Many parents feel a significant amount of guilt and/or shame after going through a traumatic birth experience and the hospitalization of an infant. One of the most salient conversations I had at the NICU was with one of my sons' neonatologists, who told John and I to be gentle with ourselves. He said we would likely have thoughts, lots of them, desperately examining every detail of the days leading up to our babies' birth, trying to figure out what we did wrong to cause my preterm labor. He was correct. In fact, we had already gotten started researching what it was that made us absolutely responsible for the traumatic birth of the babies. Because how could such a horrific and devastating event happen for no reason? Maybe it was something I ate at dinner, maybe when I moved that piece of furniture a few days ago. Should I have taken a leave of absence at work? Was I too stressed out? Moving. Life events. Did my pets somehow give me an infection? Maybe I wasn't mindful enough. We must have done something wrong.
Traumatic stress, so it seems, often rolls into our lives hand in hand with guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are so common in the experience of traumatic stress that at one point they were considered as potential diagnostic criteria in the classification of post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals facing other forms of traumatic stress also oftentimes take up the practice of self-blame in the aftermath ("what was I wearing that prompted him to assault me?"). So what gives? Why is it that when an individual goes through a traumatic experience, it's so common to then manifest shame, self-blame and guilt? And what do we do with that? Why is it so hard for us to sit with the notion that sometimes things happen for no known reason?
Psycho-evolutionary theory holds that an individual feels shame and guilt much in the same way an animal might, indicating to the community around them that they have been harmed and need help (Harman & Lee, 2010). So, maybe when we feel responsible for a tragic event, it's our unconscious way of "performing" our trauma for our community, exhibiting our remorse so that we aren't excommunicated. Fair enough, but what if shame and guilt are holding us back from functioning in our day to day lives? What then?
- Learn about your circumstance.
Chances are, there was nothing that you could do to prevent your birth experience from going the way it did. Nothing. This is a great article describing some of the most common pregnancy complications, and how despite how much progress has been made in the business of caring for premature or medically complex babies, the medical community still doesn't know exactly what causes these things to happen. Yes, there are risk factors that can lead to complications. However, most of these risk factors are not things that you can avoid. We often hold the assumption that the medical community has expert knowledge of all ailments we might face. Unfortunately, even though so much valuable research and progress has been made in preventing pregnancy complications, many elements are still little understood.
2. Be aware of cultural attitudes that may be causing you harm.
All too often in our society, the unexplainable is not accepted. I was shocked when reading through comments on articles about the World Health Organization's recently released infant mortality and prematurity statistics, to see that many individuals who had never experienced anything remotely like preterm birth had pert answers as to why they felt infant mortality is still an issue in the U.S., offhandedly blaming mothers and families for their own tragic circumstances. Try to shield yourself and your family from these kinds of attitudes, whether in the media or in your own community. When someone asks "What did you do that caused this to happen?", redirect them to the research that shows that you did nothing wrong. If that attitude persists, set a boundary with that individual to protect yourself.
3. Develop a sense of loving-kindness towards yourself.
This is the tough one. How can we move ourselves from a place of guilt and shame to one in which we hold compassion for ourselves and what we are going through? One trick I learned through my own experience was to try and imagine myself from another person's perspective, even my babies' perspective. What might that other person see? Was I doing the best that I could given my current set of circumstances and the knowledge that I had? If I had known some way of preventing this event from happening, would I have done it? By looking in from the outside, sometimes your strengths and values become more apparent. When you start to see and identify your strengths and values, you will also start to develop the ability to grow loving-kindness for yourself. If imagining yourself through the eyes of another person proves to be difficult, start by using affirmations (it's simple to google free affirmations; peruse them and sort out a few that resonate with you). Simply repeat the affirmations either silently or out loud multiple times a day. It may feel alien or strange at first, but sometimes going through the motions of self-reassurance can jump-start the process to reaching the "real" thing.
4. Promote loving-kindness of the self in your partner.
Your partner (or other individual who provides you with significant emotional support) will likely be mired in the same struggle with guilt and shame that you are experiencing, even if his/her struggle looks completely different from yours. When coping with a trauma together, try to be gentle with your partner. Remind them of their strengths or the things that you appreciate about them. Check in with them about how they are coping, even if it seems like you've already addressed all the issues together. In doing these things, you will set a precedent of support in your relationship, and create a space in which you can address the various stresses you're both facing.
Shame and guilt are oftentimes the uninvited guests to an already traumatic event. Allowing these emotions to take over can increase your risk for developing acute or post-traumatic stress disorders (Barr, 2010; Harman & Lee, 2010). If your sense of shame and guilt is so overwhelming that you feel powerless against it, it may be time to seek out counseling.
As our neonatologist continued in the conversation that day, he told us his NICU experience spanned decades. He told us that if the birth were our fault, he would surely tell us. He told us he almost never saw patients that had done something that "caused" their pregnancy complications. He told us that tons of research is being done to prevent this very thing from occurring. That if they could resolve preterm labor and other reproductive complications, that he and his colleagues would be unemployed. "Happily unemployed." His words resonated with me. In fact, for months I would deliberately replay what he said in my mind when I started to develop new theories of why our circumstance was all my fault. To this day, I feel gratitude for what he said.
Barr, P. (2010). Acute traumatic stress in neonatal intensive care unit parents: relation to existential emotion-based personality predispositions. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 15: 106-122.
Harman, R. and Lee, D. (2010). The role of shame and self-critical thinking in the development and maintenance of current threat in post-traumatic stress disorder. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 17. 13-24.
Leskela, J., Dieperink, M. and Thuras, P. (2002). Shame and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 15:3. 223-226.