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Healing Wounded Mothers
By Rhea Dempsey

The voices of ‘wounded mothers’ (Mauger, 1999) are everywhere. We hear them in a wide range of pitch, tone and timbre, sometimes strident; other times flat and deadened, or sharp and cutting; often times despairing and raw, and even sometimes so well hidden that we might mistake them. Do you recognise them?

We hear the wounded mother in the aggressive ‘one-up-womanship’ of the horrific birth story competition. Or the shattering indoctrination of newly pregnant women into the ‘horrors’ of birthing. It is a form of ‘horizontal violence’, (violence and power plays inflicted on fellow members of a substrata in a hierarchical organisational structure) an expression of rage flowing from the wounding of ‘powerless birthing’. She is also heard in the ‘silent’ resignation of the depressed mother and also in the humorous cynicism of women whose expectations of a physiologically normal birth were not realised.

‘Birth in Western society has become an institutionalised act of violence against women, and post natal depression is often grief that follows helplessness in the face of that violence.’ (Kitzinger, 1993)

We might also recognise the voice of the wounded mother echoing through generations and now finding resonance in women who are so fearful of birthing that they choose to opt out of experiencing it. This is the ‘epidural at the first contraction’, version of the wounded mother. As a passionate birth activist, this expression of the wounded mother is difficult for me to witness. Yet I see in this fearfulness, a protective choice. After all, if you can’t trust that your vulnerability and fear will be honoured and supported, (and who sensibly could in our current birthing culture) then it seems reasonable, to choose to protect and control any expressions of that fear and vulnerability. For these wounded mothers, epidurals must appear to offer the perfect solution. At the core of all this wounding is betrayal.

Wound of Betrayal
Somewhere between a mother’s expectations and preparations for birth and the actual lived experience of it, there is a betrayal being enacted. It is a betrayal of a deep yearning, as described by Benig Mauger in her Birth Matters article ‘Wounded Mothers’, which flows from a woman’s ‘archetypal expectations’ that birthing will be a meaningful process for her, as well as a safe and loving welcome for her baby. This betrayal is experienced at many points along the pregnancy and birth journey, however here I will illustrate this dynamic of betrayal in one of its most prevalent forms. Patricia Morey in her recent article in The Weekend Australian, wrote this about her birth:

‘Disillusioned and desperate, caught up in a process you are unable to control and drowning in waves of excruciating pain, you beg in turn for the gas mask, the pethidine, the epidural.’

This is the crisis point where the betrayal is so often enacted! Here is the cry of the birthing woman caught up in deep transformative process. Swept by birthing energies she is unable to control, experiencing forces greater than her previous capacities can contain. She is pushed to a ‘place of challenge’, where she is called upon to transcend her perceived limitations and to expand into wider and deeper resources. This is a place of meaning and of courage, it demands to be witnessed and honoured for the deep transformative work it is. Birthing women cry out for ‘help’ at these moments, exposing their vulnerability as they struggle to answer deep questions of being. What do I draw on when I feel I have no resources? How do I transcend my previously known self? What ‘help’ is given? What answer is revealed to them? Drugs! and confirmation, that she does not have the resources and that it is too much for her! Here is the betrayal! In the mother’s moments of vulnerability and need, our birth culture’s over emphasis on the use of pharmacology as the preferred form of ‘help’ in these moments, only serve to diminish her, and strip her of her power. A diminished sense of self is not the optimum way to begin mothering! Patricia Morey continues:

‘In the depths of despair you know that you’ve blown the birth and in doing so you’ve failed the first test of motherhood.’

A doubly cruel wounding may occur here, when, after the birth, the mother may come to feel that the very drugs offered her, in her moment of need, become the manifestation of her personal failure. Guilt and blame abound. It can be different!

Michelle’s words tell another story:

‘Several hours later however, I had forgotten my romantic images and was kneeling in the tub, howling and screaming from the depths of my soul, convinced that the pain was too much to bear. Not that I got any sympathy…. Instead I was showered with reassurance, love and incredible strength from the energy and wise words of those who were present to witness and support, I was surrounded by such powerful women … They showed me strengths I never realised I possessed.’

And so the powerful, resourceful mother emerges!

Healing Work
In my work with wounded mothers, this understanding of the wound of betrayal informs my approach. My first explorations centre on the mother’s choices. (place of birth, care givers, etc.) If her choices have not supported her birthing potential, then we explore together this dynamic of betrayal. This usually facilitates a powerful reframing of the woman’s experience. Further to this we explore deeper personal issues, which I also describe as ‘places of challenge’. This term is drawn from my notion of birthing as a ‘heroine’s journey’. A heroine’s journey is a mythical one, filled with ‘places of challenge’, tests of courage, endurance, heart and faith. ‘Places of challenge’ in birthing are particular markers along the journey where, for an individual woman there may be a confluence of issues, feelings, fears and memories, creating an especial challenge and often manifesting in energy blocks which impact on the labour.

This deeper personal work involves reflection on the mother’s particular issues. Common themes include - difficulties on the maturational journey (girl-maiden-woman-mother); issues with her own mother or father; relationship issues; loss of significant loved ones or previous loss in childbirth; sexual abuse and other life experiences which predispose towards acquiescence and victimhood; debilitating fears; significant ambivalence regarding the baby or mothering and lack of social support. To work with these processes in labour, mothers and care givers need to have an understanding of birth which honours its psychological and spiritual dimensions. In our dominant birthing practices this work is generally not supported or understood. Rather it is again a situation where, if these challenges impact on the labour, the mother is offered pharmacological, technological or operative means of working with them, rather than emotional or therapeutic support, which could facilitate the mother’s own resources. There is also a betrayal here.

In the healing work this combination of approaches (exploring internal and external dynamics) is needed. Wounded mothers need to be aware of the impact that current birthing practices have upon the outcomes of their labours, otherwise there is a strong tendency on their part to blame themselves for their ‘failure’. This tendency is also prevalent amongst medical care givers and the wider community. Blaming the victim begins here! ‘If there is no balance between the external and internal perspectives, clients will be blamed for their condition.’ (Corey 1996). An easing of the burden of guilt is a common outcome of this approach. Combining this with insight into the mother’s personal psychosocial realities increases her personal power and birthing potential.

Radicalised Consciousness
The healing process often leads mothers to an awakening of a radicalised consciousness around birth issues. They come to see that if they are to honour their deep desire for fulfilling birth experiences then they must make wise choices in support of their own potent birthing potential. Many of these choices fall outside those offered by the dominant medical model and thus require radical choice.

Many women who work passionately for change in birthing use their wounding, to give voice to …

‘The roar which lies on the other side of silence, when ordinary women find their voice and use it to gain control over their lives.’

(Belenky. et al.1986). Also many compassionate caregivers use their wounding in their role as ‘wounded-healers’. (Hall, 1994).

There is power locked away in women’s birthing wounds, creative power, which our bodies, our babies and our communities need. Healing wounded mothers and changing the system to stop further wounding is urgent.

Rhea Dempsey is a childbirth educator / counselor / birth attendant in Melbourne. She offers Birthing Wisdom workshops and parenting classes. For more information write to or call 9562 8592


Mauger. B. (1999) ‘Wounded Mothers’ Birth Matters Journal.
Kitzinger S. (1993) ‘Birth and Violence Against Women’ in ‘Women’s Health Matters’ 5 Ed. Helen Roberts. Pub : Routledge. London.
Morey. P. (1999) Article : ‘Sighed, squealed, delivered’ The Weekend Australian, (Review) 13th-14th February 1999.
Michelle. (1995) Birth Story, from personal collection of R. Dempsey.
Corey. G. (1996) ‘Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy’ Pacific Grove. Brooks/Cole Pub.
Belenky.M, Clinchy.B, Goldberger.N and Tarule.S. (1986) ‘Women’s Ways of Knowing’ Basic Books.
Hall. J. (1994) ‘Midwives Enhancement of Choice, Decision Making and Control in the Birthing Experience’ Proceedings, Birth Issues Conference. Capers.
Dempsey. R. (1996) ‘The Emotional Journey of Labour’ Proceedings, Birth Issues Conference. Capers.

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