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Comforting a Woman Traumatized by her Birth Experience

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Women from the Solace for Mothers message boards collaborated to create this list of common things said to women in the postpartum period and how they might be interpreted by women who feel traumatized by their birth and/or have postpartum depression or PTSD.


*If you say…


She hears…

“You should be grateful”


“You’re selfish and ungrateful. How could you be such a terrible person and not just accept the hell you’ve been experiencing with joy and gratitude. You have a bad attitude and that’s the real reason you feel so awful all time.”


“All that matters is a healthy baby.”



“You don’t matter. What you feel isn’t important. You’re pain isn’t real or significant. Don’t you care about your baby at all? You’re so selfish.”


“Why can’t you just move on and get over it?”



“Your pain isn’t a big deal. You’re just too weak to work through it like a strong person would. Can’t you do anything right?”


“The doctor/nurse/midwife was just trying to do what’s best.”



“It doesn’t matter if they verbally or physically abused you, or if they lied to you or withheld critical information. It’s not a big deal that they made important decisions without consulting you, or ignored your wishes when they did bother to ask you. None of that matters because they probably, somewhere deep down, had your best interest at heart.”


“They’ve been through medical school, they would know best.”



“You’re not qualified to make decisions on behalf of your family. You’re too stupid and would probably base your decisions entirely on some random blog post rather than legitimate scientific studies. And if you did actually stumble across a real study, you’d probably misinterpret it, because you’ve never been to medical school, so there’s no way you might know how to recognize a good study from a bad one. Doctors never make mistakes and never do things because it’s easier or their administrators ask them to, or they get paid more for it. They’re perfect. You’re not. You’re not qualified to be a mother.”

“When are you going to have another one?”



“When are you going to sacrifice all the dignity and happiness you’ve worked for months/years to restore and subject yourself to abuse and humiliation again?… Aren’t you willing to risk your identity, sanity, family, and marriage yet?”


“There’s always the next baby!”


“A good birth experience will somehow magically erase your bad one, because you’re probably exaggerating how bad you feel anyway.  You must be desperate for attention. ”


“You can always try for a VBAC next time!”


“Start planning the next birth now so that your care provider can completely ignore your wishes and leave you devastated again.”


“But person X, Y, and Z had a birth experience like yours or worse!  They’re fine!”



“You’re fine too and I think you just like to complain for attention.”


“You just expected too much from your birth.”



“All births are traumatizing and you’re stupid and believe in fairy tales for ever thinking otherwise.”


“You are small, so it’s always going to be like that for you.”



“Your body isn’t built to have children like other women.  There’s something wrong with you.”


“I just don’t understand how all those things could happen to you”



“You must be lying about what happened, or at least exaggerating.  What is wrong with you that you couldn’t do it as well as the rest of us?”

“You should have thought about that before you got pregnant!”



“You deserve this and asked for it because you shouldn’t have been having children at this stage in your life.”


“Don’t worry, the pubic hair will hide the scar.”



“Your pain is only there if you can see the physical evidence of it.  Everything else you’re feeling isn’t real.”

“Did you take [insert popular childbirth class here]?”



“You did something wrong.  If only you weren’t so stupid and ill-informed about birth.”


“Did you have a birth plan?”



“Clearly, you didn’t plan your birth well enough, so the pain you’re feeling is your own fault.”


“I think you just planned it out too much, you just have to go with what happens”



“It doesn’t matter what happened or what you did, it’s still your fault.”


“Smile for the camera.  Look happier!  Maybe show some teeth?”



“Oh, it’s okay that you’ve been ignored, lied to, confined, coerced, and abused for 15+ hours, you must be happy.”


“That’s never happened in my career before, and I’ve been doing this for ‘X’ years!”



“You must have done something wrong.  Either that or your body doesn’t work right.”

“I thought it was hilarious when I heard you got an epidural (after planning a natural birth).  I laughed out loud”



“After all your talk about natural birth, you failed and that amuses me.”


“Ha, and you said nothing could go wrong!”



“You weren’t listening when I told you all the horror stories I knew about labor.  It’s your fault your home birth failed because you shouldn’t have planned it in the first place.”


“I’m relieved you had her in a hospital!”



“I’m glad you didn’t get what you wanted because you clearly aren’t intelligent enough to make medical decisions for yourself.”


“I guess you’ll know better than to try a home birth next time.”



“You shouldn’t have tried to plan your birth or attempted to trust your body.  Obviously you didn’t do any real research about birth options, and you made your choice out of ignorance.  It’s your fault you had to suffer.”


“Are you going to have the next one in a hospital like you should have planned the first time?”



“You shouldn’t plan a home birth or trust your body.  Instead you should give up your personal autonomy to a staff of people who have to worry about legal liability and so can’t let you go through with your choices because it’s risky for them, even if it’s better for you.”


“Well, I just would have (fill in the blank) instead.”



“You didn’t do what you should have.  Your pain is your own fault.”


“I would have just told the doctor not to do (insert intervention here).”



“Your experience was completely in your control the entire time, you just made the wrong choices because you weren’t educated enough and now you regret it.”

“Really?  You think your birth was traumatic?”



“It wasn’t.  You are remembering it wrong or you experienced it wrong.”


“Well, I don’t know if the epidural was necessary.  Are they ever really necessary?”



“You think you did what you could to get by in the worst situation you could imagine, but you’re wrong.  You’re just weak.  Just like other women.”


“They should have done a c-section, they waited too long.”



“You may think escaping labor without unnecessary surgery is the only positive in your birth, but you’re wrong.  I know far more about birth than you do, and you probably just did something wrong.”


“Well you don’t seem to have PPD.”



“As the care provider that attended your birth, I don’t want to admit I had a hand in your trauma, so I’m not going to diagnose you with PTSD, even though you’ve clearly described experiencing its symptoms.  Then I can go on convincing you that you’re making your feelings up, until it’s too late for you to sue me.”


**But if you say…


Then she hears…

“I’m so sorry you had such a bad experience.”



“It’s okay to feel bad.  The pain you’re feeling is legitimate.”


“I’m here if you want to talk about it.”



“You’re not alone.”  (Note: she may not be ready to talk about it for a very long time, but expressing the sentiment often is important for when she finally is ready.)


“I’ll watch your kids at my house tomorrow.” (Don’t just offer, insist.)



“Here’s a lifeline so you can have some time to process your experience.”


“I’m sorry I don’t completely understand what you’re going through, but I can see that you’re in pain.”



“I can’t personally relate, but I recognize you’re going through an ordeal, so the pain must be real.”


“Come over with your family and we’ll play games together.”



“It’s okay that you’re not feeling well, I’ll still be your friend.”


What would you add to this list?




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  • Response
    I firmly believe that there are no "right words to say" for a woman whose birth didn't turn out like she hoped. But, pretending like birth is just about getting babies into the world ignores that it's also bringing a mother into the world.

Reader Comments (17)

I think it's important to *ask* how a woman feels about her experience, too. And never EVER assume how a woman *should* feel!

I had a really difficult, complicated, and scary first birth experience. Was I traumatized? Oh yes. But I very quickly was clear that I wanted to have another baby, and that I would do what I could to make it a less scary birth. People who heard my story said things like, "well you're never doing that again, right?" Or they'd ask if we were planning another and I'd say "maybe - I'm talking to doctors and whatnot" and they'd sometimes reply "Oh *I* wouldn't go through that again."

That's none of their business. It's not their decision to make. I got a lot of unsolicited comments like that. It was very hurtful. What I heard was "you'd be irresponsible to do that again and I would have no sympathy if things went badly. You'd have brought it on yourself."

I talked to several doctors about how risky it would be to have another baby and whether they recommended against it. I attended a symposium on preeclampsia. I got second and third opinions from specialists. I did my homework - it helped me heal and it helped me feel like I had a *little* more power and control when we decided to have a second baby.

The second pregnancy was easier (still bedrest. Still symphysis pubis dysfunction). My friends were unbelievably supportive - the ones who listened and understood that I went into this armed with information and with 100% approval and support from numerous doctors. And I went into it with a plan to make things better if it was at ALL possible.

The birth was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It healed my soul. It healed so much for my husband, too. We're all healthy. I will not go to my grave with what-ifs.

(If you want to read my birth stories, the first one is here: http://bloomingtonbirth.org/blog/2011/01/28/my-first-birth-experience/ and the second one is here: http://contentedlycrunchy.blogspot.com/2010/10/my-second-birth-story.html)

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrea

I know this isn't the birth you were wanting and sometimes intervention is needed for the safety of the baby and you. It sucks. It is ok to grieve. And this is one of those times that parenting decisions suck as well when we know it is better for our child but not what we want.

Parenting starts now (when she is pg) and you are a great mother, and I am here for you.

(I have said these things to a mama as a doula that medical intervention was needed and she grieved the loss of her intervention free birth.)

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNirvana "Harley"

Listen- Acknowledge- Help. If you don't know what it feels like then don't say you know how it feels. In fact, nobody will know how it feels. It is different for everyone. Offer practical help- laundry, dinner, grocery shopping, babysitting, housework, a movie in bed. I was told that I would be fine in a week, that I would get back to feeling normal, and everyone around me diminished my experience, causing me more issues. If you can't help then find someone who can or pay for a cleaner or babysitter or tell another friend that she needs help. And if you sense that emotionally the mom needs some medical support, then say it. Talk to the spouse about it, Do something. Because she may not be able to say it herself.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKimberley

"Your experiences, your body, and your feelings always matter. All women matter. It can take time to work through this, and it's healthy to take time to feel your sadness and your grief".

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

If you say ... "It will get better with time. You're just not being patient enough."
She hears ... "I don't want to help you and I don't want to hear about it anymore."

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDana

One thing about ''I'll watch your kids at my house tomorrow.'' I'm sure it helps a lot of people...
But it my case, offers to take care of my baby were the most painful thing. They were pouring, these offers. Nobody ever offered to take care of me. Everybody wanted the baby and, if possible, away from me. Whereas what I needed what precisely to take care of my baby (who had been taking away from me at birth). Since my little boy was born 19 months ago, every gesture from relatives and friends to take him (and there have been so many! people always want the baby!) has given me a flashback of the moment he was taken from me right after the birth.

So, to rephrase it:
If you say... ''If you need help I'll take care of your baby any time.''
She hears... ''I don't care about you, only about your baby, and you're not good at taking care of him anyhow, that's why the hospital had to do it for you.''

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCato

I really like this post and the follow up comments as well.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAugusta

Dana... so often people think that the baby needs to be taken away from mama so she can have "rest" or "time to herself" when the exact opposite is needed. Sad about our culture really. But was a study or something I read that people need to help with things that allow mommy and baby to be together and rest if need be. That our culture, even "professionals" misunderstand this often and actually can make things worse. For women with severe PostPartum Depression and other disorders that require a stay at the hospital or something, often their answer is even to separate babies and moms, in turn making the disorders worse. Things need to be mommy baby friendly if we are to make a change in our country

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNirvana "Harley"

"The birth is just one day", often in combination with "in the baby's life"

aka "You're making a mountain out of a molehill", "You're (needlessly) stuck in the past", etc.

Just another way to minimize an experience the other person clearly doesn't find significant. Would someone tell an amputee that the day of his operation was just one day in his life? Or that the day the bomb exploded was just one day?

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVW

You can thank MSNBC (and countless angry doctors who post anonymously online) for perpetuating this one:

You say: "It's not all about the Birth Experience, you know. You have to think about your baby, too."

She hears: "You are a shallow, self-centered hedonist who wanted a home birth (or "perfect" hospital birth) just for the soaker tub and aromatherapy candles. You don't care about babies. Only people who make MY birthing choices care about babies."

But on a positive note....

You say: "Wow. This is awkward. I really don't know the right words to say. I just know that I'm so sorry for what happened to you..."

She hears: "I am as compassionate as I am honest and open with you. I'm not going to pretend to have the Right Words because that's not as important as validating your grief and just being your friend."

A friend of mine said this after my miscarriage, and I'd think her refreshing candor would help in any situation involving trauma and grief.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWendyS
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