It seems Otto Rank was right after all: there is such a thing as birth trauma. The only thing is, rather than affecting the newly born baby, or even the mother, it now seems it’s the father who is the one who is traumatised. To quote from the report in The Independent:
Oxford University researchers interviewed men about their experiences after their female partners underwent procedures including emergency Caesareans. They told a common tale of being left alone in hospital corridors with little clue of what was happening, while fearing for the lives of the mother and baby. Most admitted that they felt unable to talk about their feelings because they felt their main focus should be on looking after their partner and child.1
It’s easy to be cynical about this, of course: after all, if it’s traumatic for the father then what must it be like for the mother, who’s actually the one giving birth? However, I think this is to miss an important point, which is the way the notion of trauma is being steadily widened to include virtually any aspect of human experience. And linked to this, the increasingly willingness amongst many practitioners to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the slightest hint of a troubling experience.
This is not to suggest for one moment that there aren’t traumatic experiences. On contrary, these are only too real: think only of the horrors of war, sexual abuse, and so on. Of course, there is a danger here of suggesting that in comparison with such experiences, those of fathers who witness difficult births pale into insignificance. However, this is also to miss the point, which in my view is to ask a very simple question: what makes trauma traumatic? I have discussed this elsewhere; however, I think it’s one of those questions that’s always worth revisiting, because in many ways it touches upon something fundamental in human existence.
In fact, it very much resonates with the underlying theme of this blog, i.e. Touching the Real. In trauma, one does in fact touch the Real. The key point about trauma is its sheer senselessness, the fact that it is beyond words, beyond representation. It follows from this that the work of therapy is to put the sense back into trauma, to bring it back within the domain of language and representation. And, in spite of all the different approaches to treating PTSD, they all focus on helping the individual find the words to represent the traumatic experience.
Returning to the idea of birth trauma, in one sense it is true that all human beings are traumatised at birth. However, it’s not that birth itself is traumatic for the baby: rather, it’s that all newly born babies are in a state of trauma, in a state of senselessness. Another way to express this is to say that when we are born we are in the Real. It’s only later on that start to develop a more coherent sense of self and of the world. Part of this revolves around what Lacan called the mirror stage, which occurs somewhere between six and eighteen months, and is the process by which the infant develops a sense of (imaginary) wholeness – sometimes literally by seeing him or herself in the mirror. However, what’s often left out of this account of the mirror stage, is that there is someone else present, often the infant’s mother, who points to the mirror and says to the subject, ‘That’s you!’
The key point here is that for the subject to recognise him or herself – both literally and symbolically – he or she needs the presence of an Other. And it’s the Other, again often (but not always) in the form of the mother, who provides the process of symbolic mediation which is essential to the development of the human subject. When this process of symbolic mediation breaks down, for whatever reason, then there is a real danger that the individual, when faced with certain troubling experiences in later life, will become (re)traumatised. This is because they are unable to (symbolically) process the experience.
Although PTSD is not a recognised psychoanalytic category, it can be a useful ‘shorthand’ for describing particular modes of subjectivity. And the surprising thing, perhaps, is not the prevalence of PTSD, but the fact that it is relatively uncommon, in spite of the fact that most people will have experienced some form of traumatic experience in their lives. Or rather, most people will have experiences which are very difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of. In spite of this, most people, it would seem, are able to ‘do something’ with such experiences; in other words they are able to work them through, to symbolise them.
So, to return once more to our traumatised fathers: it is quite possible that some of them really are struggling to make sense of what they witness in the delivery room. However, this is not so much about the experience itself but rather the nature of their own subjectivity.