I am a student midwife, a sexual healthcare professional.
I have experienced sexual trauma.
These things are inextricably linked.
See the images clicking past like an old slide show, at once indistinguishable and intimately familiar, like strangers in a dream. See me standing on a precipitous curb as the memories whiz by like cars on a freeway, waiting to plunge past the stream but eternally halted by some blinking red hand. I am a student witnessing an invasive vaginal procedure; I am with a group of midwives participating in a birth trauma workshop; I am explaining the concepts of consent and choice to a lay person, but I am also somewhere else. I am standing in a dark room full of shame and guilt, fumbling over the memories inside, somehow forgiving those who filled it, the people who raped me, but never forgiving myself. Some days the dusty contents are dimly lit and I can pick them up individually, consider them objectively, and put return them to their rightful places. More often, though, I grope through a room shrouded in blackness. In reaching for one memory I trip over another and land, head spinning, buried underneath the whole lot.
Where, what I wore, virgin or whore? Answers to those questions obscure the fact that separate people have forced themselves on me against my will while I was saying no, stop, can’t we just talk.
I will spare you the details of those memories, details I haven’t been able to spare myself. Where, what I wore, virgin or whore? Answers to those questions obscure the fact that separate people have forced themselves on me against my will while I was saying no, stop, can’t we just talk. Separate memories reproduce themselves infinitely in that corner of my mind that I return to while lying awake at night, standing in the shower, making love. There are no angels or devils in this story, only a tiny person on my shoulder who scolds me to stop messing around in that murky place, to take what I need and move on. But the tiny person who belongs on the other shoulder smiles seductively from atop the shadowy pile of memories and beckons me to come in and stay awhile, to wallow in feelings of powerlessness and shame. Cowed by their influence, I stand motionless, peering in, waiting for the light to change.
I was recently accepted into the Midwifery Education Program at McMaster University, after shadowing midwives for three months in Pretoria, South Africa. These first steps on the way to my dream of becoming a midwife have been a great source of fulfillment, but they have also been fertile ground for triggers to my traumatic experiences. A midwife is a sexual healthcare professional and champion of women’s reproductive rights who provides primary care to low-risk women in pregnancy, labour and birth. Midwives are committed to women’s rights to be able to make informed choices about their bodies, to receive continuity of care in pregnancy and childbirth, and to choose where to give birth. This means that they are available to clients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to respond to their questions and fears, and to attend births both in hospitals and birth centers, and at home. The flexibility and dedication exacted by the midwifery profession is a response to the perceived failure of the medical system to ensure that women give informed consent and receive continuity of care in many instances of medicalized childbirth.
In hospital systems in North America and around the world, many intelligent and fully capable women report having been made to feel like hysterical patients who are unqualified to participate in their own births when health professionals make decisions on their behalf outside of emergency situations.
In hospital systems in North America and around the world, many intelligent and fully capable women report having been made to feel like hysterical patients who are unqualified to participate in their own births when health professionals make decisions on their behalf outside of emergency situations. Healthy pregnant women are often subjected to a myriad of medically unnecessary interventions (including episiotomy, or cutting the vaginal opening, and amnesia-inducing pain medication) without their full understanding of risks and potential negative outcomes. Sometimes consent for interventions is not sought at all, particularly for pelvic examinations in which a finger is inserted into the vagina in order to check the baby’s progress – a reality that I have witnessed in person. These are acts of sexual violence. Many women report birth trauma after feeling powerless, abandoned, or violated in labour ward systems designed for efficiency over empowerment or even evidence-based best practice. Midwifery’s central philosophy of consent and choice is an important factor in reducing birth trauma, but in promoting it I am constantly reminded of the times I was denied those powers.
Being a champion of consent and choice is sometimes easier said than done. Walking with a wise friend on Bloor street one night, a few days after the most recent episode, and only a few months after the most sinister and sober one, I suddenly spilled the details of what our mutual friend had done to me. My story was punctuated with excuses and qualifiers: “I shouldn’t have caved when he insisted on coming over,” “I should have been more forceful,” and worst of all “I don’t know why I am getting so upset over this, it wasn’t a big deal, I thought I had forgiven him.” My friend was appalled. “Are you listening to yourself?” she asked. “Would you ever put that kind of judgment on another woman who had experienced sexual violence?” Of course I wouldn’t. Until that moment, I was unable to apply the fundamental truths about consent that I am so certain of as they apply to others to my own situation and to myself. Though I still doubt myself sometimes when I return to that story, it has been illuminated by her words, my words.
While shadowing midwives in South Africa, I attended a four-part hypnobirthing course with another student and six expectant couples. Hypnobirth is an approach to pregnancy, labour and birth that uses hypnotic mantras and empowered language to help women achieve a gentle, natural birth. Throughout the course, the instructor read us hypnotic meditations and gave us tapes to listen to at home. In all of the exercises, those of us who were not pregnant were asked to substitute references to our pregnant bodies or our impending childbirth with relevant aspects of our lives. In the third week’s class, we did an exercise to address anxiety about the big event. In our hypnotized states, we were asked to enter a room with a large book containing text and images representing our fears. Mind wandering, the first image that came to me was of a former partner, someone with whom sex had always been loving and consensual, but as I turned the pages backwards, sexually traumatic scenes began to appear, distinct at first but soon blending with other encounters, traveling back in time towards the last image in the sequence: the first time I had sex, when I lost my virginity against my consent. Though I have revisited that image countless times, the anticipation of opening that page filled me with pure terror and I couldn’t do it. Before the instructor guided us to tear out the pages containing our fears, I had already ripped mine apart and tossed them into a convenient fireplace, without having opened that final page. Though the hypnosis went on and I wanted to be a good student and participant, I had to come out of it because I was quietly sobbing. Tears lingered on my face as we opened our eyes to the conclusion of the class. Embarrassed, I put off the inevitable task of confronting that last, first image.
Near the end of the program in South Africa, I attended a workshop with a social worker named Sue who counsels women about birth trauma. Once again, my own traumas floated close to the surface as she described the different narratives that women move through in describing their birth stories, and explained that once women have transitioned into a more accepting stage she poses them the question: do they wish that their traumas had never happened? Universally, she said, the answer was no.
This was a punch to the gut. The tiny people on my shoulders screamed in unison, Of course! Of course I wish it never happened! How could you be so callous and insensitive as to even ask that? Aren’t you a social worker??? Perhaps in the context of birth trauma, their tiny voices reasoned, such a question was acceptable: a birth, even a traumatic one, is a usually productive event, it marks the transition from pregnant body into nursing postpartum mother, results in a fathomlessly beautiful real-life tiny person, and heralds the creation of a new family. But my traumas were not productive, I thought, I was taken from, not given to. No bundle of joy was placed into my arms at the conclusion of each assault. Right?
It is no accident that consent in sexual healthcare is the focus of my life’s work.
It is no accident that consent in sexual healthcare is the focus of my life’s work. One does not allow pregnant ladies to call one in the middle of the night; forgo predictable work hours, regular sleep, and upright postures; or indulge the whims of women who wish to birth onto white carpets underneath their grand pianos in the name of a commitment to “choice of birthplace” because one can’t think of anything better to do with one’s time. It takes passion to be a midwife. To gather the courage to stand up to industry and culture and society and say “get your hands off that woman’s body, all women’s bodies, my body – unless we say so” takes passion. My passion lights up my life and gives me purpose. My passion is my bundle of joy.
And so I stopped waiting. The darkness beckons but I rise to the light – rise with bellies swelling before the clench of uterine contraction; rise to smash through the glass ceilings and steel doors of medical institutions erected to keep women’s bodies and choices under control; rise before the sun to the sound of a beeping pager ringing out a baby’s announcement of his or her primal decision to enter the world. Seeing my traumas in a new light means realizing (though I have always known) that they are what led me to my passion for women’s empowerment and reproductive rights.
Seeing my traumas in a new light means realizing (though I have always known) that they are what led me to my passion for women’s empowerment and reproductive rights.
Without shadow, we cannot see depth. I have no way of knowing whether, had I managed to escape the plague of sexual violence that affects one in three women (the fear and trauma of which affects all women, and all men by proximity) I would have escaped too the call to change that statistic, or the joy that comes with witnessing and taking part in gentle birth. Instead I know that I can always slip into that now brightly lit room to excavate its contents for inspiration and compassion. I am constantly reminded by the amazing women and men around me, the midwives, doctors, doulas and social workers who create safe and consenting spaces for pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period; the friends and family who hold me up and remind me to practice the values I preach; and the strong women who seek out their own empowerment and show endless strength and power in childbearing; of the importance of this work and of my place in it. Most of all, I am constantly reminded by my own experiences of sexual trauma that I want to do everything I can to prevent it from happening to others, and to myself. I can’t change what happened, but I will change what happens. If the light goes out, I know where the matches are.