The impact of past trauma or abuse

Having a baby is often a time when we look back on our own childhood experiences and upbringing. This is natural as we try to imagine what this life stage might bring and what we might expect.

The impact of past experiences

For some people, childhood or early adulthood may not have been a positive experience. Some may have experienced trauma or abuse, including, for example physical, emotional or sexual abuse. 

The impacts of these types of abuse can be significant and long-lasting.  Memories can resurface in pregnancy and/or early parenthood as this life stage touches on these memories of our own past, which may be painful or distressing.

I had a very abusive mother, and I don’t have positive memories of her or growing up with her.  I thought this was in the past as I had learned to accept that’s how things were. But when I fell pregnant I starting thinking about what kind of mother I would be, and that reminded me of what my childhood was like.

Why do these feelings arise?

When having a baby, it is natural for us to look for a reference point to try and imagine what the future might be like. Having a child is a unique experience, so it’s normal to draw on our exisiting knowledge and previous experiences to inform our expectations and perceptions. For most, this leads us to reflect on our own childhood.  Sometimes this may happen consciously (when we are aware of what we are thinking) or unconsciously (going on in the background of our minds without knowing that we are thinking about it).

As this commonly occurs amongst expectant and new parents, a good health provider will ask you questions about your past experiences. In particular, many screening tools will specifically ask whether you have experienced childhood trauma and/or abuse, as well as whether you have specifically experienced either physical and/or sexual abuse. 

What to do about these memories and feelings

Having these feelings resurface can often take us by surprise.  Trying to simply ignore or push these thoughts and feelings away isn’t always an effective way of dealing with them, as they are likely to remain there and can come back at any time. Often, this can occur when we least expect it or are feeling particularly tired or vulnerable. 

Knowing why these memories and feelings may arise is a good starting point. Just understanding why these thoughts and feeling may be coming back can help us to feel more in control.

Acknowledging that you are having these thoughts or feelings is also an important step.  Trying to push these to the back of your mind or avoid them, may only lead to them returning. 

Getting help for past trauma or abuse

Talking to someone can also be helpful.  Often the process of talking about what has happened can provide us with a sense of being heard and relief. Many people carry this information or secret with them for many years. Talking with a professional can  help us to view the experience within the context of when it occurred, and help us to process what may have happened. 

After speaking with a counsellor it felt good to finally get this out. It helped me to really put it behind me and not having distressing thoughts keep coming back.

While this can be often painful to go through at the time, many people express strong feelings of relief afterwards.

Talking it through helped me to realise that it (the abuse) wasn’t my fault, or anything I could have done about it at the time. It was painful to re-live at the time but I feel relieved.

Processing what may have happened in a supportive setting, can also help us to let go of the negative thoughts and feelings associated with the person or events as you move through the many phases of becoming a parent.