Today, we’re hosting an anonymous guest post for an amazingly brave woman who wanted to share her experiences of the effects that childhood sexual abuse can have on pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.
I loved being pregnant. Absolutely loved it. It was the first time I can ever remember feeling really good about my body, and I watched my ever-expanding belly and breasts with awe and excitement. It was also the first time I had ever really taken good care of myself, having long, relaxing baths every night, moisturising, swallowing vitamins every morning to help my baby but also enjoying the fact that they gave me shiny hair, clear skin and strong nails.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and pregnancy was the thing that finally made me feel like my body was my own again. I had tried so many other things over the years to undo the damage that had been done, and none of them had worked. But finally, as a pregnant woman, I felt like I had won. I had reclaimed my body from him.
I was so proud. I felt like shouting from the rooftops, ‘Look! Look! I can grow a baby. I am a strong woman. I am in control. I am not afraid anymore.’
There was just one problem. Being pregnant meant that I would have to give birth. And that was terrifying,
I was not afraid of the physical pain, but I was afraid that the experience would bring back bad memories, and that I would lose all the confidence and the strength that I had been building up. I did not want people I didn’t know touching me, or looking at me. I did not want to feel that vulnerable again.
With that in mind, I decided to have a home birth. I built it up in my head to be the culmination of all the good feelings I had been filled with during pregnancy. From a practical, physical point of view, it meant that there would be fewer medical professionals around me and less likelihood of the interventions I was so afraid of. From an emotional point of view, I saw it as an event that would heal me completely; an expression of my body’s strength and my autonomy as a woman, no longer controlled by that man who had hurt me so much.
I tried. I tried so damn hard, but the home birth didn’t happen.
In the entire time I was pregnant, no-one ever asked me if I’d been abused. I was asked once if my marriage had ever been violent, but I wasn’t asked anything about my past. If I had been, I would have told them. I wouldn’t ever have brought it up myself, because I didn’t know how to, but if at one of my appointments a midwife had asked, I wouldn’t have tried to stop my story from spilling out.
Because I didn’t have the chance to talk about it and explain my fears in a calm and reasonable way, I broke down and talked about it ten hours into labour instead. We were still at home. I had a vaginal exam to check how dilated I was, and it brought on a panic attack. I writhed up the bed, crying, trying to get the midwife’s hand out of me.
“Stop,” I said. “Stop. Don’t do that.”
I was finally able to say the words I hadn’t been able to say ten years earlier.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t let you touch me.”
I explained why.
The two midwives, who I had never met before that night, told me that they understood, that they would work with me, help me to have my baby. They seemed to pounce on my previous silence about my past as the reason why labour wasn’t progressing as quickly as they’d expected – that my mental barrier was causing a physical barrier for the baby – and they thought that now I’d voiced my concerns I should have no problem pushing that baby out at home.
So we persevered for another few hours, but still nothing was happening, and eventually, exhausted, I requested a transfer to hospital.
Several hours later, my son arrived as the result of a forceps delivery… and honestly? I felt like I had been abused all over again. Even though these were people trying to help me give birth to a healthy baby, it was all the same feelings – fear, shame, disempowerment. They pumped me full of drugs, cut me, and pulled my son out of me. I was not a strong woman anymore. I was not in control. I was lying on my back having something done to me again, and I hated it.
It was never written in my notes, but the midwives in hospital all knew. They would sidle up and sit on my bed. “How did you carry all that around with you for so long?” they asked. “Why didn’t you tell someone earlier?”
No-one had ever asked. I didn’t know how to bring it up. I might have convinced myself that I was a strong woman carrying my baby, but inside, because of what had happened, I was still a scared little girl. I was scared that I was making a big deal out of nothing, that they would dismiss my concerns and tell me not to be stupid.
It is very easy to waste your time thinking about ‘what ifs’. Perhaps, even if I’d been asked if there was anything in my past that might affect my pregnancy and birth, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about it. Perhaps, even if I’d talked about it, it wouldn’t have made any difference to how my birth went.
But it might have done. It might have made things just a little easier.
I wish someone had asked.
After the birth, my past continued to be an issue. I hated breastfeeding. I hated that this little person needed my body so much. People talked about how breastfeeding helps you bond with your baby. No it doesn’t. Not if you feel like I did. It kills me to say this now, but I don’t feel like I really loved my son until I stopped breastfeeding him at 9 months.
No-one asked about that either. They complimented me on what a good job I was doing, how healthy he looked, how good his weight was… but they never asked how I felt about it.
Some good things happened. My desire to protect my son was more important than my fear of speaking out about the abuse. So I finally opened up to some members of my family, and got the man who abused me out of my life. The situation still isn’t fully resolved, but I have not seen him since becoming a mother, and he has never met my son. That is change enough for me, for now.
A few years on, I now love my son with a fierceness I didn’t know was possible. I am a good parent. I respect his boundaries absolutely. We have a wonderful physical relationship, but he has never been made to kiss a relative if he doesn’t want to. If I am tickling him and he asks me to stop, I do, right away. I trust his instincts entirely, and if he says he doesn’t like a person then I do not dismiss that lightly. It is hugely important to me that he grows up with self-confidence and with respect for his own body and for other people’s. He should know that it is always okay to say no. And that if someone else says no you stop, right away.
I don’t know how to have the stranger danger talk with him, because I don’t know how to explain that it’s not just strangers who can be dangerous. We will have to work on that one.
Here is the thing. If you have been abused, you can never undo that. It will always be a part of you. For every step forward you take in moving on from it, you always have to be prepared for something to send you two steps back. My pregnancy – and all that good feeling that came with it – was a step forward. My birth – and all the bad feeling that came with it – was at least two steps back.
Since then, I’ve come several steps forward, but I am not yet immune to things that can send me back. Right now, Jimmy Savile is in the news, and hundreds of people who have no fucking idea what they’re talking about are spouting off all over the internet about what abuse is (and isn’t), questioning the motives of women who only feel able to speak up now.
I am quite sure that I’m not the only survivor who has had a flood of unwanted memories coming back as a result of all this coverage. I bet I’m not the only grown woman feeling pretty wobbly right now.
Speaking out is important. But you will notice that I still don’t feel able to put my name to this piece. Maybe – hopefully – one day I will. In the meantime I have to do what every survivor does. Looking after myself. Looking after my son. Taking those steps forward, one foot and one day at a time.