I have a history of trauma. I have survived intimate partner violence, medical trauma, and struggled with various forms of abuse. I don't feel safe when any person puts my sense of bodily autonomy at risk. I don't always feel safe in hospitals because they've been the setting of experiences that were disempowering, humiliating, and dehumanizing in my past, and as I navigated the mental health system as a teenager. Like many survivors of trauma, I often find it difficult and painful to talk about my experiences and to advocate for myself. During my stay at St. Joe's, my PTSD symptoms were triggered over and over when staff ignored my wishes, minimized and invalidated my concerns, and rushed me to participate in their own plans.
There were some caring and capable staff members that were part of my care, but what stands out the most when I look back on my experience are vivid recollections of moments in which my consent was absent and right to dignity and compassion was ignored. The culture of the hospital itself did not seem to emphasize the importance of accountability and patient-centred obstetric care. Many of the staff members I encountered didn't behave as if labour and delivery can be distressing and overwhelming, even for those without trauma histories, and the words and attitudes they choose can have very real consequences in the moment and beyond.
After I came home from the hospital, I just couldn't shake the negative feelings about my birth. I needed them to know what had happened and why it was not okay, so I wrote them a letter. It took me six difficult weeks to get it all on paper. I wrote and rewrote, often nursing my newborn with one hand and typing with the other. I remember crying to my partner about how, even when it was all written down, on ten typed pages with every detail I could remember, I still hadn't captured how terrible it felt.
I began posting in online forums and talking to new parents at drop-ins and groups, wondering if others had had similar experiences to mine. The reports given by the people I spoke to ranged from small cruelties, to acts that in any other setting would absolutely be considered sexual violence. Why do so few survivors of sexual violence come forward? The parallels here are too strong to ignore.
I’ve learned that while many report having really positive birth and reproductive healthcare experiences, many others leave these interactions feeling disappointed or hurt by the way they were treated. I am not alone. This is not just a problem at one hospital, it's happening all over and it’s time for a change.
Given the response I received from St. Joe's regarding my concerns, it's no wonder more people don't talk about their own. It's absolutely crushing to be told, implicitly or explicitly, that what you went through was somehow your own fault. That you should just be thankful it wasn't worse. That you should just put it all behind you now and quietly slink away into parenthood.
Although I have experienced disadvantage in my life, I am also incredibly privileged. I came into the hospital that day along with that privilege; I am a white settler, I am able-bodied and English-speaking. I have a stable, loving home and a caring partner who supports our family. Before this experience, I believed myself to be fairly assertive and strong, but even I felt completely powerless and vulnerable when I was giving birth. The trauma I experienced has left me forever changed.
It's time to speak up about mistreatment and abuse at the hands of healthcare professionals and the wider culture that normalizes it. We need to start talking about what respectful, dignified, compassionate care looks like, not just in birth, but in the full range of sexual and reproductive healthcare experiences.
I know that it's hard to speak up. It is so, so hard. I'm hoping that The Reproductive Justice Story Project can help make it a little easier.
If any part of my story resonated with you, please consider getting in touch to share your birth or reproductive healthcare experience. Submissions to the Community Story Blog are now welcome from all over Canada.
Change can happen if we speak up together!