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Birth Story Trauma, an Interview with Dr. Jodi Cunningham

Dr. Jodi wears many hats! She first describes herself as a wife, mother of two boys, and “bonus mom” to 4 more kids. Dr. Jodi works with a nonprofit affordable housing provider where she co-creates public health initiatives in low-income communities ranging from Chicago to Boston. Additionally, she is also a professor, teaching about health education in the Cincinnati area. Lastly, as Dr. Jodi of docjodi.com, Dr. Jodi works as a Family Transition Strategist, which means she supports families as they transition through all of life stages, including birth, postpartum, and beyond. This role allows her to serve as a birth and postpartum doula, childbirth education instructor, and coach and mentor for other doulas and professionals. 

Birth Story Trauma: It’s a Thing, and You are Not Alone

Dr. Jodi: “In my experiences, I’ve noticed women are not always given enough information to make an informed decision about their birth, which should include risks and benefits of whatever intervention is being considered. I also see informed consent fly out the window in the birth room. For example, coercive language such as ‘I’m just going to touch you right here’ while inserting fingers inside someone for a cervical check is not informed consent. These types of situations happen throughout pregnancy, birth, labor and thereafter at postpartum follow-ups. When pregnancy is treated as a condition and not a normal, biological process, there is a focus on success versus failure, and a birthing person is on the receiving end of those critiques. Words matter, especially in such a critical life-changing event such as birth and becoming a parent. For example, you can ‘fail’ a glucose test during pregnancy, you had a ‘failed’ vaginal birth which resulted in a c-section, you can have an incompetent cervix, you can ‘fail to progress’ if your labor timeline doesn’t align with your hospitals, and the list goes on and on. I believe these ‘failures’ of the body over nine months or more chip away, bit by bit, at the birthing person’s power, confidence and dignity. By the time they enter the birthing room, are they really feeling empowered at that point and trusting their body can do this?”

If you google search  “what is trauma?”, you will most likely see “an emotional response to a terrible event” listed at the top of your search.  I think this is why a lot of folks struggle with identifying labor as trauma, it’s difficult to hold both things right? “Terrible” and the arrival of your child? Scroll down a little, and you will find words like “unsettling”, “disturbing” and “overwhelming”. I think a lot of folks can identify with these words more easily when it comes to their birth experience. 

Dr. Jodi encouraged me to reach out and ask about people’s birth experiences,  so many brave folks were willing to tell me about their birth story. Would it surprise you to know that the majority of women that reached out to me had what I would deem a “traumatic labor”? So many folks talked about a fear of dying, not feeling in control of what was being done to their body, not feeling support, feelings of despair, and confusion. That all sounds like trauma to me. I understand the hesitancy in identifying this as trauma, a lot of folks do not want to identify their labor as traumatic for fear that they will invalidate others’ sexual, psychological, or physical trauma. However, this has led to a lot of folks then invalidating themselves, and their experiences. If you struggle to revisit your labor story, or feel a strong discomfort or change in your body when you do, I really encourage you to process this with a therapist.

Impacts of a Traumatic Birth Experience

Dr. Jodi: “From my own experience, I had to work through a traumatic birth with my first child. We experienced a shoulder dystocia, where his head was birthed but his shoulders were stuck during a vaginal birth. I had a team of 10 practitioners rush into my room, pushing on my stomach and shouting orders. I had so many interventions by that point, including a non-medical induction at 39 weeks, an epidural, Pitocin, fluids, cervical checks, and I’m sure many more that I’ve forgotten 10 years later. I was 21 years old, and had a very stressful pregnancy. The phrase ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know’ rings very true. I was not informed of the risks of being induced at 39 weeks, but was told if I had ‘progressed some’ that I could be induced early. It was early September and I was tired of being pregnant! It was so hot out, I had gained like 50 pounds, and I was over it.”

DIfferent symptoms can arise after a traumatic birth experience. Extreme negative self-talk, depression, anxiety, relational issues, body issues, just to name a few. One thing I really noticed when asking folks about their birth story was that oxytocin is a strong brain chemical, and can really help the brain after an unsettling labor experience. On one hand, I love that the body can do this, on the other, I wonder how much this has prevented folks from advocating for themselves and their care after the fact. Just because a baby is “happy and healthy”, and you are filled with relief, does not mean that this negates your negative experience in delivery. I think a lot of folks can feel indebted to their caregivers in delivery, despite negative birth experiences or when unethical issues arise. 

Feeling Disconnected from Our Bodies Post-Delivery

Dr Jodi: “I see there is a lot of discussion and emphasis on the failures of a woman’s body related to pregnancy, postpartum and breastfeeding. Phrases like “ I didn’t produce enough milk or my milk didn’t come in quickly enough.” I see a major emphasis, specifically with breastfeeding, on the problems with the mother or her ability to produce milk and less of an emphasis on a potential problem with the baby and their latch or another issue. In maternity care, there is an obsession with checking a box. For example, in the ‘magic hour’, which is the first hour after birth, there is an emphasis on supporting the baby to latch within the first five minutes. If this does not happen, a box goes unchecked which can create a bit of anxiety for mom or the nurse. Babies do not often align with the box-checking structure of healthcare. Box checking is fantastic for quality improvement, ensuring patients are kept safe during surgery, recovery and beyond. Box checking is not the best format for a completely natural event such as giving birth and breastfeeding. Box checking creates anxiety, a lack of confidence in your own body, and can contribute to bonding issues with the baby.”

As a sex and trauma therapist, I hear the phrase “I feel like my body betrayed me” a lot. Ideally, labor should be a time when we are amazed at what our body can do, and we are encouraged by folks around us to lean into the resiliency of our bodies. Unfortunately, we see the opposite too often. Folks turning against their bodies, grieving what they “can’t do”, or how they look. If you are experiencing this, your grief is warranted. So much damage is done by a lack of support in labor, language surrounding “failure” in pregnancy/labor/post-delivery, and the “Mom shame” that wraps around it all. A huge inner conflict arises when we turn against our bodies, which can lead to a distrust of self, self-loathing, and the feeling of disconnection with ourselves and others.

Pain: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Dr Jodi: “Consistently, I hear stories of pain being minimized or women being told that recovery from birth and breastfeeding are supposed to be painful. It sets mothers up for the rest of their motherhood journey as it’s supposed to be hard. Also, I’m learning more in this area of pelvic floor health. There are so many women’s health conditions that go under-researched, under-funded and healthcare providers don’t have the correct specialist referrals in their buckets or the knowledge to better understand some of these issues. Women have to go on wild hunts to find the support they need.”

At Emma Schmidt and Associates, we work with pain on a regular basis, particularly pain experienced during sex, and frequently pain that has arisen post-delivery. Many of our clients have been dismissed by gynecologists, physical therapists, and general practitioners (just to name a few). We have a great working relationship with practitioners who have been great resources to us (check out our resources page on our website for this).

By the time our clients get to us, they are often so discouraged, and often second guess themselves on their own interpretation of pain since they have been dismissing it (and have had it dismissed by others). An overwhelming number of my clients have been dismissed with statements such as “just take a glass of wine and you’ll be fine” especially as it relates to engaging in sex post-delivery. As an EMDR therapist, I value being connected to our bodies, and see it as key in our wellness, and in our healing. Receiving messages of dismissal often leads to doubting our own perception of what is happening in our own bodies, this majorly impacts self-esteem, and the trust we have in our body.

Dr. Jodi

You can find Jodi at www.docjodi.com,

on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/dr.jodicunningham/)

and on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/dr.jodicunningham/). \

How can Emma Schmidt and Associates help?

Counseling can help in navigating traumatic labor experiences, sexual pain, and the feelings of loneliness and invalidation that can stem from negative pregnancy and delivery experiences. CBT therapy can be helpful in processing through the thoughts, and emotions, you are experiencing. EMDR therapy can be helpful in working through trauma and disconnection with our bodies. Many of our therapists at Emma Schmidt and Associates are trained in these modalities. 

Emma Schmidt and Associates have offices in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana offering both in-person and virtual appointments at all locations. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you. 

1. Contact Emma Schmidt and Associates to request a free Counseling consultation.

2. Meet with a skilled therapist for Counseling through our HIPAA compliant platform.

3. Begin online Counseling and begin your journey towards mental wellness, health, and happiness.

Other Services Offered at Emma Schmidt and Associates:

More to check out…

The therapists at Emma Schmidt and Associates are skilled relationship and sex therapists. However, that’s not the only mental health service they offer. Our therapists treat general mental health and relationship concerns. We offer anxiety treatment, depression treatment, trauma and PTSD treatment, EMDR, and relationship and couples therapy. In addition to offering online therapy in Ohio, we also offer online therapy in Kentucky, and online therapy in Indiana. Contact our office to learn more about the many ways our team of skilled clinicians can help you thrive.

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Licensed Mental Health Clinical Counselor