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Learning to Let Go in Labor After Sexual Abuse

QUESTION: I have important privacy issues surrounding the impending birth of my baby. My own history involves sexual abuse as a child. I am afraid I will be unable to relax during labor with strangers from the hospital staff entering my room. I have met everyone involved in my OB/GYN practice, but can not control who comes in my hospital room door. What can I do to relax and have a positive experience?

ANSWER: Sexual abuse by a parent figure breached your trust in those who should have protected you. It is your job to be watchful, but you must also be able to let go during labor. Consider having someone you trust who has had experience with helping woman through labor assist you in maintaining, if not a "private" space, at least a "protected" one. Develop an understanding with your obstetrician about your very personal needs.

You have already met the physicians in your obstetrician's practice but this does not mean that you have developed trust in them to help you address your privacy needs. Two mistakes that women often make in your situation, is to trust blindly or to be trapped in their own distrust so completely that they are unable to accept help when it is offered.

Talk with your obstetrician about your vulnerability during labor. Let them know that you have personal needs that relate to past abuse. You do not need to go into detail, simply alert your doctor to your privacy issues. You may also request that he refrain from writing this history in your chart, simply noting your sensitivity to your environment. But do not stop there.

Consider hiring a doula to be your eyes and ears in labor. They can also act as a go-between for softening rough edges in the environment and filtering interactions with strangers. The doula is a childbirth professional who may already be familiar with the hospital staff and the hospital setting. She can introduce herself to the staff as they appear on the scene and be the voice that speaks your needs. Most importantly, she can offer you a soothing buffer which protects you from having to be alert to every change in the environment and allows you to focus on breathing through contractions and letting go. A supportive companion, such as a trained childbirth assistant with whom you can develop rapport has been shown to reduce labor length and improve postpartum recovery according to medical research ("The Effects of a Supportive Companion on Labor..."New England Journal of Medicine, #11, vol. 303).

Although your husband will likely be an important part of your birthing team, he is not familiar with the intensity of labor. Because of his lack of experience in the hospital setting he cannot offer the kind of support that a doula can provide. And since your spouse will no doubt be taken up with heightened emotional involvement in the process, he can feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of a medical situation involving his wife and child.

Finally, after you have addressed your privacy needs with your doctor and considered the services of a doula, you will find that preparing yourself is key to your emotional calm during labor. Make friends with the pain. Whether you use anesthesia during labor or not, you will still deal with painful contractions beforehand. You will be less likely to see yourself as a victim of labor pain if you not only understand the labor process, but take active measures to cope with it. Work to separate your past abuse from the healthy pain of labor. You may even find that you come through this experience with a sense of mastery by meeting labor pain as a healthy force moving through your body, rather than an assault you must endure. Refer to my book, "An Easier Childbirth" for specific exercises for dealing with pain actively, relaxing and working through emotional fears before labor.

You have already taken the first step by identifying your needs. And you have traveled far enough down the road of recovery to develop strength and readiness for motherhood. The next step is to devote your attention to taking care of yourself, by establishing a safe and protected atmosphere for giving birth.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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