I love stories. Sometimes I think my job title should really be, “Professional Story Listener.” That’s why I can no longer keep quiet about something frustrating I’ve noticed.
As a therapist who focuses on mothers’ mental health, I am pleased to see that women’s mood disorders are getting some well-deserved attention lately. Mood disorders affect 1 in 5 mothers in the US, and the World Health Organization warns us that “suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in developed countries.”
I frequently read articles, hear discussions, and watch documentaries on maternal mental health. Yet nowhere is there mention of the significance of perhaps the single most transformative moment in a mother’s life: her birth story.
We can prevent so much postpartum emotional suffering by making processing a mother’s birth story an important first step.
Let’s clarify: What exactly IS a birth story?
Every mother leaves her birth with a unique life story about her experience. A birth story is more than just the retelling of the events that occurred before, during, and after labor. It is the wide range of emotions experienced, the people present, the settings where one labored and birthed, and the unexpected events that took place. For some, it is a story of empowerment and fulfillment of expectations. For others, it is a story of grief and loss. A birth story is unique, like a snowflake or a fingerprint.
Far too often, a birth story is fractured. It’s told and retold in bits and pieces, in passing to a well-meaning friend who asks (in a text), “how’d it go?” Out of politeness and time constraints, we reduce the story: “Good! This thing happened, but at least the baby is healthy” (insert obligatory smile emoji). Or, we post three sentences about it on a Facebook forum. Or our story is told back to us by witnesses. Or the parts that are most meaningful to others will be shared, by them, with whomever they want.
See what’s happening here? We lose control of our own birth story. It gets stunted, or stolen, or morphed to fit others’ expectations of what it “should” be; or it is reduced to its most “exciting” or “happy” parts.
We’ve lost touch with just how significant a mother’s birth story is, because our society has lost its ability to see its importance. Fresh out of the birthing room, we are pulled back into a world of consumerism, fleeting headlines, and social media. We are being programmed to believe the “real” important stories are the ones told (by others) on Instagram. We forget that the most sacred story of all is inside of us.
Even experts who write articles about issues surrounding postpartum depression or anxiety often make no mention of it. I mean, even the links I’ve included in this blog make No. Mention. Of. It.
We can do better for mothers. We can learn to listen to their birth stories differently. Heck, we can start by asking about it, period! A simple and effective question can make a huge difference: “Hi mama. I’d love to hear about your birth story. Yes, I have time.”
We can take charge of our birth story by intentionally deciding when, and with whom, we share it. We can set boundaries with others around the sharing of our stories. We can find trained birth story listeners (see links below), postpartum groups, and therapists that specialize in birth story listening to help us make sense of what happened to us. If our birth story was traumatic, we can seek help to prevent years of suffering.
And finally, for all my fellow therapists out there: we can do better for our clients by getting trained to hear birth stories, because they are unlike any other story we’ll ever have the honor of hearing.
Bio: Denise Padilla de Font is a professional Art Therapist who specializes in women’s issues and support for healing arts practitioners. With over a decade of service to her community, she founded her private practice, River Water Healing, in 2013. http://riverwaterhealing.com/bio-1/
For more information on birth stories, their importance, and training: