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With Harp and Sword: Trauma, Survivorship, and Reproductive Health

“I have been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots, then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

-Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road

 

In Kenya M. Fairley’s recently published book, With Harp and Sword: A Doula’s Guide to  Providing Trauma-Informed Birth Support, she answers the call to action that many women of color birth workers have been waiting for. This book is a spiritual gathering of knowledge, wisdom, and evidence-based research. As a survivor and a birth worker I have long needed the tools to support survivors who I see struggling through birth and even visualizing having their babies. A wise birth worker once told me that the same muscles that are impacted by trauma must be used to pass a child through a woman’s body. This changed my entire perspective on birth and survivorship and became a point of advocacy and entry for me. Pregnancy can be just one aspect of a survivor’s life, and this book opens a new world for understanding how to support survivors in general but with special emphasis on their reproductive health needs and concerns.

 

When I learned about Kenya Fairley’s book I ordered it right away and waited patiently for it to arrive in the mail. I believe that trauma-informed care should be taken so seriously, especially after hearing women tell stories about being triggered during the childbirth or even at routine appointments where physicians need to use a speculum or to do a pelvic test. Fairley’s single-authored book resonates with the hearts of women of color reproductive justice advocates who do daily work on the ground to ensure advocacy and justice for women from all walks of life, including survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The intersection of survivorship and birth work is so understudied and overlooked, especially when it is concerning women of color,yet Fairley takes the time to center it in her latest work. I am forever grateful for this book. It is easy to read and digestible to a diverse readership. This groundbreaking text declares agency and autonomy for survivors who are giving birth, no matter where they are birthing be it at home, a hospital, or a birthing center.

 

 In her book, Fairley takes stock of the lives of pregnant survivors in the second part of the book where she details the following: “For pregnant survivors, the impact of sexual violence may have on women’s pregnancy and labor can include: disbelief about the pregnancy, increasing anxiety related to her ever-changing body, unfamiliar sensations in the pelvic and vaginal areas may reactivate trauma, emotional disconnection to her growing baby, trepidation and fear about the birth and experience, flashbacks, nightmares, disturbed sleep patterns, harmful coping practices, delayed access to prenatal and maternal health care.” This is not even an exhaustive list of all of the things that pregnant survivors encounter emotionally, spiritually and physically.

 

The level of disturbance to the body and the psyche after trauma lives on into pregnancy as well as labor and deliver. Fairley writes in depth about the triggers and problems that can arise, stall labor, and sometimes lead to outcomes that were unexpected. She posits trauma-informed care as beneficial to all women given the commonality of abuse and violence against women.

 

As the author so eloquently writes “trauma echoes” are the experiences pregnant survivors come up against that are related to their sexual assault or experiences with ongoing violence. This is so important because “survivors may feel out of control of their body and/or mind, intense sensations,standard positions for birth may increase vulnerability, exposure, and loss of dignity and modesty, use of dim lighting or closed doors, small spaces may trigger painful memories.” The book offers this knowledge so that doulas can be prepared when survivors request guidance, want practical suggestions and assistance, and need greater planning to support trauma echoes.

 

This book acts as the wings for a doula who is struggling in mid-air to support survivors (or who is a survivor herself).

 

The guide is just as much a how-to companion for every full spectrum doula, as it is a personal narrative of trauma and recovery. Fairley writes on experiencing both trauma and resilience as a triumphant introduction into rebirthing oneself, recommitting one’s life’s work, and resisting retraumatization. She uses the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from the Center for Disease Control to let readers know that one in three women experience violence from their partners, one in five women are survivors of rape, and one in two women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

 

The text makes known the ways these violences and multiple assaults impact laboring and birthing women. It is also a common trend for women who are pregnant to experience domestic violence during their pregnancy. It is said that four to eight percent of women face this challenge and work to survivor this ongoing tragedy. The book unearths the struggles of pregnant and laboring women who, as she writes, understand that “memory lives in the body.” With this in mind she writes about the possibility and potential of a journey towards peace.

 

Fairley spends the latter half of the book discussing strategies like continuous support and understanding health risks for mom and baby. The strategies and tactics for providing support take into consideration the trauma echoes and survivorship each individual brings to their birth journey. The book is full of doula strategies for self-care and engaging trauma survivors, affirmations, breastfeeding and bottle feeding, postpartum recovery, and mantras for a healthy, safe delivery. She suggests “Active birthing positions increases women’s control over their bodies and their birth because they are powerfully engaged in managing the positioning of their bodies and the sensations of their baby moving down and through the birth passage.” Some other suggestions include healing through art, bodywork, reiki, birth affirmations, prenatal yoga, and blessing way ceremonies.


Fairly intimately describes the impact of trauma and domestic violence on pregnant and laboring women. Throughout the text there are mantras to be shared with women who are expecting in order to ground themselves in peaceful, healing energy along their journey. This book is a meditation, a home, a hand, for those struggling with the triggers and sensations of labor and birth as it impacts survivors.

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