Birthing Sexual Freedom and Healing: A Survivor Mother’s Birth Story
I carry my fears on my body because I don’t want to leave them laying around.—Warsan Shire2
Poet Warsan Shire discusses what it means to carry the weight of one’s fears in order to avoid being exposed. What does it mean to live in a body that has experienced trauma or assault? The body carries the histories of past pains and present assaults. Unresolved trauma, abuse, and fear are carried in our minds, spirits, and bodies. This imprint of fear becomes a part of our lives, so much so that we hold onto it tightly. This comfort, this illusion of safety, becomes our shield from the world. Our bodies no longer belong to us. We carry the fear so tightly that we do not recognize who we are. We learn to disassociate from our minds and bodies. Our emotions no longer carry meaning while we inhabit our bodies. We are foreigners, looking at our bodies from the outside. Disassociation from our bodies becomes our way of life. We dissociate from the fear of knowing our bodies because we are afraid of what that knowledge will reveal.
My journey from pregnancy to childbirth led me on a quest to wrestle with tough questions concerning my past. What does it mean to survive sexual trauma and abuse? What happens when black survivors of sexual abuse become pregnant? How do I, as a childbearing black woman survivor, deal with the extra challenges related to my trauma and cope with the changes to my body involved in pregnancy? This essay will take you on my journey of transition from victim to a survivor-mother. I invoke the spirit and words of black queer feminist poet, Audre Lorde, who calls for women to search in that deep and dark place within us, to use the erotic as power. Pregnancy and childbirth became that place for me. It allowed me to search deep within, to fight against disassociation in an effort to unite my mind, body, and spirit while I prepared for my son’s arrival.
Each story has a monster in it who made them tough instead of brave, so they open their legs rather than their hearts where that folded child is tucked.—Toni Morrison3
I learned early that my body was something to be despised. I thought I deserved what happened to me at the age of ten – that I deserved to be robbed of my innocence and sense of self-worth. So when my mom’s boyfriend called me to the master bedroom while my mom was out making her weekly run to the supermarket, I was intrigued by the extra attention I received from a man who “filled” the empty shoes of my absentee father. A part of me was curious, enthralled, and frightened. He asked me to sit on my mother’s bed. So I did. Then he asked me to lie down. And I obeyed for fear that he would physically hurt me, like my mom’s alcoholic former boyfriend did to her the year before. Then he began to touch my legs. As he reached to my inner thighs, my voice expressed my disgust. He spoke in a quiet, threatening voice. “Now you don’t want me to call your sister in here. Be quiet. Everything is going to be fine.” And I did what he said. As he touched my face, kissed my lips, caressed my thighs . . . I just lay there like one of the dolls in my bedroom: lifeless.
From that moment on, through secrecy, silence, and self-judgment, I would carry this pain and shame. At ten, I would experience a permanent numbness, separating myself from my body with the hopes of never feeling this pain again. I would walk away from this experience hardened by the shame of what had happened but never brave enough to confront the incident and the trauma that lingered. It is at this point that I learned to navigate the world as a victim, using my tough exterior as a shield to push people away so that I would never feel that pain again. My childhood trauma, left unresolved, gave birth to more pain, disappointment, and shame.
I met him my first semester of my freshman year in college. He was a nice guy, popular, and we shared mutual friends. He seemed non-noncommittal, and I was insecure and fascinated with the attention he gave me. A few months later my friend and I went to a party off-campus, had a few drinks, and decided to pay him a visit. My friend went back to campus, and I decided to spend the night. He was a good guy, or at least I thought he was. We cuddled in his bed and were kissing—until he held me down on his bed. Flashbacks of my past resurfaced. I said no. But he continued to ignore me. He acted like I was not there. He was not physically violent; yet he was stronger than me. He made me invisible. All I could do was return to the ten-year-old girl in the master bedroom in the 1990s, numb, and motionless. As he penetrated my body, I slowly left my “self.” I could not allow him to see me break. I had to be tough. In my near comatose state, while he remained on top of me until he was finished, I imagined my soul/spirit leaving my body and just walking away. But my spirit didn’t walk away; it stayed in the room with me but remained, outside of my body, watching me. I felt ashamed, angry, and guilty. This time I believed I would walk away from those feelings for good, never to relive this pain again.
Insight meditation teacher and emotional wisdom consultant Ruth King discusses her walk with trauma and abuse: “I realized that while I had physically walked away from the traumas of childhood, I still carried them with me. The cruelties and disappointments were thriving, sheltered inside my body, mind and heart. I did not know how to love and was too afraid to learn.”4
Like King, I physically ran away from my past, hoping to leave it behind, but the trauma and pain were living inside my body and mind, and hovered over my heart and spirit. This tough and hardened exterior that I created not only pushed people away but it made it impossible for me to know and give love. It was evident to me that I had never really abandoned my past but buried it and let it invade my body like a disease. I was slowly beginning to see that I had spent my life running from my true self because of the agonizing shame, disappointment, and pain I felt.
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable but they’re never weakness.—Dr. Brené Brown5
Brené Brown shows us how to embrace vulnerability as a space where we reclaim truth and courage. In our society, we have been taught to see vulnerability as weakness, but it is the opposite and is the only way to tap into our strength and infinite power. I ran away from my story of abuse because I did not want to be a casualty of my past, but in running away I became a prisoner and a victim. Pregnancy allowed me to tell my story, embrace vulnerability, and take a courageous step in becoming a survivor and embark on the journey on the path to sexual (erotic) freedom. I came to learn that in order for me to be free from the pains of my past, I would have to share my story.
Upon discovery of my pregnancy in August of 2011, I was in denial. I knew that pregnancy would offer me the opportunity to confront the traumas that I have kept in hiding for far too long. But I was not sure that this was the time for self-discovery. I reached a breaking point that year. My demons were confronting me, and the lifeless unborn child was invading my life. Despite intensive therapy sessions and daily doses of antidepressants, I felt hopeless and even considered ending my life. I was getting pretty close to exploring and unpacking my fears, traumas, and the suicidal thoughts. I believed that I was emotionally unprepared and too broken not only to bring a child into this world but also to raise a healthy one. In the thirty-nine weeks of my pregnancy, I learned that what was growing inside of me were two “children”: (1) my baby, and (2) the inner- child that I had kept tucked under the pain of my trauma. Thus, both would inspire me to heal and seek the freedom that I yearned for. Gradually, I learned to forgive myself for not being able either to change my past and for not being able to accept my past. Through practicing emotional release, therapy, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and embracing vulnerability, I would be able to walk the road of love and freedom.
My pregnancy was an educational, spiritual, emotional, and transformative voyage. Early into my pregnancy, I spent a great deal of time reading and absorbing literature on the topic of pregnancy and birth. As a radical woman of color, one of the issues that resonated with me pertained to the ways the US health-care system denigrates, violates, and abuses women’s bodies, especially those of pregnant and expectant persons. Learning about the medical establishment’s view of pregnancy as a medical condition and the frequency of superfluous medical interventions, led me to choose an out-of-hospital birth, one that valued women’s inherent knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth. After watching the documentary The Business of Being Born, I affirmed that I could not have a birth in a hospital unless it was medically necessary. This education served as inspiration for me to spend the next couple of months working on myself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in order to prepare for a vaginal, non-medicated labor. This quest of self-awareness and preparing for a non-medicated vaginal labor allowed me the opportunity to tap into my inner strength and awareness about the type of birth I wanted for my baby and myself.
As someone having spent half of my adult life disguising the pain of my past and not knowing that I recreated the suffering that I was seeking to avoid; I knew that the only way I would be able to birth with awareness, would be by being present in mind, body, and spirit. I viewed pregnancy and childbirth as a sacred passage and not a medical event (even when medical care is necessary and a part of birth). For me, this sacred passage required the type of preparation that was rooted in self-discovery, emotional release, and looking within to be able to give birth rooted in mindfulness. I was concerned that the unresolved pain I was dealing with would have a negative impact on my pregnancy and labor. My journey revealed that my past trauma deserved my attention and respect, and that I could not be fully liberated until I had healed my relationship with my self. In other words, labor would be the act that helped me to tap into my inner strength and courage. This would be a labor of love, strength, and courage. It would allow me the opportunity to seek freedom from within and to trust my body in a way that I never could have done before.
We have been taught to fear the feminine power that lies within us, and in turn we continue to fear pregnancy and childbirth. Birthing my son, Zen, gave me the courage to embrace vulnerability and unlock the trauma that lived within my mind, body, and spirit. The path of a vaginal and non-medicated labor and birth allowed me to tap into my inner awareness, the site of power and pleasure known as the erotic. Audre Lorde calls for women to recognize the power of the erotic within our lives because it allows us to touch our most deeply creative source and obtain the energy to pursue genuine change within our world. She further states, “For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.”6
The return to the erotic is a reminder of our capacity for feeling and our right to reclaim joy. To recognize our profound feelings is to no longer be determined by external forces but to seek and reclaim the power that lies within. Our erotic knowledge empowers us and becomes the lens through which we reclaim our right to love and be loved. The erotic allowed me to tell my truth, trust my body, and love myself so that I could have the birth of my choosing. The erotic way of knowing helped me to birth with love, strength, and courage. No longer was I a prisoner to my past. Birthing in the presence of wise women (e.g. midwives, doulas, and birthworkers) who believed in the power of the erotic and the power of women to birth the way they want helped me to reclaim my own power.
My birth story will forever leave an imprint in my mind and body and will forever touch my heart. I gained a sense of freedom with my body, sexuality, and self that I could not imagine before giving birth to Zen. On the early morning of Saturday, March 17, before the sun set, I felt my first contractions. I spent the day using movement, breathing, and meditation to get through each contraction. With the support of my partner, breathing exercises, and positive words that affirmed the trust I had for myself and my body, I was able to endure labor until I was ready to go to the birth center. Later that evening, the contractions were stronger and closer together. I was in active labor, and my partner and I were headed to the birth center. When we arrived at the birth center, our midwife and an on-call nurse welcomed us. My friend and doula arrived about an hour later. While I was in active labor, the pain was unbearable, and there were moments when I considered pain medication. My support team reminded me that I was close to meeting my child, reminded me to breathe, and reminded me of the ancestors who were present, supporting me through this trying time. I did not feel alone. I was surrounded by love. With each contraction, I tapped into my erotic knowledge, which allowed me to trust my body and to surrender. The contractions became stronger; it felt like they were coming every minute, and at that point I claimed the erotic. I was doing the birth dance of breath, movement, and looking within that deep, dark, and strong place within me.
In claiming my power, I also was able to embrace the miracle of surrendering. Surrender is an active life energy that flows through us. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle defines surrender as “the simple, yet profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. The only place you can experience this is in the Now, so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation.”7 The power of surrender allowed for me to be one with the present moment. It allowed me to become in tune with my body, my emotions, and the pain and the sensations of the unknown that came with labor. In surrendering to labor, I no longer resisted the sensations of the unknown. My mind, body, and spirit were in synchronization. The power of the erotic and the miracle of surrender gave me the strength to birth my son the next morning. I could trust my body. When labor got difficult and the pain became intolerable, there were flashbacks of my past that came to mind, but my support team reminded me to look within, to trust my body, and to simply surrender. I experienced surrender as a site that allowed me to gain erotic satisfaction, and sexual freedom, to love and accept my body in the present moment.
Birthing my son Zen gave me an astounding and lasting sense of power, increased self-awareness, greater intimacy and openness with my partner, unbelievably beautiful memories, and a new and improved relationship with my own body and sexuality. The labor, while challenging, gave me confidence, strength, and power that I never knew I had. A vaginal, non-medicated birth was important to me because I needed to feel and be in the moment. It allowed me to trust my body in ways I never was able to before. This birthing story will forever erase the past and the ways I allowed my pain and childhood trauma to haunt and perpetuate the anguish I wanted to escape. Birthing is a spiritual, emotional, and physical journey that allowed me to embrace the erotic and my own strength. It allowed me the power to love myself again.
What does it mean to be a survivor-mother? I have learned that I am more than a collection of events that have happened to me and that I have agency over my life. In choosing the erotic, I tapped into the deep place within me where my inner awareness led me to strength, courage, and the wisdom to have a memorable birthing story. The power lay within me, and I was able to tap into the inner spiritual force of my ancestors who supported me during labor. I learned to be present, to embrace courage, to work to understand fear-based beliefs, and to trust my body to help birth my son. I no longer birth the pain of my past. I have birthed sexual freedom, and I will continue on this path of healing so that I could help my son gain the same freedom and awareness. As a survivor-mother, I remember my past as a place of strength, but I am not controlled by it. Instead, I look within for love, courage, and sexual freedom.
1 This essay is featured in the book Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth (2016). Chapter 11. Edited by: Julia Chinyere Oparah & Alicia D. Bonaparte. Routledge Press.
2 Shire, Warsan “Untitled Poem Poem.” accessed December 2012, Retrieved from her blog on December 2012.
3 Morrison, Toni. 2003. Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House).
4 King, Ruth. Healing Rage: Women Making Inner Peace Possible. (New York: Gotham Books, 2007).
5 Brown, Brené. Quote retrieved from her website on March 2013.
6 Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club (Reprint)).
7 Tolle, Eckhart. 2004. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. (Vancouver, BC, Canada: Namaste Publishing).
About the author:
Biany Pérez (she/her) is a licensed social worker, full spectrum doula, and psychotherapist based in Philadelphia, PA.