Cycles of Healing through the Lens of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Parenting – Part II
Cycles of Healing through the Lens of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Parenting – Part II
Introduction by Molly Boeder Harris
As the experience of pregnancy, labor, birth and parenthood can in and of itself be destabilizing to a person’s identity, their connection to their body and sexuality, it seems clear that additional support for a survivor traveling this path would be useful. Since birth is an inherently unpredictable event (despite our endless attempts to control it) and requires a trusting of both the Universe and the Self unlike any other, it offers incredible teachings related to self-connection, presence, embodiment, relationships, and the practice of letting go – all of which can serve not only the laboring parent, but everyone around them who participates in this awesome journey into the mystery of life itself.
In our 2nd installment of this 3-part series, “Cycles of Healing through the Lens of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Parenting” (Part I available here) we explore a variety of themes related to the inherent nature of pregnancy and birth and its impact on the psyche, the value of support from partners who are part of a survivor’s journey into parenthood, the capacity to overcome the trauma of sexual violence and how that self-knowledge can be tapped as a resource in the holistic experience of parenthood, and much more.
We continue our exploration into these topics with Ellen Boeder, a psychotherapist and yoga instructor with expertise in trauma recovery based in Boulder, Colorado. Ellen received her MA in Transpersonal Counseling at Naropa University, and has participated in multiple yoga teacher trainings with Richard Freeman at the Yoga Workshop, in addition to designing a therapeutic yoga program at a Denver-based eating disorder clinic. She has also completed training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, studied Shamanic Journeying with Sandra Ingerham and is a Level 3 Reiki practitioner. Since 2004 she has worked primarily with women and is now incorporating couple therapy into her practice. Her theoretic approach includes transpersonal psychology, developmental attachment theory, family systems, and somatic and energetic modalities. For couple therapy she also utilizes Stan Tatkin’s model, the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT). She is inspired to support women and couples heal and grow in ways that liberate their authentic selves. To learn more about Ellen’s work or to reach her directly, you can visit her practitioner page or visit her website.
The Breathe Network: Can you share with me how you became interested in working with women (and couples) during and after pregnancy?
Ellen Boeder: I became interested in working with women and couples around the transitions of pregnancy, birth, and parenthood after I became a wife and parent myself. I gained valuable insight through my own experience of the magnitude of the challenges of this phase of life, and also the opportunities for healing and growth that are involved in creating a family. I now feel strongly about people having adequate support, education, and resources for the enormous changes that take place during this time—physically, psychologically, spiritually and socially. In my private practice as a psychotherapist, I have expanded from seeing women primarily to also including couple’s work. I have also sought out training that supports this addition to my work, by participating in Stan Tatkin’s trainings for therapists in his model, the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT). This theory and skill set incorporates cutting edge research in developmental neuroscience, attachment theory, and arousal regulation (self-regulation through the body).
TBN: What kinds of roles have you served in connected to your work with people during their journey of pregnancy, birthing and post-partum care and what does that look like?
EB: What I have seen as a psychotherapist in terms of sexual violence survivor’s reactions to pregnancy, birth, and parenting is varied. I would say that the nature of pregnancy and birth is to open things up, to create change, to carve a path in one’s body and psyche that is completely new. In that, all women have a range of mental, emotional, and somatic responses, and survivor’s do as well. At its best, a woman takes full advantage of the opportunity to grow and change in ways she could never have orchestrated on her own. She educates herself, she finds resources for her particular needs, she taps in to a new community of people to support her, as well as utilizing her known resources. She makes changes that feel difficult to her ego perhaps, but deeply nourishing and empowering to her soul. She advocates more clearly and adequately for herself. Her relationships grow. She follows the path that is unfolding in front of her with curiosity, wonder, and awe. She feels deeply supported, within and around her. She trusts, allows, receives, and shows up fully. She becomes more grounded, empowered, and clear.
It’s a moving and inspiring scenario, isn’t it? Here I sketch one version of what sounds like an ideally supported woman. I have also seen this scenario happen for survivors who are engaged in their healing. For women who have attended to their healing prior to pregnancy, they have a sense of familiarity with the disorienting and unpredictable terrain that pregnancy and birth exist within. Survivors who have braved the tremendous epic storm of life taking a dramatic, unexpected turn, and their whole being and world being deeply and forever altered by it, and embarked on the personal journey of healing and restoring themselves, can relate to the unfolding journey of the deeper aspects of pregnancy and birth. While the circumstances between pregnancy and healing from sexual violence are drastically different, the inner experiences of navigating deep bodily and psychic information have curious parallels. For some survivors, the chance of a new life, now so tangible in her body, is like throwing fuel on the fire of healing that she has already tended to and cultivated. This new journey is not without tears, fears, grief, and doubt, of course, as no transformational journey can possibly be. But these courageous survivors who have made significant progress on their healing path, have a sense of trust in this landscape of not knowing, in their body and mind’s capacity to find the way, and even in pregnancy they continue to grow and meet what life is asking of them.
And, I have seen other scenarios as well. For some survivors who have never reckoned with the trauma they have endured, the event of pregnancy can trigger whatever has not been attended to or even acknowledged within her. And now, with the prospect of parenting and bringing a life into this world approaching, she is unable to deny her experience any longer. As a therapist, when these women come in to see me, their work has a depth and urgency that they never knew was there. The catalyst of pregnancy and motherhood brings forth a major opportunity to address what has been exiled, from trauma to family and relationship issues, to personal alignment with one’s highest self and deepest truths. This healing work for the mother is deeply important to her capacity to care for herself and mother her child in fundamental, nurturing ways.
TBN: In your experience, how common is it that people who are survivors of sexual violence experience some sort of trigger or emotionally charged experience during pregnancy, labor or afterwards?
EB: Occasionally, it is after the baby is born, and in those early years, that a woman remembers her trauma (as can be the case sometimes with childhood sexual abuse). Here, a woman faced with a devastating recovery of memory of her own childhood, is simultaneously in the midst of a very strong longing and commitment to mother her young child in the best way she can. This role of mothering can be a source of strength in the healing process. And, mothering can also be a source of overwhelm and deep insecurity. Of course even mothers with a high level of well being can feel overwhelmed and insecure, it is very concerning to have this happen for a woman with a trauma history who has little to no support. It is in the aloneness that this woman (and any woman, let alone a new mother) can suffer and her child can suffer. Just as it is with trauma and other major life challenges, we need relational, emotional support, we need education that empowers, we need community, we need competent, skillful, and well trained practitioners and resources that can be accessed and utilized. This mother needs to hear the message and see out there in the world real people who have done this work. I have seen women make this journey, and again, the healing process unveils a more integrated, empowered, and directed woman here as well. It so much depends on the care, reflection, and love she can surround herself with. Accessing adequate resources is deeply important for this mother’s well being and her child’s well-being.
TBN: What would you suggest for a newly pregnant person who is a sexual violence survivor and has anxiety about the process of pregnancy, birth and future parenting?
EB: I would emphasize that partners can play a significantly supportive and healing role in these women’s lives. When partners are present, curious, and willing, they often gain valuable insights about their partner and their relationship: insights that deepen their love, respect, and appreciation for each other greatly. Embarking on birth and parenthood brings up all kinds of feelings and experiences in both partners, and this can be a time to help the couple find more ways of supporting each other, understanding each other, and balancing each other. I highly recommend couple counseling or therapy for those who have trauma in their background, at any phase of their relationship, and especially when bringing children into the picture. Children’s presence, behavior, developmental milestones, and life challenges can trigger feelings and experiences connected to the parent’s trauma, and it is so important for the child’s development and the parent’s well being that these experiences are attended to adequately. Therapeutic growth offers a strong base of support for both parents to live from and parent from that will sustain the family’s foundation over time.
TBN: Do you think that the birth experience and/or parenting have the capacity to be part of the healing journey for a survivor?
EB: I absolutely believe that pregnancy, birth, and parenting can be part of the path of healing for a survivor of sexual violence. If a survivor takes her healing seriously, and continues to enlist skillful and consistent support, she can navigate motherhood beautifully. Imagine this…if I am truly seeing a woman as a survivor, as a woman who has overcome enormous challenges and continues to live in spite of them, she has gone beyond surviving and is now wanting to or already thriving in her life in certain unique ways. Through her trauma and her healing journey, she understands and has lived through some of the worst and the best things life has to offer, and is finding meaning and purpose in her healing. She can transmit to her child a strength and tenderness that is so valuable and precious for existing in this world. She understands something about healing, growth, and resiliency, that is so necessary for not only surviving in this complex and challenging world, but also for contributing to this world in a sustainable, meaningful, life affirming way. She is willing to be present for the darkest of feelings, for precious calm moments of love and connection and simplicity, and she knows that dance of being in charge of one’s life and not being in charge, all at once. She is well balanced. And I believe those are some of the qualities that make beautiful mothers in this world.
TBN: Thank you Ellen for your thorough, holistic and empowering work supporting women and their families as they journey further into their own sense of embodiment, relationship and healing through parenthood.
Learn more about Ellen’s practice by visiting her practitioner page here, or consider visiting her website where you can also explore other blogs she has written on topics of embodiment, empowerment and motherhood.