06 May Child Abuse Survivors Becoming Amazing Mums
“Will I be a good enough mother?” It’s a question many of us ask ourselves in pregnancy, but if you’ve experienced abuse as a child, those fears can be magnified.
A 12-week course at Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women, Becoming Amazing Mothers (‘BAM’ for short) is showing mums-to-be who have experienced child abuse that they can indeed be good mothers.
Led by Beverley Hurwitz, social worker and therapist, the course is for women who’ve experienced a varied spectrum of childhood trauma, from ongoing domestic violence to sexual abuse, from saturated emotional abuse to neglect.
“We look at what trauma is, how it impacts on our thoughts of who we can be in the world,” she says. “Even if it’s comparatively minor, like a controlling mother, it means mums can identify what’s unsettling them. We talk about how important it is for mums to be in their best state. If she says ‘I don’t ever feel good about myself, I just go along until something breaks the cycle’, we look at what we can do to change it.”
The course is structured in 12 sessions. The first seven are pre-natal, covering pregnancy, trauma, how to make things different for your baby, relationships, birth and motherhood myths vs. reality.
The biggest question asked is ‘What if I don’t bond with my baby?’
As well as bonding basics, the sessions have a broad focus on the mother herself.
“One of the things we ask is ‘What is perfection?’. We live in an era of such high expectations, that you have to be perfect, and juggle motherhood with a career, as well as posting images of happy times on Instagram.”
“One of the best ways you can be kind to yourself is to give yourself permission to just be an ordinary mum, thinking about your baby, holding your baby, and just doing the best you can. It’s something we validate in the course a lot.
We also look at merging the woman in you with the mother in you.
Part of that involves your sexual life: how can you draw your partner in without bursting your bubble with the baby?”
A key issue the course examines is: What sort of attachment did we have with our own mothers? “Even if it was insecure and you couldn’t trust yourself, that knowledge is a really important way to get a handle on it,” says Beverley. “Are there people, other family members, who could give you a healthy template?”
The last five sessions happen post birth.
The first is ‘Debriefing and Celebrating Birth’ where all the mothers share their birth stories. The next three deal with self-compassion, strengthening the mother-baby bond and identifying support. The last is ‘Celebrate’.
“We really unpack it all and look at it in that time. The mothers bring more to that session than I thought they would, whether it’s sharing that they’re not connecting with their partner, or are feeling isolated,” notes Beverley.
She says 90 percent of the mums blossom after the course.
“All is not lost. It is not impossible to overcome the past and be the mother you want to be.”
The Mother’s Story
Meg, 32, mum to two-year-old Stella*, was referred to the BAM program by her midwife.
“From the outside, I had the perfect family as a child. But we had a lot of secrets.
My dad was an alcoholic and growing up in a home with him was hostile, scary and violent. We all feared for our lives on a daily basis. My beautiful mum stayed with my abusive dad to keep the family together until I was 16. To add fuel to the fire, I was sexually abused by family members from about age four until around 11.”
“I was very excited when I found out I was pregnant. I had always yearned to be a mum, and because of my childhood experiences, I feel immensely protective towards my daughter.”
“I told myself that I wasn’t going to let something so special, so beautiful as motherhood be triggered by memories of my past. It wasn’t just about me, it was about this little human that was growing inside of me. It was about us as a family.”
“Sadly, as much as I hoped or tried not to think about it, it was in the background. The trauma of sexual abuse involves having my power and control taken away from me. So the way I deal with the aftermath as an adult is to try keep my life in control. I’m very organised, planning my life in advance; this is my safe place.”
“I do have panic attacks and flashbacks associated with a loss of control.
‘Numb’ is a common feeling for me.
I guess it was a way for my brain to deal with what was happening as a child. I do ‘space out’ at times. I often feel a disconnect to my own body and feel that my body isn’t mine.”
“This made things hard when I was pregnant because I remember my midwife asking me if I’d felt my baby kick, and I would find it difficult to answer.”
“My midwife asked me what I was comfortable with, such as vaginal exams, took extra care with ‘general checks’ during pregnancy and labour, and always asked before doing a procedure. She was also an advocate for me when a doctor or other health professional needed to do a procedure. She would make sure I felt respected, and was given time to prepare myself. Nothing was sprung on me.”
“I really wanted to have some control over the birth process to regain some power and control, but in labour I did have feelings of vulnerability and a loss of control over my body’s boundaries linked to my past abuse – it wasn’t a nice place to be.”
“But through BAM, I recognised the way I was feeling and I learnt techniques. Music is a really good distraction for me, I was able to play my own music on my iPhone via the room’s music machine.”
“My ‘text book’ breech birth was really empowering. I did it!!
I felt like a superstar and a supermum.
My daughter was placed on my chest and all my fears and worries disappeared. My husband, midwife and Beverley all knew about my childhood abuse, I had no secrets and I could emotionally not hide. For the first time in my life, really, I could just be real. No hiding or pretending.”
“Although I had some triggering moments, on the flipside, labour helped me trust people again, that ultimately I’m in control of my own body again and most importantly, my body had provided me with someone amazing, a beautiful healthy baby girl.”
“I have always been very ashamed and worried that people would judge me if they knew my story. BAM was the first time in my life I was happy to let someone know of my past to help me control my future. BAM helped me to not be ashamed of my past; it’s part of my history but it doesn’t define me.”
“I think the most amazing thing about BAM is that I wasn’t alone. For the first time I could talk to, relate and process my abuse with other mothers feeling the same way as me.”
“I feel like I’m coping well as a mother.
Motherhood is the most stressful but beautiful thing I have experienced.
I’m unsure if Beverley or my midwife, Rachel, really understand the positive impact they have had on me, most importantly on me as a mother. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Becoming Amazing Mothers (BAM) is a free course at the Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick, Sydney. An individual face-to-face assessment (which is not therapy) is scheduled to help the facilitator to understand your past and how it will impact you in pregnancy and motherhood.
“A lot of mums have experienced emotional abuse only and wonder if they’re eligible for the course. They are,” says Beverley Hurwitz. “If you feel you’ve experienced something negative intensely, it’s relevant to you as a mother.”
The Royal Hospital for Women has a big range of workshops, including ‘Not Pregnant, Just Looking’, Calmbirth, Parenting for Life (a full-day program in early pregnancy), Baby Intensive (covering care of a newborn), ‘Secret Mothers’ Business’ (weekly antenatal classes facilitated by a physiotherapist), ‘Motherhood, Myths and Challenges’, Mumsense drop-in mothers’ group, and a Multicultural Women’s Group. For mums’ stories, upcoming events, and maternal and child health research news, go to The Royal Hospital for Women Foundation.
* Name has been changed.
Photography by Josh Willink.