Updated: Sep 17, 2021
Written by Renee Marie Simpson, Counselor, Thought Leader, Speaker, and Advocate
Find original post and more of her amazing work at https://reneemariesimpson.com/
It wasn’t long after I peed on the little white stick and found out that I was pregnant that my triggers surfaced. Initially, I wrote my behaviour off as pregnancy hormonal changes. I blamed the medical system, work pressure, my partner, back pain, birth fear, my support network and my family. No one got it. No one got me. At least that’s how I felt when I isolated myself from the world around me and instead hid out in the world inside my head.
During this time, I was also writing my first book, a memoir about reclaiming power after sexual assault. I started to realise the same triggers I was writing about experiencing in my 20s, were the same monsters that were resurfacing during my pregnancy. I couldn’t fucking believe it! I thought I was passed this shit.
But as most survivors know, abuse has long lasting effects that varies in severity. It doesn’t matter how much energy, money, and time we put into our healing; our trauma can still be triggered unexpectedly during times of extreme stress. Our healing is a ‘work in progress’ as we learn to navigate our relationships and new life experiences applying the coping skills and techniques we have picked up along the way. And there are around 736 million of us around the world who have been subjected to sexual violence. A number that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.
I knew my triggers well. Just like those ‘bitchy girls’ at school you ‘pretended’ to like to survive high school, I knew it was important to keep my enemies close. I knew how my triggers played out in the past and in my behavioural patterns. It was this insight, that helped me to quickly realise what was happening during my pregnancy. I was full of fear. Afraid to trust. Trust. Trust. Trust. That word fucking haunted me. I was desperate to feel safe. Safe. Safe. Safe. That word fucking haunted me too. Research shows that during pregnancy, a woman who has experienced sexual abuse, will experience higher levels of fear and anxiety than those who were not sexually abused.
It wasn’t until my first midwife appointment, when I was asked if I had any experience of sexual assault that I connected the dots. The midwife explained that it was important to prioritise my self-care during my pregnancy because it can be a very challenging time for survivors. And my triggers, those ‘bitchy girls’ I had got along with for so many years and thought I’d escaped, came back to play havoc with my emotions again. The research was right!
What do I mean by triggers?
Focusforhealth.org suggests imagining yourself as a person who has experienced sexual abuse, and your body becomes one of those “triggers” and a reminder of the traumatic experience. Trauma can be triggered during pregnancy, labour, birth and parenthood; during routine prenatal care, exams and/or exchanges with medical personnel have the potential to trigger memories of abuse, cause flashbacks of the abuse, or unconsciously trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response in sexual abuse survivors. Invasive physical exams, the pain of childbirth especially sensations felt in the vagina, but also in the abdomen, back, breasts, and perineum, the unequal power dynamics between the mother and care providers — authority figures who may expect compliance and trust — may remind us of our perpetrator or perpetrators, with whom we may have felt helpless, unequal, submissive, or overpowered. Control over our bodies, our contractions, or the emergence of the baby and being controlled by the baby, whose needs come before our own, can be major issues for us. We may have learned that remaining in control is essential to safety and being out of control is threatening.
Reminders during pregnancy or labour to relax and it won’t hurt, to yield or surrender to the contractions, to trust your body or do what your body tells you to do may have an effect opposite to the one intended, if we have learned to guard against giving up control in abusive situations. Abuse experiences may also leave us feeling that our bodies are damaged and untrustworthy.
What did this look like for me?
My triggers surfaced when I found out the gender of my baby was a girl. I had intense anxiety about her safety in a world where 1 in 3 women will be sexually abused during their lifetimes. I threw myself into finishing my book, I WANT TO GO HOME – Reclaiming Power After Sexual Assault. There was now a sense of urgency. This gave me some sense of control. I could contribute to end sexual abuse by sharing my story, build empathy and hopefully change attitudes. When I wasn’t working my nine to five or driving the hour commute each way, I pushed through the fatigue to spend every hour of my first trimester working on my book and survived on takeaway food. It was my fight response; to become a ‘workaholic’ to make the world ‘perfect’ before my baby girl’s arrival.
I fought my partner, family and friends about support; I was afraid of being abandoned, isolated and unloved during pregnancy, labour, birth and parenthood. I did everything possible to push away the people I needed the most. I convinced myself that if I did this alone, I wouldn’t be disappointed or hurt by my support people. Just as I had learned to do after my experience of childhood sexual abuse. On one occasion, I threw a plate of food on the ground in my living room and stomped off like a teenager. I ran away right before a family Mother’s Day breakfast to the beach contemplating staying in a hotel for a week. I almost sabotaged my own surprise baby shower. I experienced some big lows on a few occasions that really sucked, not just for me but for my friends and family who worried if I was ok. I got stressed at ultrasounds, prenatal appointments and if I had to see a male doctor. I kicked my partner out of our house and built walls higher than any man-made wall I’ve seen and colder than any surface I’ve touched. And I’m ashamed to admit it but I unleashed my black belt ‘text’ combat skills. Gratefully, my partner is a very patient man. He knows me very well and I do him. And he knows how to reach me to bring me back into the present and back into my body. During my pregnancy he asked me two great questions.
“What do you want? And what do you need from me?”
I had to get honest and vulnerable. I wanted him and our little growing family. I wanted to connect with friends and family in deeper ways. I wanted support. I wanted reassurance from my community that what I was experiencing was ‘normal’. Even though I fucking hate that word. I wanted to meet like-minded women who were experiencing becoming first time mothers too. But I most of all I wanted to feel safe. But I had to share with my nearest and dearest how I wanted to receive this love that would help me feel safe too. It was this conversation that helped my partner and I understand what we could do to help and heal.
This was the first time I had felt completely out of control since I decided to accept a sailing trip from Gibraltar to Phuket with no experience. The trip I had been writing about in my book. That trip had helped me reclaim my power after sexual assault. I knew that my experience of sexual assault was not in my control but I needed to take responsibility for the trauma that was surfacing because it demanded a different kind of attention from me. I knew what I had to do.
First off, I had to STOP fighting and surrender. To allow all the love my beautiful partner, our family and friends had been generously trying to share with me and our baby. And then, I needed to do what I do best. Research! I discovered knowledge was POWER! While it is not possible to know exactly what will happen during birth, many women find they can reduce their anxiety by preparing themselves. Pregnancy and childbirth represent a distinctive part of a woman’s lifecycle that are intrinsically linked to her overall health and well-being throughout her life. Therefore, I felt it was a rather important time to get underneath this thing and find some solid ground for myself.
Ourbodiesourselves.org offer some great suggestions on how to respond to these concerns:
1. Recognize and accept that some fears and concerns make sense. Sexual abuse (or any other abuse) rarely leaves survivors free from aftereffects. Give yourself permission to be afraid or concerned.
2. Try to separate your present pregnancy and upcoming birth and parenthood from your past abuse. Now you are older and more able to bring your wisdom and self- knowledge to these new challenges. Consider working with a trauma therapist or counsellor who is knowledgeable about childbearing, or reading books for survivors that contain suggestions for dealing with triggers and reducing your concerns.
3. Decide whether to disclose your abuse history, along with issues it has brought up for you, to your care provider. Some caregivers are interested in emotional issues and are both willing and able to respond to your needs, while others may not have the skills needed to help you. If you are comfortable disclosing your history to your midwife or doctor, you can work together to plan your care so that it will be sensitive to your history. If you are uncomfortable with your provider, you may want to change to another person with whom you can establish a trusting relationship.
4. If possible, have a doula (birth assistant) at your birth, one whom you trust. Share your fears or concerns with her, so that she can help you deal with them. She does not need to know about your abuse history in order to provide emotional support and help.
5. Write out your birth preferences. This can be a flexible plan around your choices during birth in response to your fears.
6. If you have a partner or other support person, enlist his or her support in dealing with this. You may want to tell your support person about specific settings or examinations that make you uncomfortable and work with her or him ahead of time on some ways to help you in these situations.
With good communication, self-help tools like hypnobirthing education classes, positive birthing education books, prenatal yoga classes and caring support from your loved ones, doula, and health care providers, your chances of having a rewarding pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experience are greatly increased.
Now, at 36 weeks I can honestly say, I’m feeling confident, calm and in control as I possibly can be. I’m excited about experiencing the birth of my baby girl, our family’s future and embracing the generous support of our friends, family, and partner who I adore even more so for doing everything he possibly can for me to help me navigate this new experience. I’m surrendering to trusting that my body knows what to do and I’m feeling safe transitioning into this new beautiful world called ‘motherhood.’ Sending lots of love to all survivors who are doing it tough during their pregnancy and I hope these words hold you in a way that empowers you to seek out safety and trust in the ways that only you can ask for and give to yourself.
Please contact professional support services if you require additional support.
24hr Sexual Assault Counselling and Support Line 1800 806 292
PANDA (Post and Antenatal Depression Association Inc) 1300 726 306
About the author:
Renee Marie Simpson is a Counsellor, Youth & Community Development Thought-Leader, Speaker, Group Facilitator, and Advocate for deep-level change in societal attitudes and behavior to support safer communities for women and children. Renee develops partnerships between the government, education providers, and support services. To create support programs that encourage help-seeking and build resilience in people that need it most. Renee’s work is driven by her powerful desire to live and work in ways that leave a legacy of healing and liberation for generations to come