When birth does not go as you’d hoped…

Speech bubbles with insensitive Comments

Can you think of anything worse to say to a mom who is opening up about feelings of disappointment or pain after a difficult birth? I can’t. The unsaid subtext mom hears goes something like this:

“Just be glad you have a healthy baby. Any other emotions you have don’t count. There is only one acceptable emotion to experience after having a baby and that’s pure happiness and joy. Anything else means you are doing it wrong.”

“A healthy baby is the ONLY thing that matters. You, as a mother, don’t matter. Any fear, pain, or helplessness you felt during your birth does not matter. You are unimportant, your experience is irrelevant, and you should get used to it.”

“I don’t know why you are upset, from what I can see, your birth was perfect and you are being unreasonable if you are unhappy about that!”

If I could help new moms understand just ONE thing about processing their birth experiences, it would be this:
You can feel pain or disappointment from your birth and be happy about your baby at the same time!

It is possible to be happy and disappointed at the same time. It is OK to experience BOTH joy and pain at the same time. Negative emotions do not invalidate the happiness and positivity of birth. Having a mix of emotions about your birth is very common and normal.

Your feelings about your birth do not have to be ALL happiness. You can be happy that your birth was amazing AND disappointed a little as well. You can be sad that your planned natural birth turned into a cesarean AND happy to be snuggling your healthy newborn. You can be happy about how your birth went AND sad that breastfeeding is a struggle. You can be thrilled that you were able to birth unmedicated AND struggle with how intense your precipitous labor was and how overwhelmed you felt.

Jen Shipston, from Queensland, Australia, wrote this about her most recent birth experience:

“When I was pregnant, I was informed, excited, confident and knew exactly what I wanted. I did everything I could to ensure a safe and happy birth. One of the things that was so very important to me was having the birth documented, something I’d also wanted with my second but that did not happen. I booked my photographer/videographer almost as quickly as I booked my midwife! The time came for my baby to arrive. I let my photographer know things had started, and kept her updated in the hours that followed. I called her when things were still quite slow and manageable, but not stopping, because she lived just over an hour away. 2 contractions later my waters broke, and my girl arrived beautifully, into my arms, in water – just as I’d wished for, 50 minutes later. 20 minutes before the photographer arrived. My birth was amazing but I was so disappointed to have missed having it documented. It seemed silly – I had an amazing birth, so something as insignificant as photos shouldn’t matter, right? But those photos/video were not insignificant to me, and I mourned…I can be disappointed about what didn’t go to plan while still being thrilled about my birth experience and completely besotted by my baby. Because that’s just how birth is.”

There’s no need to feel guilt over your feelings. Feelings are what they are.

Birth photographer and videographer Brooke Walsh, also a mom who experienced very mixed emotions about her birth that made it hard to talk about, shares what she’s learned:

“For most women, birth is a mix of glee and sorrow. It’s easy to feel that these divergent emotions don’t belong together, but they are perfectly valid. Somewhere in sifting through them we become better mothers, cognizant of the joy and hard work in our lives with our children as they grow, just as we found in birth. Being joyful about the beautiful moments in your birth does not tarnish the validity of the traumatic moments, nor does accepting and working through birth trauma remove the bliss from your baby’s birth. Sometimes birth is a mystery of divergent elements.”

You may find, though, that there are many in your life who are not willing to hear about how you feel. Hopefully you have someone in your life who will be willing to debrief and discuss with you. You can see if your midwife, doula, or childbirth educator can talk with you. Online, you may find the group Solace for Mothers to be helpful. This group was founded with the sole purpose of providing mothers with a place to work through emotions after a difficult birth.

Locally, I really like the women at The Healing Group for all kinds of support and help during the childbearing year.

I love this article, called “Making Peace With Your Birth Experience” by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett as a resource for helping moms process their birth experience.

If you are a friend, family member, doula, or lactation consultant wondering what you CAN do to help, here are some suggestions:

  1. Listen. JUST listen. Don’t tell mom what you think she could have done better, don’t try to find reasons for what happened, don’t try to make her feel better, don’t try to “focus on the positive” JUST LISTEN with full attention and some occasional reflective listening. Some moms might feel more comfortable talking if you work together on a talk like washing dishes or folding laundry rather than a face-to-face talk.
  2. If she needs to cry, let her cry. Don’t try to console her or make her stop, just hold her and comfort her while she cries.
  3. Don’t tell your birth stories. This is not about you. Your positive birth stories make it seem like you are trying to show you did it better, your difficult stories can turn into a “well I had it worse than you did!”
  4. Let her know you’re willing to listen again another time if she needs to talk. She may not be ready yet. She may need to talk more than once. Sometimes it takes moms a few times to process things. Sometimes they don’t get to the full depth of their experience the first time.
  5. Don’t tell her she can do better next time. While this is true, it does not help her process through THIS birth experience. A better birth next time will not erase this experience. When she’s ready to have another baby, then ask her if she’s open to suggestions.
  6. Don’t tell her to “focus on the positive” – instead allow her to process any negativity so she can move on. And SHE gets to decide when she’s processed enough, when she’s ready to move on.

Becoming a mom (or a mom again!) can be a difficult enough adjustment, let’s all gather around new moms and give them the freedom to feel and process their experiences without judgement, and with plenty of loving support.

JennJanuary 5, 2013 - 12:23 am

I love that you put this together. It is beautifully done and I hope that every mother knows that what ever feelings and emotions she is having are prefectly acceptable. I also wish that people would listen more and talk less. We all have probably made the mistake of not saying the right thing to a person in pain and it hurts more than ever. Most of the time not meant to cause harm but listening is a gift that will be treasured.

staceyAugust 2, 2013 - 10:48 am

This is fabulous. I was looking for a good resource for my clients and was happy to find one written by a doula here in Utah that I know! Thanks Andrea!

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