When Birth doesn’t go to Plan: The Healing Power of Birth Photography
Here at The First Hello, we are all about YOUR STORY.
Your birth is unique to you. Maybe things went to plan, maybe they didn’t. Maybe you had the exact birth you’d hoped for, or maybe things got unexpectedly complicated. Either way we document it, as it happens. We believe that when all is said and done, your birth photographs will remind you of your strength and bravery — and in cases of birth trauma they can even help reconcile the whole experience.
Recently we were interested to learn that Neuroscience backs up what we’ve believed all along! Take a read of this fascinating insight from clinical social worker and mother of 4, Sarah Wood, as she delves into why birth photography can be a powerful healer following traumatic deliveries.
Giving birth to a child is such a raw and real experience.
For a woman, that moment her precious baby emerges into the world is one of life’s most anticipated milestones. At Mother’s groups, we often hear the stories – the drama of the delivery, the delayed all-important epidural, the joy of that first glimpse, and those early moments of connection with a delightful new life.
But what happens to the woman who is left to grapple with the aftermath of a less than ideal birth? Where is she left when her memories contain joy and wonder, contrasted against a nagging sense of sadness, disappointment - or even shame and terror?
Well-meaning family and friends may try and encourage us to “move on” from the experience, but we find it so hard to forget, and we’re left wondering how to deal with the memories.
Neuroscientist, Dr Dan Siegel, in his best selling book, Mindsight, talks about the way the brain heals from traumatic experiences. Amazingly, during a life-threatening or terrifying experience, our mind actually shuts down the part of the brain responsible for storing memories with all their components.
Typical everyday events that go according to plan are usually stored as memories containing a logical sequence of events – and all the components of these events are slotted into our memory – e.g. the sights, sounds, memories of physical sensations. That is why we tend not to remember what we ate for breakfast on this day a year ago – as our mind knows how to store these memories as past experiences that are complete.
By way of contrast, traumatic memories are often incomplete, and as such, bits of our memories are left ‘’floating” as intrusive flashes of imagery, sound, smells and bodily sensations. Such floating memories can range from mild and slightly uncomfortable, to overwhelming and crippling. For some women, the birth experience has been a traumatic one.
One day I was chatting with The First Hello, about the opportunity that Birth Photography offers for processing these memories.
There are many routes to healing our minds from terrifying experiences. Birth photography is one example.
Real, un-staged birth photography is a gift for women who are unpacking and remembering the joy and the pain, the exhilaration and the despair. Photographs are one of a number of mediums, which, unlike just ‘’talking’’ have the ability to propel us quickly back into the moment.
As we revisit the images, and retell the story on our terms, in the presence of another trusted person who can share the load (a therapist, a partner, a trusted friend), the sensations of our experience, emerge in the safety and containment of our relationship with the trusted person. This allows us to put coherent words to the memories, and give expression to our hopes and disappointments. Such a setting is prime for the brain to ‘come back on line’ and show up to this ‘story’.
During the telling and the retelling, slowly and surely, this story can begin to be stored with its fragments - the puzzle can begin to take form, and become filed somewhere in the past, rather than free-floating in the present.
Birth photographs can also bring up discussions about the ‘sense’ a woman has made of her experience, and stir further exploration of the meanings she has made. She can start to question the assumptions that she made about herself during the birth and rework these meanings into more congruent and considered beliefs about herself.
There will be some women reading this whose birth experience haunts them in profound ways, and who are not ready to view photos or have these conversations. To this woman I would say . . . your experience was incredibly threatening, and your journey requires careful planning. Consider seeking support from a professional who can safely pace your healing journey. Every journey is ok!! There is no shame in what all our minds do naturally to keep us safe.
I think the older I get, the more I realise that life does not unfold neatly in the way I thought it may when I was younger and more naïve. Our journeys are colourful, and there are many twists and turns along the way. By allowing yourself to sit in amongst your painful memories and revisit them in a safe and contained way, they can be woven into your journey and become part of your story.
Sarah Wood is a Clinical Social Worker and mother of 4, who gets the craziness, the highs and the lows of family life. She loves working with families around strengthening early family relationships, transitioning to parenthood, strengthening mental health and wellbeing in young families and surviving the challenges of family life in the early years.
1.Bruijn, M; Gould, D (2016) How to Heal a Bad Birth: making sense, making peace & moving on, Birthtalk.org.
2. Siegel, D (2009) Mindsight: change your brain and your life, Scribe Publications, Victoria.
3. Van Der Kolk (2015) The Body Keeps Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, Penguin Books.