Some days, I come home on the verge of tears. This is my body’s way of telling me that I am soaking up a bit of secondary trauma. I am good at being an emotional sponge, but that is not going to work for me long term. Here is a short list of some things my patients shared with me, that made me tear up at work and once away from work in the last two weeks:*
- Partner being incarcerated during her entire pregnancy
- Being set up and attacked by a group of people that she thought were her friends
- Being intentionally burned as a small child
- Child sexual abuse
- Partner sabotaging her birth control
- Being told that since she had two abortions, she wouldn’t be able to have healthy pregnancies
There is a choice that caregivers must make when witnessing others’ trauma — we can absorb others’ trauma/let it overwhelm our own emotions, we can distance ourselves from it/numb ourselves, or we can find a middle way, to walk with the trauma.
I aim to walk that middle way.
And it’s really not taught in nursing or midwifery school. If we are lucky, a friend, classmate, or colleague tells us about theoretical and practical work around secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization, and trauma stewardship. These are all different ways to say that people who take care of people that experience trauma also need to be taken care of. I am lucky that I learned about this field of research/practice among caregivers some years ago.
…Because if you don’t realize how bearing witness to others’ trauma impacts you, and work on it, it can take over. One who was once empathic, laughing easily, and finding meaning in life and work can fade into someone cynical and burnt out…someone who is ultimately not only unhappy in life but also an ineffective caregiver. In other words, it should be taught in nursing/midwifery/medical/PA/education/PT/OT etc. school — and supported by healthcare (and other) institutions.
I’m glad I’m tuning into this two weeks into seeing patients, and not, say, two months or two years. Because I have my emotional work cut out for me, not to mention clinically, as I develop competencies as a new provider — and I’m ready for it.
And that’s why I love and am honored to be a midwife.
*I also laughed and smiled with loads of patients, and many told me they hoped I’d be there to catch their baby or to see them in clinic next time. So it’s gratifying in fun ways too!