Women Share The Horrific Truth About Their Birth Experiences

Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
With a resurgence in the popularity of home deliveries and a greater emphasis on the empowerment of laboring women, there's been a renewed interest in what constitutes a "good birth" — and how to provide women with safer, more supportive birthing environments. We're all now justifiably horrified by the mid-century medical treatment of childbirth — women restrained to beds and drugged into a state of near unconsciousness. Judging by popular media, you'd think we'd moved irrevocably past that era, and what a relief. But, a new photo series, Exposing The Silence, reveals that archaic and abusive practices can still happen to women giving birth. The series is created by Lindsay Askins, a doula and photographer, and Cristen Pascucci, who runs the advocacy network Improving Birth.
In an era when women strive to be seen as "good mothers" who experienced "ideal births," there can be a stigma associated with speaking out about negative birth experiences. Yet, while estimates vary widely, it's suggested that about a quarter of women experience some significant post-traumatic stress after giving birth. This photo series gives a voice to these mothers, who would have otherwise remained silent.

"She said if I did not consent, then I did not care if my baby died, and 'legal people' would make me consent," says one woman who was coerced into a C-section by a doctor who didn't want to wait the estimated two hours it would take for her to deliver vaginally. "I was not given a medical reason for the surgery, but my son was healthy. In the OR, she told me I was too 'opinionated.'"

Stories like this are common, as the photo series reveals. "I was hearing women's stories that were so shocking," Pascucci explains. Askins felt the same way after hearing about women's experiences of being drugged without consent, given episiotomies against their will, legally threatened into procedures, and — perhaps most galling — being able to feel themselves being cut during C-sections. "I thought that was rare — 'Oh whoops, we messed up the anesthesia,'" says Askins. But many described feeling the scalpel and being dismissed or ignored when they alerted the medical team.
Both Pascucci and Askins had positive birth experiences themselves, but they realized that there is a vast and largely silent community of women who have experienced obstetric violence or traumatic birth. Via the Improving Birth network, Pascucci and Askins reached out to women, inviting them to share their experiences and be photographed. Through this simple series, this unspoken trauma is being given a voice and a face — many faces.

"A lot of them described the experience as being like in a nightmare where no one can hear you screaming," says Pascucci of the common themes that emerged throughout the interviews. "They said, 'It was like I wasn’t there, like I wasn’t a person. I was talking, and no one was listening, or they refused to acknowledge me.'"

It's that dehumanized perspective that often lies at the root of these stories, whether the women were physically injured by hospital staff, lied to by a doctor, or threatened by a midwife during a home birth. Somewhere in our cultural consciousness still lingers the belief that women in labor are irrational, reduced to a feral state in which everything they say should be ignored. "You know, the hysterical laboring woman," says Pascucci. "This is what's so insidious about that thinking. They were asking questions. They were asking for more information." Or, they were saying "no" and being ignored.

We know that birth is a deeply challenging, life-changing experience, and a woman in labor is indeed vulnerable. Birth itself is a physical trauma, and it should go without saying that no one should add to that pain with violence or threats. Yet in reading these women's accounts, it's clear that violence and threats can still occur. Of course, it's not irrational to feel overwhelmed while giving birth. "But, what's the appropriate response?" asks Pascucci. "It's to talk to them, and comfort them, and support them," she concludes. "Not to tell them, 'shut up or we'll knock you out.'"

Click ahead for a selection of photographs from Exposing The Silence. Then, read more about the project here or follow it on Instagram or Facebook.
1 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"The C-section, our injuries, her NICU stay, the separation, the pain; all of this could have been avoided. It didn't have to happen, but I didn't know the magic words that would get them to listen to me. I didn't know I had options, I didn't know their routines or protocol or how things work in the NICU. I really started to feel 'off,' like I wasn't really her mother, because I hadn't been allowed to be. I had walked into that birth center in labor, happier than I'd ever been. I hobbled out of a hospital and back to another, with a sense of defeat and emptiness instead of a healthy baby. I'd failed both of us, and we were both suffering because of it."
Megan, Baltimore, MD
2 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"The system is broken. I wasn't treated with respect by medical professionals, and my decisions regarding my own healthcare were ignored and trivialized. For a healthy mom with a healthy pregnancy, natural childbirth should be encouraged...not mocked and discouraged."
Angela, Richmond, VA
3 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"'Do you understand you are doing this without my consent?' As they are putting needles into my arm, I'm telling them, 'You are doing this against my will.' Their response, even as my strong contractions grew faster and I was in active labor, was, 'I can't wait all night, and we are doing this now.' Less than an hour later, he was born, taken from me before I could hold him longer than a minute or two, and not returned until almost three hours later, even though he had no complications. I cried every minute and couldn't stop thinking, this isn't supposed to be like this."
Erika, New York, NY
4 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"I thought they knew what was best for me, but they didn’t. Babies matter, but so do mothers, and so does the 'birth' of the mother. It's not just about surviving and being happy that the baby is healthy and alive. How a baby enters this world determines the path the mother will take, the life she will live, the relationship she will have with her children. They birthed my child for me, while I was so sedated I was barely conscious. I missed my daughter's first hours of life because I was too out of it to even keep my eyes open. They robbed me of what could have been the most precious time of my life and left me both mentally and physically scarred, reliving the pain every time I closed my eyes or had a moment to think for several months after. Some moments, I still cannot think about without bursting into tears! My physical scars still remind me every so often of the OB's need for 'convenience.' Unnecessary interventions are like a stack of dominoes — they will all inevitably fall down."
Zuzana, Yuma, AZ
5 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"Some places where I've worked, it's like an old boys' club. They don't seem to respect women's bodies; they don’t respect the process. They're arrogant to the nurses. They don’t seem to practice by ACOG [American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists] guidelines. I've seen fundal pressure, like this, the fist in the stomach. They don’t treat women like human beings. And the nurses eventually start taking on that attitude as a manner of survival. That's why I work in Berkeley now — because we tend to have more compassionate providers in this area."
Elizabeth, Berkeley, CA

Editor's Note: "Fundal pressure" is a practice which involves the use of manual or instrumental pressure on a woman's abdomen in the direction of the birth canal. Its purpose is to accelerate the second stage of labor. The practice has become obsolete in many countries, and there is debate as to whether it is effective.
6 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"Even when their births don't go exactly according to plan, the women I work with as a doula and Childbirth Educator are consistently happier about their birth experiences when they feel respected and supported by their birth team. Those of us who surround women in birth should remember that birth doesn't happen in a vacuum. The way we treat and respect women in pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood affects both mothers and their families in the long term. Trauma around birth overwhelmingly stems from how women are treated, not how the birth actually goes. Perhaps if we stopped thinking of maternity care as merely a 'women's issue' and more as a foundation for healthy families, we might treat pregnancy and birth care with the gravity they demand."
Emily, New York, NY
7 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"I just remember I had no feelings. I was completely numb. I had no feelings. No connection, no bond to my baby. Nothing. It was like she wasn't mine. It was just a baby. I knew she was mine, that she came out of me, but I didn't feel it. I didn't have that connection. I've never experienced anything like it in my life. Every time she would cry, it would tear me up. I would burst into tears. I was certain that everything was wrong; the way she got here was wrong. The mother that I was being was wrong. And, for the first year, maybe even a year and a half, I went through life pretty much convinced she would be better off without me or with somebody else. I still try to overcome that. Nobody is taking her away from me."
Jessica, Harrisburg, PA
8 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"I kept thinking, every day, that I was leaving the hospital with a baby. And then I didn't."
Sharon, Columbus, OH
9 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"I wanted a natural birth; I wanted my baby to have the most gentle entrance into the world. I didn't know what I was up against to give us both that experience. I felt like we were both broken after his birth."
Nicole, Columbus, OH
10 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"I'm sad such a monumental event in my life has become such a distant memory. I think I tried hard to put it behind me, to enjoy the present and not seem saddened by an event I couldn't change, because I didn't want to seem ungrateful."
Brittany, Wheeling, WV
11 of 11
Photographed by Lindsay Askins; Courtesy of Exposing The Silence.
"After planning and educating myself for a natural birth for my entire pregnancy, at my 37-week appointment, my OB did a vaginal exam. She roughly searched around for my cervix and when she couldn't reach it, with her hand still inside me, she asked, 'Has anyone said the 'C' word to you yet?'"
Jen, Denver, CO