are still healing from trauma are hyper-vigilant, and may have skewed perceptions of danger/safety. And also, many people who are still healing from trauma may completely disregard actual signs of danger. Trauma shapes the nervous system in different ways for different people, but it is true that no matter how trauma may have impacted a person, it has the potential to distort their sense of safety. While it can be important healing work for people with trauma histories to learn to distinguish intuition from the influence of trauma, it is not our role as birth workers to push or rush someone into that work.
If we integrate this understanding of trauma into the work we do in birth spaces, we also give ourselves the room to notice our own trauma responses. While it is not our responsibility to protect others from trauma, it is our responsibility to self-regulate in the moment, and process after an experience, in order to avoid storing our work as unprocessed trauma. This practice is not one-size fits all; in the same way that trauma is not experienced in one singular, universal way. It is important for our own health – and for the health of those we work with – that we take the time to explore our own needs and best practices.
For many people who are called to care giving professions, it is difficult to consider our own needs. If this is new to you, start small, and think about your most basic needs. I will leave you with an acronym that works well for me. Thou S.H.A.L.T. not get too… Stressed, Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Take care of yourselves, the world needs you to do this work!
Jenna Brown, founder of Love Over Fear Wellness and Birth, is a trans non-binary full-spectrum doula and educator, who sees their queer identity and its related experiences as strengths in their work, as they are practiced in transition, discomfort, self-awareness, and community-building. Their approach is to center the needs of each individual that they work with, and help them establish autonomy as their sense of self may shift through the full-spectrum of reproductive experiences. In addition to working with clients locally in Austin, Texas, and remotely online, Jenna has self-published Queer + Pregnant: A Pregnancy Journal, released an inclusive mindful movement video series called Breathe Easy, and runs a virtual support group for QT folks who are preconception, pregnant, or new parents. You can follow Jenna @loveoverfearwellness on Instagram, or visit loveoverfearwellness.com to learn more!