Exposing the Silence: How Birth Story Listening Is Making an Impact

As many as one in three American women say the birth of their child was traumatic. Last summer, Lindsay Askins, a professional birth photographer and doula at Spot of Serendipity, and Cristen Pascucci, vice president of Improving Birth and founder of Birth Monopoly, came together to create a unique visual platform called Exposing the Silence, where birth story listening is at the forefront. As Lindsay and Cristen travel the country, it’s through their efforts that many more voices are now being heard. This is the story of how the project began.

What initially sparked Exposing the Silence?

For me, I just got to the point where I couldn’t absorb any more stories. I was inundated with the trauma and realized that it wasn’t doing anyone any good for me to be this receptacle and felt these stories needed to see the light of day.

I called Lindsay who I knew through Improving Birth. I knew she was a photographer and felt we should do something visual, like we needed to show people who these women are and put their stories right in their faces. Lindsay said, “I’ve been wanting to do this exact thing!” We made some quick plans and a few weeks later we hopped in a car in San Francisco and started driving to New York with our three little ones. We made 10 or 11 stops that first trip, all over the country, to talk to and photograph the women who signed up to share their birth stories.

You know, Cristen and I just got fed up from hearing story after story after story of women being manipulated, coerced, abused, yelled at, even court ordered into procedures and situations that they did not consent to during childbirth. Cristen hears it from an advocacy perspective and I see it in the delivery rooms while supporting my doula clients. Women have had enough. We have had enough.

Last year, I started working with Cristen at Birth Monopoly, a community and website she founded in 2014. Prior to that, I had volunteered at Improving Birth and had “met” her via our online planning groups. I had just come off of maternity leave for my second baby and was itching to get back to work and to do something with my photography. I was in a yoga class one day last March and thinking about Humans of New York and the Veteran’s Vision Project and the 4th Trimester Bodies Project. All of these projects have made a positive impact on society while bringing to light different topics that are not usually discussed on a public level. And that’s what Cristen and I wanted to do—to expose these stories we hear from women on an almost daily basis and bring them to light.

Often women are silent about their birthing experience because they are met with invalidating responses and well-meaning yet dismissive comments from friends and family such as, “well, at least you have a healthy baby!” However, sometimes they don’t have a healthy baby. And sometimes these women are not emotionally or psychologically healthy themselves and are trying to take care of a newborn at the same time they are dealing with significant trauma. It’s a recipe for postpartum depression and few people are talking about it, realize it or even know how to help.

I came back from that yoga class last spring and wrote Cristen a short email with some very rough thoughts about traveling the country, speaking to and photographing women and putting together an online gallery with excerpts from their stories. She wrote back, “YESSSS!!!” We put a post on Facebook asking for feedback regarding this idea with projected locations and dates across the U.S. and women came out of the woodwork to participate. We had no trouble finding participants and within a few weeks, we were on the road from San Francisco to New York City with all three of our combined children—two three-year-olds and an infant—in tow! We spent seven weeks driving almost 8,000 miles stopping in 10 cities in eight states and meeting with 47 women on that initial maiden voyage.

Exposing the Silence

-Jami, Wheeling, WV Photo credit: Lindsay Askins/spotofserendipity.com

How are the birth story listening/photography sessions unfolding? What has surprised you most about the interviews?

We really didn’t know the effect this was going to have on the women who participate. We assumed (because otherwise we’d have never done the project) that it would be a positive one— knowing that simply sharing a trauma with a sympathetic ear can be cathartic. But for some of these women, the project was a catalyst for powerful changes for them as individuals. We’ve kept in touch with many of them and I’m so impressed by what some of them have done as far as making brave choices and advocating for themselves.

One heartbreaking part of doula work is that we are too often helping our clients fight for their basic human rights to be respected. Witnessing the physical and verbal abuse some of my clients have endured has completely changed me. There is no question now that I am a doula AND a birth and human rights advocate. They are one and the same. -Jami, Wheeling, WV

We completed the initial trip that launched the project last summer. Since then, we have visited seven more cities in five states across the country as this is a rolling project. We generally meet with four to six women per day in 90-minute time slots as that gives us enough time to hear their story and ask questions and then spend some time photographing them.

I think the one thing that surprised me the most initially during interviews was the women who are the most emotional about their story have the oldest children. As in, the most time has passed since their birthing experiences. That shocked me however, indicated to me that there is not a lot of support out there for these women and confirmed how important this project is.

How does it feel going up against the big industry of obstetrics?

It doesn’t bother me in the least. Of course it’s challenging, but challenges are fun. There are some great doctors out there and I want to see them mobilize from within. I’m really looking forward to building on that.

I grew up around the world of medicine and doctors and hospitals as my own father is a physician. He required my siblings and I to do 50 hours of volunteer time in the ER before we could get our driver’s licenses! So to me, the “big industry of obstetrics” is not that intimidating. Further, we don’t see this project as “going up against” anyone but rather, a platform to give women a voice to speak up regarding the lack of care they received during one of the most important times in their lives.

Having said that, obstetrics (and hospitals) are, in fact, an industry and it is going to take a large number of consumers to change the way the system is currently functioning. And it is not going to happen overnight. But it surely will not change until women demand it. And that is what we are tying to facilitate.

What is your ultimate goal for the project?

That it opens people’s mouths. It is really about awareness and I know 100% that the more women see other women talking about these things, the more they will come out and start confronting these issues head-on. If every woman who experienced trauma and violence in birth spoke up to say, “This happened to me and this was wrong,” things would change tomorrow.

The ultimate goal for the Exposing the Silence Project is to make this significant issue—which is really a public health issue—public knowledge. I mentioned the Veteran’s Vision Project earlier. When the troops came home from Vietnam, a lot of them had PTSD and other forms of trauma related to combat and war. There wasn’t much support for those guys. Many of them struggled for the rest of their lives with substance abuse, domestic violence and a significant number of them took their own lives. They didn’t have military programs to help them process and cope with their trauma. Now, when soldiers and marines come back from combat they can say, “I need help” and that is an accepted statement and there are many programs to support them. That all came to be because people finally started talking about it and realizing what an enormous issue it was for many, many people.

Projects like ours and organizations such as Improving Birth, Birth Monopoly, Human Rights in Childbirth and others, are all working to shed light and knowledge on the topic of obstetric violence. When up to 1 in 3 women are leaving childbirth feeling traumatized, many even clinically diagnosed with PTSD, we have a real big problem in our society. And we need to change it.

Lindsay Askins is a professional {birth} photographer and doula at Spot of Serendipity. After repeatedly hearing from women as well as witnessing clients who were victims of obstetric violence during their labor and birthing, she felt strongly to bring light and awareness to the complete disregard of women’s basic human rights during pregnancy and childbirth. Using her photography, she is setting out to meet and speak to women all across the United States to not only document their stories but to expose their silence.

After the birth of her son in 2011, Cristen Pascucci left a career in public affairs to study American maternity care and women’s rights within it. She is an advocate for mothers, vice president of Improving Birth, and founder of Birth Monopoly. Cristen works closely with leading national advocates, organizations, and birth lawyers to advance the recognition of women’s rights in childbirth.

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