Pregnancy & Birth

Women Share Their Traumatic Birth Experiences In Powerful Photo Series

This 'Exposing the Silence Project' is giving a voice to women who have experienced traumatic births.

Exposing the Silence Traumatic Birth Project
The one emotion that was consistent during my daughter's birth was shame.

Many pregnant mums today like to plan their perfect birth. This can mean different things for different women, but lots of mums strive to have an active, drug-free labour and a vaginal delivery.

After months planning and preparation through research and attending various birth classes, women enter their final weeks or pregnancy feeling empowered to bring their babies into the world without interventions.

However, sadly, despite their wishes, more often than not their birth plan doesn't go to plan. Women giving birth in western countries are highly likely to experience medical interventions during their childbirths. From epidurals and episiotomies, to c-sections and forceps deliveries, many women are not able to achieve the joyful, active births that had hoped for.

In fact, as a result of the medical interventions these women experience traumatic births that can take many years to emotionally recover from.

One powerful initiative striving to give these women a voice is 'Exposing The Silence Project'. The emotive photo series explores the grief and trauma that women across the U.S. have endured as a result of their birth experiences.

The project was founded by Lindsay Askins, a doula and photographer, and Cristen Pascucci, the vice-president of Improving Birth, a U.S. women's advocacy organisation. The project was born out of their desire to give women a platform to speak out about their traumatic treatment during birth in America.

"This project is a platform for women to speak out about how they were bullied, coerced, manipulated and even abused during their pregnancies and births," founder Lindsay Askins told Mother and Baby.

"I hope there are women out there that read this and see these women and know they are not alone in how they feel and what they experienced. And, in turn, care providers are made aware of how they treat their pregnant clients has a direct effect on their practice," she added.

The project features 49 striking, black and white photographs of mothers who have had traumatic births. Each photograph has a detailed caption that gives every woman featured in the project the platform to speak about her negative birth experience.

Staci, San Diego: "My birth experience could have been far less traumatic if the hospital staff would have listened to me and trusted that I know when something is not right with my body."

"For most women, this conversation never happens," Askins told Mother & Baby.

"Why aren't doctors and midwives asking women, 'How do you feel your baby's birth went?' and then giving women the time to actually fully answer that question or maybe ask some questions themselves?"

"Instead, that visit is mostly centred on the physical state of the woman, not her emotional or mental health." Askins explained.

Unfortunately in many cases, women who do try to express their grief or trauma surrounding their births often hear well-intentioned, yet dismissive comments like, “But a healthy mum and a healthy baby is the best outcome.”

Askins explained to Mother & Baby that comments like that are "incredibly invalidating to the woman it is directed towards."

"'Healthy' does not only pertain to physical health, but emotional and mental health as well," explained Askins.

"A woman who is not emotionally or mentally well is unable to properly care for a brand new baby no matter how 'healthy' that newborn may be," she said.

"Furthermore, how do we know that babies entering the world through a traumatic birth are not 'unhealthy'? They have experienced as much trauma as their mother, if not more," Askins expressed to Mother & Baby.

Askins suggests that a change in perspective is required for the way pregnant and birthing mothers are regarded by medical professionals. She believes more respect and dignity should be given to labouring mums, as well as more consideration for their own intuition and knowledge.

"There needs to be an agreement that care providers and women are on the same team, working together towards the same goal. There is too much division the way the system is set up now. And little-to-no regard to the women's desires, wishes or demands," she said.

See a selection of the women's stories from the Exposing The Silence Project below:

*"I was lying alone in the operating room without my husband. My arms flapped, hummingbird quick. I wanted to hug myself. They threatened to tie me down, so I kept my body in a crucifix. I cried. I vomited. I pleaded with the anesthesiologist to please wipe my mouth. He pretended not to see. Then, it was hours before I held my baby."

- Heather, Berkeley, CA*
*"I was lying alone in the operating room without my husband. My arms flapped, hummingbird quick. I wanted to hug myself. They threatened to tie me down, so I kept my body in a crucifix. I cried. I vomited. I pleaded with the anesthesiologist to please wipe my mouth. He pretended not to see. Then, it was hours before I held my baby."
  • Heather, Berkeley, CA*
*"I'm speaking out for so many plus-size women who have been mistreated during birth; from being pushed into making decisions that aren't evidence based to being told our vaginas are too fat to birth our babies. Enough is enough! Shame is not an effective tool and we will not tolerate this bullying any longer."

- Jen, Denver, CO*
*"I'm speaking out for so many plus-size women who have been mistreated during birth; from being pushed into making decisions that aren't evidence based to being told our vaginas are too fat to birth our babies. Enough is enough! Shame is not an effective tool and we will not tolerate this bullying any longer."
  • Jen, Denver, CO*
*"I wanted a natural birth; I wanted my baby to have the most gentle entrance into the world. I didn't know what I was up against to give us both that experience. I felt like we were both broken after his birth."

- Nicole, Columbus, OH*
*"I wanted a natural birth; I wanted my baby to have the most gentle entrance into the world. I didn't know what I was up against to give us both that experience. I felt like we were both broken after his birth."
  • Nicole, Columbus, OH*
*“You can be grateful and appreciative of having a healthy baby and still be completely traumatized by your birth experience. Being traumatized doesn't equal being ungrateful - they are two entirely different things.”

- Kimberly, Columbus, OH*
*“You can be grateful and appreciative of having a healthy baby and still be completely traumatized by your birth experience. Being traumatized doesn't equal being ungrateful - they are two entirely different things.”
  • Kimberly, Columbus, OH*
*"Being a nurse myself, I trusted the doctor and her opinions on what needed done. Within an hour of my arrival at the hospital, she turned my calm and beautiful labor into a chaotic disaster because of her unnecessary interventions. She later boasted that she ruined my birth but at least my incision was pretty."

- Brittany, Wheeling WV*
*"Being a nurse myself, I trusted the doctor and her opinions on what needed done. Within an hour of my arrival at the hospital, she turned my calm and beautiful labor into a chaotic disaster because of her unnecessary interventions. She later boasted that she ruined my birth but at least my incision was pretty."
  • Brittany, Wheeling WV*
*"For a long time after his birth, I always referred to his birthday as 'the day he was born,' rather than, 'when I gave birth to him.' I know for some people this isn't that big of a difference, but for me, the language difference is was major. I just didn't feel that I birthed him, I didn't even hear his first cry, and I certainly didn't get him out on my own."

- Pamela, Boulder, CO*
*"For a long time after his birth, I always referred to his birthday as 'the day he was born,' rather than, 'when I gave birth to him.' I know for some people this isn't that big of a difference, but for me, the language difference is was major. I just didn't feel that I birthed him, I didn't even hear his first cry, and I certainly didn't get him out on my own."
  • Pamela, Boulder, CO*
*"I'm sad such a monumental event in my life has become such a distant memory. I think I tried hard to put it behind me, to enjoy the present, and not seem saddened by an event I couldn't change because I didn't want to seem ungrateful."

- Brittany, Wheeling WV*
*"I'm sad such a monumental event in my life has become such a distant memory. I think I tried hard to put it behind me, to enjoy the present, and not seem saddened by an event I couldn't change because I didn't want to seem ungrateful."
  • Brittany, Wheeling WV*
*"I was, like, the eighth person to hold my baby. That was the most traumatic part for me. What the heck just happened and why did everyone else get to hold her before me? I had to watch this young nurse washing her with my husband... I was just lying there. Watching."

- Meredith, Harrisburg, PA*
*"I was, like, the eighth person to hold my baby. That was the most traumatic part for me. What the heck just happened and why did everyone else get to hold her before me? I had to watch this young nurse washing her with my husband... I was just lying there. Watching."
  • Meredith, Harrisburg, PA*
*“After planning and educating myself for a natural birth for my entire pregnancy, at my 37-week appointment, my OB did a vaginal exam. She roughly searched around for my cervix and when she couldn't reach it, with her hand still inside me, she asked, "Has anyone said the 'C' word to you yet"? I left that appointment feeling that my body was broken. I had a failed induction that ended in a traumatic Cesarean which brought on severe postpartum depression and PTSD. In every aspect of my pregnancy, birth, and postpartum I was treated as a problem to be managed, not as a human being with my own desires. It set the stage for many years of struggle and suffering for me and my family."

-Jen, Denver CO*-
*“After planning and educating myself for a natural birth for my entire pregnancy, at my 37-week appointment, my OB did a vaginal exam. She roughly searched around for my cervix and when she couldn't reach it, with her hand still inside me, she asked, "Has anyone said the 'C' word to you yet"? I left that appointment feeling that my body was broken. I had a failed induction that ended in a traumatic Cesarean which brought on severe postpartum depression and PTSD. In every aspect of my pregnancy, birth, and postpartum I was treated as a problem to be managed, not as a human being with my own desires. It set the stage for many years of struggle and suffering for me and my family."-Jen, Denver CO*-
*"My birth experience could have been far less traumatic if the hospital staff would have listened to me and trusted that I know when something is not right with my body. I told the nurse repeatedly in the hours after my son was born that something was not right. The nurse dismissively said, "oh, it's just the Pitocin", shrugging my concern off as if I was just an oversensitive patient. At the very least they could have provided me with after care with actual “care” about what happened to me. I honestly don’t think the nurses in the recovery room knew the experience I had been through. Once I was in recovery, I felt like a piece of meat on a conveyor belt shuffled from one room to another until I was out of the door and out of their hair."

-Staci, San Diego CA*
*"My birth experience could have been far less traumatic if the hospital staff would have listened to me and trusted that I know when something is not right with my body. I told the nurse repeatedly in the hours after my son was born that something was not right. The nurse dismissively said, "oh, it's just the Pitocin", shrugging my concern off as if I was just an oversensitive patient. At the very least they could have provided me with after care with actual “care” about what happened to me. I honestly don’t think the nurses in the recovery room knew the experience I had been through. Once I was in recovery, I felt like a piece of meat on a conveyor belt shuffled from one room to another until I was out of the door and out of their hair."-Staci, San Diego CA*
*"What I struggle with the most isn’t that he was born surgically. What bothers me the most is that I wasn’t his first friend; I didn’t get to hold him... I still can’t take it--knowing that as he was lying there crying for me, I was down the hall crying for him. I felt like the whole world was keeping us apart.”

- Heather, Baltimore, MD*
*"What I struggle with the most isn’t that he was born surgically. What bothers me the most is that I wasn’t his first friend; I didn’t get to hold him... I still can’t take it--knowing that as he was lying there crying for me, I was down the hall crying for him. I felt like the whole world was keeping us apart.”
  • Heather, Baltimore, MD*
*"He actively pushed my leg to the side and stuck the thing in me. That was the most traumatizing thing - I had just said 'no' and he did it anyway. He said, 'just stay still!’ I was crying and I really didn’t want it. I was about to change my mind and she pushed me down. I just cried into the pillow. I felt so defeated and I felt like I knew what was coming and I had no control over something that was supposed to be all about me. And It’s almost like we’re not allowed to talk about it. Because you didn’t die and your baby didn’t die, you should just be happy. As if I should think, 'thank goodness for that doctor who was able to perform the [unnecessary] C section.' That's like if someone pushes you down the stairs and then catches you....are you still happy they caught you?"

- Samantha, New Jersey*
*"He actively pushed my leg to the side and stuck the thing in me. That was the most traumatizing thing - I had just said 'no' and he did it anyway. He said, 'just stay still!’ I was crying and I really didn’t want it. I was about to change my mind and she pushed me down. I just cried into the pillow. I felt so defeated and I felt like I knew what was coming and I had no control over something that was supposed to be all about me. And It’s almost like we’re not allowed to talk about it. Because you didn’t die and your baby didn’t die, you should just be happy. As if I should think, 'thank goodness for that doctor who was able to perform the [unnecessary] C section.' That's like if someone pushes you down the stairs and then catches you....are you still happy they caught you?"
  • Samantha, New Jersey*
*"Even when their births don't go exactly according to plan, the women I work with as a doula and Childbirth Educator are consistently happier about their birth experiences when they feel respected and supported by their birth team. Those of us who surround women in birth should remember that birth doesn't happen in a vacuum. The way we treat and respect women in pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood affects both mothers and their families in the long term. Trauma around birth overwhelmingly stems from how women are treated, not how the birth actually goes. Perhaps if we stopped thinking of maternity care as merely a 'women's issue' and more as a foundation for healthy families, we might treat pregnancy and birth care with the gravity they demand."

- Emily, New York, NY*
*"Even when their births don't go exactly according to plan, the women I work with as a doula and Childbirth Educator are consistently happier about their birth experiences when they feel respected and supported by their birth team. Those of us who surround women in birth should remember that birth doesn't happen in a vacuum. The way we treat and respect women in pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood affects both mothers and their families in the long term. Trauma around birth overwhelmingly stems from how women are treated, not how the birth actually goes. Perhaps if we stopped thinking of maternity care as merely a 'women's issue' and more as a foundation for healthy families, we might treat pregnancy and birth care with the gravity they demand."
  • Emily, New York, NY*
*“I thought they knew what was best for me...but they didn’t. Babies matter, but so do mothers; and so does the ‘birth’ of the mother. It’s not just about surviving and ‘being happy that the baby is healthy and alive’. How a baby enters this world determines the path the mother will take, the life she will live, the relationship she will have with her children. They birthed my child for me while I was so sedated I was barely conscious. I missed my daughter’s first hours of life because I was too out of it to even keep my eyes open. They robbed me of what could have been the most precious time of my life and left me both mentally and physically scarred, reliving the pain every time I closed my eyes or had a moment to think for several months after. Some moments I still cannot think about without bursting in tears! My physical scars still remind me every so often of the OB’s need for ‘convenience'. Unnecessary interventions are like a stack of dominoes... they will all inevitably fall down."

- Zuzana, Yuma, AZ*
*“I thought they knew what was best for me...but they didn’t. Babies matter, but so do mothers; and so does the ‘birth’ of the mother. It’s not just about surviving and ‘being happy that the baby is healthy and alive’. How a baby enters this world determines the path the mother will take, the life she will live, the relationship she will have with her children. They birthed my child for me while I was so sedated I was barely conscious. I missed my daughter’s first hours of life because I was too out of it to even keep my eyes open. They robbed me of what could have been the most precious time of my life and left me both mentally and physically scarred, reliving the pain every time I closed my eyes or had a moment to think for several months after. Some moments I still cannot think about without bursting in tears! My physical scars still remind me every so often of the OB’s need for ‘convenience'. Unnecessary interventions are like a stack of dominoes... they will all inevitably fall down."
  • Zuzana, Yuma, AZ*
*"The one emotion that was consistent during my daughter's birth, almost 13 years ago, was shame - shame for not birthing her vaginally, shame for not being able to breastfeed her, shame for not feeling a connection to her right away. The nursing staff in particular reaffirmed this emotion over and over again, one nurse even saying to me as she wheeled me to my recovery room after my Cesarean, 'you know you’re too young to have a baby...' And I believed them."

- Kim, Riverside CA*
*"The one emotion that was consistent during my daughter's birth, almost 13 years ago, was shame - shame for not birthing her vaginally, shame for not being able to breastfeed her, shame for not feeling a connection to her right away. The nursing staff in particular reaffirmed this emotion over and over again, one nurse even saying to me as she wheeled me to my recovery room after my Cesarean, 'you know you’re too young to have a baby...' And I believed them."
  • Kim, Riverside CA*

For more about this project visit their Facebook page and Instagram account or see the full gallery on the Exposing the Silence Project website.

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