Sexual violence affects people differently at different times in their lives. I remember when I found out I was expecting my first child, one of the first questions my midwife asked me was “Have you ever experienced sexual abuse?” and all I could think was “huh…that’s interesting.” I was just a few months away from getting licensed as a counselor, and all I could think was “huh…that’s interesting.” I wasn’t sure why she’d asked me the question!
10 years later, I work with moms, many of whom have experienced sexual violence in their past and I find that question fascinating. As we move through our lives, our experiences, both positive and negative, increase our risks or resiliencies in so many different ways. When I sit with moms as they talk about how sexual violence has impacted their lives, I think back to that question my midwife asked me. Why did she ask? And what does she do when an expecting mom says “yes”? It turns out that sexual violence can impact expecting and new moms in very specific ways. There are several eerie similarities between childhood sexual abuse and pregnancy that can trigger old memories, emotions, interpersonal patterns, and gut responses.
Let’s start with the cognitive. Growing a baby, considering new life, and shifting into the new role of parenthood often brings up memories of one’s own childhood. If one’s childhood included sexual abuse, feelings of guilt and shame, and family conflict, then the plan to bring a child into the world often retriggers these memories. Some moms begin to worry that their child might go through similar traumas. Some fear they won’t be able to protect their child. Some even worry that they themselves, for unknown reasons, attract predators. On the other hand, if the mom experienced family support, healthy boundaries, and a nurturing, validating environment in childhood, the prospect of becoming a parent could be exciting and hopeful.
Prenatal care can share some dynamics with childhood sexual abuse that can re-traumatize an expectant mom. An unequal power dynamic between provider and patient, in which the provider expects unquestioning compliance, and the mom experiences loss of voice and choice, can remind a mom of the relationship dynamic between her childhood self and her adult abuser. On the other hand, a respectful sharing of power between provider and patient can assist in a mom’s healing. Care providers who involve moms in decisions about their care, ask consent before invasive exams, and respond sensitively to anxiety or fear, can help diminish that power imbalance.
Often times, childbirth itself can involve a certain loss of control for moms. And pain. And intrusive interventions. And putting someone else’s needs above their own. Even commands to “relax so it won’t hurt so much.” Imagine what this might be like for someone who was sexually abused as a child! Sensitive preparation before the birth, both for the mom and for her birth attendants, can go a long way toward decreasing triggers at this time.
Once moms get through all that, and go home with their little bundles of joy, they’re home-free, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Postpartum depression strikes after about 20% of births in general, and past depression puts a mom at higher risk. (Note: childhood sexual abuse also increases risk for depression). Not only does postpartum depression feel HORRIBLE, but many moms who get it feel very ashamed and try to hide it. Sound familiar? The secrecy and shame around postpartum depression can mimic the secrecy and shame around childhood sexual abuse, especially if the abuser was a respected member of the family or community, and the child was “not supposed” to be feeling the way they did! Breaking the silence and providing support go a long way to helping the survivor of sexual assault, and a long way to helping the survivor of postpartum depression.
Although there are many ways in which the pain of childhood sexual abuse can resurface during pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting, there are also ways in which healthy recovery can strengthen a parent’s abilities and confidence. Most of the moms I work with are determined not to ever let this happen to their children. They eagerly soak up information about teaching healthy communication and relationship skills. They ask how they can recognize predators and protect their children. They recognize coercive interpersonal patterns, are willing to entertain suspicions, and encourage their children to talk openly with them. They are ready believe their kids. They tell them “It’s not your fault and I’m here for you.”
Some moms find unexpected healing in strengthening their own children against the risks of sexual abuse. They raise and support their own children in ways they needed when they were small, and for some, this is like healing a little part of themselves. Parents who decide to break intergenerational cycles of abuse have a tough road ahead, but so many of them embrace the task with passion, motivation, and love. They are trailblazers, changing the world one child at a time.
—Rebecca is the bilingual counselor at Our VOICE.