Hundreds— thousands, of women having been speaking out regarding unwanted sexual advance, assault, and abuse they’ve experienced through the #MeToo movement. Much of the focus has been on the men’s behavior, but today we take some time to look at the impact of abuse on survivors. Abuse can often have a lifelong impact. We have used mostly gender neutral language throughout this blog post, in recognition that it is not just women who experience abuse and become parents. Guest blogger Taylor Carpenter, gives us some insight about sexual abuse may impact the postpartum time. –Melinda Ferguson
The postpartum time can be challenging, with new parents adjusting to their new physically and emotionally taxing lifestyle with an infant, along with hormonal and physical changes. One in three women suffer abuse in their lifetime, so many new parents are also survivors of abuse. In recent years some awareness has been brought to the impact of abuse on pregnancy and the birth experience (source1; source2 ), but today we will be taking a look at the potential impact on the postpartum time. Survivors can feel additional stress and triggers during the postpartum time, potentially resulting in negative self-image, difficulty with bonding and issues surrounding breastfeeding.
When a parent views themselves in a negative light, this can put them at risk for perfectionist behavior and unrealistically high expectations for themselves. These unrealistic expectations—impossible to meet—can cause distress to a new parent and even cause them to think they are failing at parenting. This negative self-image can be reinforced when everyone spends time solely focusing on the new baby without recognizing them as a good parent, or from receiving comments that feel critical. It is normal in new parenthood to have a feeling of incompetence—you are just learning how to care for your new child, and everything feels new. Try to recognize when there is a negative narrative in your mind and do a check on this. Consider joining a new parent group to find support in finding your confidence as a new parent.
Sexual, mental, and emotional health:
The strain of this period can lead to postpartum mood disorders including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress responses. People with a history of abuse are at increased risk for this. Becoming a parent can evoke fears and reminders from one’s own childhood. This can show itself as over concern for the baby, often unknowingly projecting distress onto the baby, seeing the child as vulnerable and unsafe. Survivors may worry that they will be like their parents or abuser. Parents may worry about molesting or otherwise harming their child or even want to do it at times. On the other hand, they may identify with the baby and become anxious, protective, and distrusting of other people with the child.
Try to make an effort to recognize if concerns about your baby or parenting are becoming all consuming and preventing you from enjoying life with your new baby. Access mental health support if you are having more bad days than good.
Connecting with your new baby may also be more challenging if you are an abuse survivor (source). Bonding can sometimes take longer, because often if a child is having a hard time breastfeeding, sleeping, seems demanding, colicky or hard to soothe, a survivor may view this as the baby rejecting them and likewise feel rejecting of the baby. This can also be accompanied with questioning one’s own ability to parent, as their own needs as a child were not met. A common approach to connecting more with one’s baby is to encourage skin- to skin time. This may feel like a lovely connection, or it may feel invasive and triggering for a survivor. Learning to recognize your baby’s cues, and finding connection through having your baby respond to your interactions will be helpful. With intention, bonding and connection will develop over time.
For survivors, some of the biggest challenges in the postpartum period can come up during breastfeeding (source). This often occurs because breastfeeding may create too strong of an association to past abuse, and may cause a parent to want to stop nursing. On the other hand, if a survivor finds success in breastfeeding, it can be a reassuring sign that they are competent and able to nourish their babies. It may feel more comfortable for you to pump and bottle feed your baby if having them suck at the breast is triggering, or you may choose not to breastfeed at all. Be sure to have people around you who will support your choices and trust your intuition.
People who have an abusive history may have additional struggles to overcome as they embark upon the new adventures of parenting. Mindfulness around these challenges will be helpful in overcoming them. Many, many abuse survivors are wonderful parents to their children!