Feature Archive

Birthing Ghosts

An Abusive Past

WebMD Feature

Dec. 11, 2000 -- Anger filled Mary Brown for years after her 17-year-old half brother molested her as a young girl. But it paled compared to the anguish that debilitated her when she became pregnant 24 years later.

The feeling of a new life growing inside her brought back terror-filled memories, which first resurfaced about a decade earlier when she became sexually active. Brown (not her real name) vividly recalled the summer when her half-brother forcibly took off her clothes and repeatedly fondled her 8-year old body. Being pregnant was supposed to be a beautiful thing, she had always thought. In reality, the developing fetus felt more like a demon invading her body, heart, and soul.

Unfortunately, a childhood brush with sexual abuse dampens the joy of pregnancy for many women. No one knows exactly how many women were abused as children, though advocacy groups estimate that as many as a third of all American women suffered some sexual mistreatment when young. But experts say it's increasingly clear that traumatic feelings often resurface when a woman is pregnant.

Now, two women are focusing light on the plight of these women. University of Iowa researcher Julia Seng, PhD, and longtime midwife Mickey Sperlich are teaming up to write a book about the emotional trauma that victims of past abuse face when pregnant.

"Pregnancy is such an intense psychological and bodily experience," says Seng, who has studied how women with a history of sexual abuse fare during and after pregnancy. "All kinds of abuse-related memories and emotional reactions can happen."

The legacy of abuse

Childhood abuse can assert a controlling influence over a woman's health care from puberty on, says Sperlich, a midwife who has frequently cared for sexual-abuse survivors over the past 13 years. Many women never go to a gynecologist because vaginal exams frighten them. During pelvic exams, some women lie completely still, disconnecting from any mental or physical feelings. Flashbacks can surface in other women during the exam, perhaps causing them to cry, curl into a fetal position, or become defensive.

For Brown, now 34, childhood abuse made her hesitant to form relationships with men during her high school and college years. Even now, happily married, she sometimes shies away from sex. Her body has always felt like the enemy, a source of shame. "That's why I'm always hugging one or two pillows when I'm sitting on the couch," she says.

The ultimate trial

Then she became pregnant. With a growing abdomen and surging hormones, flashbacks stormed in her head daily. She felt vulnerable, depressed, and took to hiding her pregnancy beneath her baggiest clothes.

Sexual tensions with her husband were at an all-time high. Brown would hug her edge of the bed at night to stay far away from him, and stiffen when he touched her. The last thing she wanted was sex at a time she felt a foreign body growing in her. Such feelings are shared by some pregnant women who weren't abused, of course, but for Brown the pent-up emotion became nearly unbearable.

"When you throw survivor issues on top of that, the problem can seem huge," Sperlich says.

Indeed, Sperlich has seen some survivors of sexual abuse hold back and not push hard during childbirth. Others become very fearful and have extreme reactions to the pain.

Seng's preliminary research shows that many of these women suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, anxious reactions to traumatizing events of the past. For most survivors of abuse, that means severe nausea, vomiting, and contractions, which can come weeks or months early, Seng says.

Nor do anxieties stop after childbirth. Survivors of abuse tend to be protective of their daughters and suspicious of their sons -- and husbands.

"Some women say whenever they see a father being affectionate with his daughter, they're concerned the behavior is inappropriate," Sperlich says.

Relief and healing

There is good news: Pregnancy needn't be a time of fear for women who have suffered sexual abuse. There are a myriad of treatments to address and cure their emotional wounds.

Sperlich encourages women to keep a journal chronicling their feelings. She also advises survivors of abuse to joint a support group during pregnancy. Some women have found relief through meditation, she says. Others have chosen to confront their abuser and regained a sense of control, even if the confrontation came decades after the abuse.

Whatever you do, Sperlich says, don't try to go through the difficult experience alone. Tell your doctor about your experience so he or she understands your reaction to certain procedures. Work with your obstetrician, midwife, or therapist to find ways to go through pregnancy comfortably, with joy instead of fear.

Mary Brown was able to get through her pregnancy by relaxing through meditation and sorting out her feelings in weekly psychotherapy sessions. She also found the courage to explain her history to her husband. Although he first found it awkward to discuss, she says he became more supportive. The couple says they have a more intimate relationship now, and better understand each other in many ways.

She is also coming to enjoy her body, to feel proud of its power. "Now, when my baby girl smiles at me while breastfeeding, or when my embrace quells her cries, I realize my body is a miracle," Brown says. "It took being sexually abused, and being pregnant, to see that."

She knows she'll never be able to forget the frightening fondling she experienced at age 8. But she believes she can live the next few decades with a physical pride she hadn't enjoyed in years.

Laura Lane has a master's degree in biological sciences from Stanford University. Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, CNN Interactive, Healthy Living magazine, and Shape magazine.

 

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