Two-thirds of women report feeling very positive about their birth experience and the care they received. Of course, that means that one-third do not. If you find yourself among the 30 percent of women for whom birth was a disappointment or even a traumatic event, you are not alone. And there are concrete things you can do to come to some kind of peace with the way your baby entered the world.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL ALL YOUR EMOTIONS:
There will be a lot of pressure from friends, relatives, and even medical professionals to put your birth behind you and just be grateful that “you’re healthy and your baby is healthy.” But there’s a big problem with that well-intentioned approach. “That’s not the way emotions work,” says psychotherapist Sarah Best, LCSW. “If you try to wish them away, or stuff them down inside you, they just come out later in less helpful ways.” Acknowledging your emotions is one of the best things you can do.
Some of the Emotions You May Be Feeling:
“The first thing you should do is really give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling,” says Best. “You can love your baby and love motherhood and appreciate that the day your baby was born was a wonderful day and concurrently hate that day and feel upset about it.”
TALK ABOUT IT WITH SUPPORTIVE PEOPLE:
All the experts on recovering from difficult or traumatic births emphasize the importance of talking about your experience with someone you trust.
One of the most powerful interviews I did for this book was with Pam England, CNM, author of Ancient Map for Modern Birth. England launched a new phase of her career as a childbirth educator after her first delivery—which was supposed to be a non-medicated home birth—ended up in the last thing she wanted: a C-section. She now runs a program called Birth Story Medicine in which trained “birth listeners” listen to women share their stories and help them process those stories and come to a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what went down.
Often England says that women begin the process with a belief about themselves, such as “I am weak, because I needed an epidural.” England’s goal is to help women achieve a more complex and less self-critical understanding of what happened. So that, at the end of a session, a woman might go from “I failed at birth because I had an epidural” to “I didn’t like having an epidural, but it doesn’t mean I am weak as a person. It was really hard. I did my best.”
“A woman can always wish she didn’t have an epidural; that’s fine,” says England. “But wishing she didn’t have one is different from believing that she is a bad person because she had one.”
HAVE A RESPONSE READY FOR EVERYONE ELSE:
“When someone who is well-intentioned or ill-informed tells moms to ‘get over it’ or ‘it doesn’t matter,’ it’s helpful to have a succinct but clear statement in your pocket ready to go,” says Best. Something like, “‘I’m really happy I have this baby, but birth didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I’m making sense of those feelings, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.’ Or ‘And I’d like you to listen to me while I talk them through.’”
This may be especially true if you were part of a birth class that had a particular childbirth goal—such as a non-medicated birth. “Some moms who have traumatic or disappointing birth experiences worry about ‘When I go back to the class, people are going to ask me how it went.’ I recommend they come up with something in advance that they feel comfortable sharing, like, ‘There were some complications, and we had to deviate from our plan.’”
KNOW THAT YOUR FEELINGS CAN CHANGE:
“How you feel about your birth in the immediate postpartum period doesn’t predict how you will feel about it one year, five years, or ten years down the road,” says Best. And there are lots of professionals out there like England and Best who can help you find your way to feeling at greater peace (or even positive about) what happened. (See here for tips on finding mental health professionals and England’s website, Birthingfromwithin.com, to find a birth listener.)
GET MORE INFORMATION:
“Sometimes women who have had a challenging birth experience have a lot of questions about what happened,” says Best. “So talking to their care provider or even getting a copy of their records can be helpful.”
Best did this when she was considering a vaginal birth after Cesarean (VBAC), following a traumatic C-section with her first child. “It was so lovely to see the nurse’s notes from that first birth: ‘Mother coping well, mother coping well,’” says Best. “Turns out I was doing really well until there was a serious emergency and I needed an immediate C-section. I didn’t ‘fail.’ It was like the medical record was talking to me.”
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DISAPPOINTMENT AND TRAUMA:
When Best talks with a client who went through a difficult delivery, she makes sure to look for any signs that she could be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, which can happen after a traumatic birth experience, in particular if you felt concerned for your own life or your baby’s life during delivery.
See here for a detailed explanation of PTSD, the symptoms that accompany it, and how to get support and help if you experience them.
Been There, Done That: Moms Talk About How They Felt About Their Deliveries
I wish I’d understood that babies just do not follow plans. Planning to birth at home and then needing to transfer to the hospital was very disappointing and traumatic. I was angry that the birth did not go the way I wanted it to, and I think all those sunny birth videos did not help. I felt robbed that my birth was not like that.
My birth plan was thrown out the window with my first child because my doctor wanted to induce labor. Ultimately, a C-section was performed. I was angry and wished I had said no to the induction. It took me years to get over the loss of being able to actually deliver my baby. I felt guilty for my feelings, because I had a healthy baby. It took finding an online community of women with similar experiences to finally let go.
I was induced because of gestational diabetes. After thirty hours, they decided to do a C-section, and because I had been on antibiotics during labor, my son also had to be in the nursery to get an IV. It felt like being kicked when I wasdown. When I had trouble breastfeeding on top of it, I felt like my body had failed at all the things women are meant to do. What helped was realizing that what I went throughwas traumatic, and telling the story. Allow yourself to feel all these things fully and accept that it sucks and what you went through was really, really difficult.
—ELIZABETH, CLINTON, NEW JERSEY
I had an unexpected C-section, and I gave myself permission to grieve the “perfect birth” and that helped a lot. I didn’t feel like I had to “Get over it” or “Be happy that I had a healthy baby.” I was grateful and happy, but I was also sad and disappointed, and I allowed myself to feel those feelings simultaneously. It aided in my healing and being able to move past the event. But still, ten years later, it’s an important part of the story of my life.