Mapping trauma in the lives of birth workers

“I would like to see some conversation regarding the reasons why those of us with trauma are called to this work. As well some discussion of how to ensure we are not using this work to heal our own wounds. And how to approach conversations without being triggered ourselves” – workshop participant

Time to talk about trauma in the lives of birth workers – because yes, it’s a part of many of our lives too. We’re getting better at talking about the impact of trauma in our clients’ lives and on the transitions to parenting; however, we are less able to call attention to our own.

So far, the conversation about birth trauma has centered around preventing, identifying and responding to traumatic births in the lives of pregnant and birthing women. However, birth workers bring their own stories of trauma into birthing spaces. These stories can impact how birth workers experience the births of others, and how they are left feeling afterward.

Birth workers’ previous hurts can be a primary motivator to becoming a helping professional – answering “the call”. The sad irony is that what makes for great birth workers – empathic understanding, can be the very quality that can cause such heartache.

The features of care which distinguish midwifery from other health-care professions, particularly heightened empathic identification in midwives’ relationships with childbearing women, render them vulnerable to traumatic stress. The heart of midwifery care, ‘being with the women’, has the potential to cause traumatic stress in the midwife in a similar way to how giving birth might do so for the woman. [1]

Now amplify the impacts of witnessing a traumatic birth for birth workers who have survived their own trauma(s).

Flashbacks, nightmares, ‘stuck thinking’ (replaying scenes), pain, rage, grief etc. can be feelings that emerge, often unexpectedly, within the birth worker. These feelings may become particularly acute if the birth worker witnesses a traumatic birth and perceived themselves responsible or unable to change the outcome.  Loss of interest in activities that previously brought joy, loss in confidence, sleeplessness, avoidance of family and friends – these are common too.

What we witness, we store. Our experiences become embodied.

I’ve had many disclosures in my workshops about people’s own experiences of trauma – childhood sexual abuse, rape, sexual violence, termination, miscarriage, stillbirth, neglect, war & conflict, and abusive partnerships. Without fail, a workshop participant or two will linger at the end of A Safe Passage training workshop to ask me “Can I do birth work if I too have been abused? How will I remain a good support for a labouring woman if I myself am feeling triggered?”.

In our research, we defined interpersonal trauma as experiences involving a disruption in trusted relationships as the result of violence, abuse, war or other forms of political oppression, or forced uprooting and dislocation from one’s family, community, heritage, and/or culture. [2]

Despite the amount of birth workers who can relate to these questions, it’s a topic that remains unspoken about in birth communities. There is no research evidence, so the best we can do is to make inferences from other helping professions about the motivations for entering helping professions when you’ve experienced trauma, and the implications.

So. Why the silence?

Are we afraid we’ll be perceived as somehow less credible to our colleagues and clients if we shared our histories?

Can we not trust that our stories would be held with kindness and compassion? Not pity.

Is it the lingering sense of shame, embarrassment, and/or fear that keeps us from talking about our own trauma, even though we occupy the most intimate spaces with others – witnessing their vulnerabilities unfold?

What might be a way for us to come together as birth workers – not for the purpose of learning about the next best thing for our clients – but for ourselves. What might it look like to have a safer space for birth workers to be present in their own bodies, to speak their truths, to not be shamed or fearful of judgment.  To be reassured that having a history of trauma does not disqualify any one from being a birth worker. A space where we can share strategies on how to better negotiate our own triggers.

To share, to support, to listen. To move these stories around from their stuck places, and in the light of day reduce their power.

I’ve used body mapping several times during A Safe Passage training, where appropriate, to give these stories a space to be heard & honoured as part of what we bring as assets to birthing spaces.4185_112488870534_5721251_n

Body mapping is an arts based methodology that utilizes a life sized tracing of a participant’s body as a starting point for dialogue. By answering questions using images, colours, stickers, feathers, beads, words, participants literally mark on their body feelings & thoughts that emerge in response to carefully crafted questions. Once these feelings are brought to the surface, participants are invited to share with the group in order to make meaning out of the feelings, which at times, allows for a different understanding of one’s experiences to be made. Traumas are not only highlighted, but also sources of resilience. People can see their strengths in the context of their own hurting.

As one participant shared on her blog after attending a session:

“Jodi did an art therapy workshop this afternoon which may end up being one of the most valuable parts of my trip. In this session, we had our bodies traced on a large piece of paper and were asked to draw things following a prompt; where do you come from? Where are you going? When you think about your trauma, where in your body do you feel it and how does it show itself? How do our past traumas shape the way we deal with our own clients?


Ness’s ‘Mapped’ Body

I knew I was going to enjoy having the chance to be creative. I didn’t know, however, that this simple art therapy session was going to bring up a lot of Big Feelings for me that had previously gone unchecked. Jodi was careful to lead the session in a way where we, as the participants, didn’t feel it necessary to go down any paths that we did not feel ready to explore — so in experiencing these Big Feelings, I knew it was time for me to wrap up my piece and quietly reflect on my feelings before we shared. I think, in addition to sharing, I just really needed to cry — so I did both. How taking some crayons to an outline of my body drew out that kind of emotion in me I have no idea, but I am very grateful for it. And I have to say — being in a room full of midwives, doulas, and other birth professionals is a pretty damn good place to be if you’re going to start bawling. Such amazing women we have in our community — and in being able to process our own traumas within these safe spaces, we will better be able to assist our clients in the most authentic ways that we can. I’m looking forward to having more time to process the Big Feelings on my own (and likely with my partner); it was… profound.”


Mapping our stories

Body mapping is one way to give our stories space to speak. Together, in a safer space we can begin to see not only what haunts us, but we can begin to name the experiences which have given us wisdom – insights into the lived experience of vulnerability and powerlessness. And of survival. And thriving.

Our understanding of interpersonal trauma is thus based on a valuing of women’s responses to trauma as potential tools for self-preservation and the recognition that stories of strength and resilience are also central components of women’s trauma experiences [2]

These insights can provide threads of connection to our clients’ own sense of uncertainty. By talking about our hurts with one another, we can become better at understanding when it’s our own story, our own hurts “showing up” in birthing spaces, and we can resist the urge to project our own perceptions onto others.


Seeing possibilities

We’re better prepared to trust women’s choices without owning them as our own, and we can better understand the difference between supporting a client and feeling the need to rescue them.

If you’d like to learn more about body mapping and trauma, please contact me for details about our upcoming trauma workshop for birth workers in London ON

With care,


* Thank you to Ness Fraser for your support of this piece, and for allowing me to share your body mapping experience.


Berman, H., Mason, R., Hall, J., Rodgers, S., & Classen, C. et al. (2014).  Laboring to mother in the context of past trauma: A feminist grounded theory study about the transition to motherhood. Qualitative Health Research, 1-12.

Leinweber, J. et al., (2010). The costs of ‘being with the woman’: Secondary traumatic stress in midwifery. Midwifery , 26(1) , 76 – 87.


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