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Notes From The Salon: An Evening With Phyllis Klaus

On June 13th we hosted our monthly Salon Series event in partnership with the Birth Justice Project, an organization that supports pregnant folks who are incarcerated, in addition to providing reproductive health education. This event was an interview with Phyllis Klaus, hosted by Darcy Stanley, co-director of the Birth Justice Project. Phyllis Klaus is the co-founder of DONA International and co-author of When Survivors Give Birth, and this event focused on the impact of trauma on pregnant people and the role of doulas in supporting folks with a history of sexual trauma. This event was of particular relevance to BJP, as significant numbers of incarcerated women and trans folks have experienced sexual assault, and both BADP and BJP hope to create a healing community for the people we serve and our doulas.

Some of the overarching questions from the night were:

  • People who have experienced sexual trauma often live with a lot of shame and silence. How do we build communities to address this?

  • What does the stigma associated with sexual trauma look like in pregnancy and birth?

  • What’s the evolution of how our community has viewed sexual trauma? What’s the role of new doulas in shaping support around this? 

Phyllis Klaus has been involved in studies on the impact of doula care on people’s emotional and obstetric outcomes since the 1970’s and has an amazing wealth of knowledge on this topic. Some of her points from the night on the topic of trauma are as follows.

  • Continuous support (such as that from doulas) has huge benefits for laboring folks; however, medicine often attributes those benefits to “active management of labor” instead.

  • Trauma comes from many different places in birth and it’s important for us to think about how families can shape and reframe that.

  • There is a huge need for more training around trauma and vicarious trauma, especially when dealing with pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes.

  • One major trauma in childbirth occurs when a laboring person feels inordinate fear and has no control over the environment.

  • Trauma in birth looks like many things and it encompasses more than medical emergencies that are usually classified as “traumatic.”

  • Trauma can result in a lack of trust in other people, but also a lack of trust in one’s own body.

  • Sexual assault survivors may also fear a loss of control, in addition to shame. Care providers must create an empowering environment. 

How can doulas help support folks with a history of trauma?

  • Doulas can provide comfort measures during any potentially invasive procedures that happen during labor & birth.

  • In your doula role, reaffirm that the survivors you’re working with are making the right decisions for themselves.

  • Addressing trauma with someone at your first meeting can be hard, but people may be relieved if you make space for them to talk about it.

  • Reframing may be helpful for addressing trauma (for example, thinking of the baby as assisting in the healing process).

  • There is no judgment; whatever works for the pregnant person is what is best. Give people the space to ask for what they need.

  • It’s important to give pregnant survivors, and all pregnant folks, the opportunity to feel heard, regardless of procedural choices (for example, some people may choose C-sections because of prior trauma).

 What about self care for doulas who work with survivors of trauma?

  • It’s a good idea to switch self care techniques from time to time.

  • Debriefing, having a doula partner, recognizing that we all experience some trauma that we need to set aside to be present.

  • Stretching, breathing, visualizing healing energy all around you—just some 30 second tips to shift your mental energy as needed. 

Thank you so much to Phyllis Klaus for sharing your important and informative knowledge. Also a special thanks to Darcy Stanley for conducting the interview and leading the group in a closing visualization exercise.  

Hope to see you at the next Salon Series event!

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