Today is the nationally recognized holiday in the United States known as “Veteran’s Day.”
There are lots of American flags being flown, and parades in big cities and small towns, lots of “Never Forget!” and “Thank you for your service!” statements being made in person and online.
But did you know that according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs that 8 out of every 100 veterans suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)? Did you also know that the highest number of those who have PTSD tend to be young service men and women? The same demographic that, after returning home from their deployment in a war-torn, far off locale, might be considering starting or expanding their family?
Today, I’d like to honor those service men and women by acknowledging and highlighting how witnessing birth (whether or not it was complicated or involved any significant threat to birthing mother or baby) can trigger PTSD — for both veterans, and the larger population of new Dads and partners.
The research on PTSD and childbirth in new Dads and partners is woefully lacking. Our focus has consistently been on the pregnant, laboring and postpartum mother, not on what her partner is experiencing in labor and birth — or beyond. That focus needs to be expanded.
If a Dad or partner has been deployed and witnessed untold horrors on the battlefield of war, the sounds, sights and even the smells of the hospital or birth could be very triggering for them. They may be much more sensitive than those who’ve never served, and the possibility for being triggered needs to be discussed by the couple, their provider and all other members of the birth team.
This Dad or partner would benefit greatly from having a doula or (someone they feel very close to) as direct support for the birth, in case they need to step out and away from the situation if they feel they’re being triggered.
All members of the birth team need to be educated on the symptoms of PTSD and understand that the Dad’s or partner’s need to remove themselves from the situation does not mean they are being unsupportive or will miss out on bonding deeply with their new baby. They’re just taking care of themselves — and taking care of their family — in a way that has lasting benefits.
It’s also important to acknowledge that Dads and partners who have not served in the military can also be surprised by feelings or symptoms of PTSD following what the laboring Momma might describe as a really positive and empowering experience.
In my first birth, the labor was long — almost 30 hours from start to finish. Both my husband and I were exhausted by intense, persistent back labor. When the decision was made to break the bag of waters to see if we could speed up a protracted transitional phase of labor (which is exactly what happened!), my daughter’s umbilical cord became compressed.
My birth team flipped me over to a hands and knees position, gave me an oxygen mask to breathe through and performed an episiotomy and vacuum extraction to get my daughter out safely (and quickly!) All of this was done with my full understanding and consent, which was very important to how — despite the code team being called, just in case — I was able to describe this birth immediately after, and now, 19 years later, as an incredibly positive and empowering experience.
I also had the benefit of swimming in the hormones that Mother Nature provides to women in labor… Oxytocin, endorphins, adrenaline. My memory of this birth is slightly out of focus, soft around the edges, and at points, almost dream-like. During the actual birth, I remember feeling that I was a rock star and our baby was going to be just fine!
My husband, on the other hand, did not get those same hormones. He saw everything in very clear detail, all of the edges sharp and in stark reality. He was scared for both me and our baby, and it was only due to the fact that we had TWO doulas in the space (one up by my head whispering that everything was going to be just fine and our best friend, Liesl, hugging on Roberto and reassuring him that the professionals knew what they were doing), did he avoid having to seek counseling following this birth that was very troubling to him at the time.
For those families who attend one of my 4-week Childbirth Preparation classes, I hold a reunion about 6 weeks post the last due date in the class. These reunions are one of my most favorite things to do — the group gathers together and they share birth stories and everyone gets to see the “fruits of their labors” come to life in these gorgeous little newborns! While the Mommas share birth stories with one another, I always make a point to ask the Dads and partners to tell me THEIR version of the birth story one-on-one, because no one ever asks them about the birth and how they felt about it. Never.
And in the past three months, there have been just as many Dads who have shared with me that even though their partner and baby were not ever in any real danger, that they have experienced trauma. But this is going unchecked, undiagnosed, unrecognized and unacknowledged.
This is unacceptable to me.
We’re not doing everything we can to help these Dads and partners begin their lives as confident and capable parents if we’re not even asking them about the births of their babies! These Dads and partners might be suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression — or at the very least, a deep sense of helplessness during the birth of their babies— and no one is even aware to ask.
Today’s Dads and partners are receiving a lot more scrutiny about their level of commitment and involvement in raising their children. If this is true, shouldn’t they also be given more respect and support to do so?
Happy Veteran’s Day to all those who’ve served our country. You’ve helped to make our democracy possible. Where opinions (like the ones I write about on my blog) can be written and dispersed freely — without thought of censorship or repression. I’m so grateful for your sacrifice.
Here are some resources online for veterans who might be suffering from PTSD or Dads and partners who have not served, but are experiencing symptoms of PTSD following the birth of their baby: Wounded Warrior Project, The National Center for PTSD (through the US Dept of Veteran Affairs), PATTCh (Prevention And Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth).
My contribution to reducing PTSD and addressing the reality of traumatic births is to offer these writing exercises that I’ve created to help new Mommas and new Dads and partners process their birth experiences.
And lastly, a link to an amazing TEDx Talk by Dr. Anna Machin, a researcher and evolutionary anthropologist who thinks we need to be changing the conversation about fathers. I couldn’t agree more. You are filling a critical evolutionary role, and it is far past the time that we begin supporting you in your parenting experience.