The Ghosts of the Not-So-Perfect Birth
By Denise Varela, LMHC
I had all the tools I thought I needed to overcome my fears, my doubts, and my worries about my first child. I researched everything I could about natural birth. I enrolled in an expensive birth education class, and, obsessively, I read everything I could get my hands on. I was determined to make my birth different from what my mother experienced. I would be the natural-birthing, breastfeeding, attachment-parenting warrior I often criticized my mother of not being.
To be fair, my mother had the chips stacked against her. She was from Puerto Rico, spoke very little English, and had little support from my father. A mixture of mental illness and lack of family support made for a scary experience bringing her first child into the world. When my mother told me my birth story, it was filled with fear of the unknown, being in horrible pain, being drugged and knocked out for the “main event”, and ending in my mom only having vague and indistinct memories of the process of my arrival. “This will NOT be me!” I declared triumphantly. But inside, the fear turned over and over in my stomach. I rehearsed my birth plan in my mind and told the father of my children to do the same. As a therapist in training, I was engaged in my own therapy, and discussed in depth with the therapist my fears related to the baby. My therapist gently reminded me that I was not my mother, and that I was not doomed to repeat her mistakes; but the ghosts of my mother’s “not-so-perfect” birth lingered inside of me. What if things didn’t go as planned? What if one of my choices caused me to experience exactly what my mother had been through? I couldn’t enjoy my pregnancy fully thinking about the potential hazards that may or may not lay ahead.
Anxiety can suck the life out of you. Worse yet, many people fail to understand how a person suffering with anxiety feels. Hearing someone tell you, “Oh, stop it”, or “Just stop thinking about it,” or my personal favorite, “Relax!” can actually cause more anxiety. Anxiety disorders can cause distressful emotional and physical symptoms, and can be severe in intensity. It can range from a general uneasiness and worry that won’t go away, to feeling an intense amount of fear that causes you to believe you are going to die. With the ebb and flow of feelings one has during a pregnancy, anxiety can be easily exacerbated, especially if you have struggled with it in the past.
After the birth of my daughter, I was severely traumatized. Things did not go as I had planned. My midwife and husband stood by me as my “perfect birth plan” unraveled. I got an epidural after 2 days of slow labor at home, followed by Pitocin at the hospital. After my baby was born, the doctor cut the cord right after birth, and I didn’t get to hold the baby very long after she was born. Then, my uterus would not contract and the doctor had to manually and painfully stop me from bleeding out. I almost died giving birth; after the birth, the thought of this would not leave me alone. Looking at my baby would cause a wave of fear to flow through me, and I fought tooth and nail to keep close to her at every moment. Truthfully, there were times I wanted to be away from this “little reminder” that everything I had planned went wrong, and I had almost lost my life because of this. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt because I blamed myself for what had happened. My dark fear was that I had missed out on attaching to her, just as I believed my mother had.
To add insult to injury, I tried to get my daughter to breastfeed; after days of trying on my own, I tearfully gave her a bottle full of formula. I must have cried every single time I filled that bottle with formula for at least two weeks after that day. After all that planning and prepping, I felt the ghosts of my mom’s “not-so-perfect” birth were haunting me. I started berating myself; telling myself I had failed. I would look at my child every feeding and think how much of a failure I was, and how much she would suffer because of it. I imagined gloom and doom for both of us, because I had not achieved the perfect birth.
Weeks later, in therapy, a thought struck me. What if the “not-so-perfect” birth could be a way to exorcise the ghosts from my mother’s experience? If I made an active choice to walk a different path after the events I had been through, maybe the ghosts wouldn’t control my emotions and actions the way they had for my mother. Instead of living in fear that I had done some incredibly damaging things to my child, maybe I could believe that despite the “not-so-perfect” start, I could have a “pretty-damn-awesome” motherhood. Maybe I could learn to hear the ghosts’ voices and gently reply, “Even though I hear you, you will not be as loud as before, and I don’t have to follow you.”
I won’t pretend doing that was easy. It has probably been the hardest thing for me to do in my life, and still have to do it every day. Because wish though I might, the ghost lingers. Albeit a whisper, it is there. I don’t believe it will ever go away. What I do know is, it no longer holds me the way it once did. I faced the nightmare and the fears it contained, and it served to birth a stronger, more vibrant birth story for myself and my daughter. Not one of being a victim to circumstances, but one of taking adversity and transforming it to fit my life, my vision, and my version of motherhood.
Two years later, I found myself in the same situation, ready to give birth to my son, with a plan in hand; but this time I held the loving intention in my heart that “even if things don’t go the way I plan, the birth will still be good.” I cried as my midwife told me we couldn’t have the water birth I wanted, and as I got the epidural and Pitocin once more, I grieved because I knew this was my last child, and my vision of a “perfect birth” was lost. The voices rose up in a chorus, yelling to me of impending doom, and of critical insults; but I moved forward. My son, to everyone’s surprise, was born in the caul, which brought many a nurse out from behind the nursing station. My midwife exclaimed that this was indeed a special birth. “Take that ghosts!” I thought to myself.
Since these events, I have felt a pull to work with women who have been through similar situations, and describe the birth of their child as traumatic. Some have a great sense of fear surrounding their upcoming birth because of what they have heard about birth in the past. I hear them filled with resentment towards well-meaning people who, trying to help, do more harm than good by minimizing their fears or telling them to “relax.” They suffer silently at times, not wanting others to call them crazy, and they feel a deep sense of shame, guilt, regret, pain, worry and fear when things don’t go exactly as planned. Birth can be a wonderful, orgasmic, enjoyable, life changing event for most. It can be a traumatic, scary, life changing event for others. In my opinion, no matter what the circumstances around the birth are, it is life changing. You have the choice of how you will move through the events that shape your birth. The ghosts of the “not-so-perfect” births of our mothers, our sisters or even ourselves may try to lead you down a dark path, but remember the steps you take regardless of where you are on your walk into motherhood are yours to take. And if your birth was “not-so-perfect”, there is support, counseling, and a sisterhood of other women out there that have heard the ghost’s voices, and can help you lower the volume to a whisper.
So, how do you transform a “not-so-perfect” birth into a “pretty-damn-awesome” motherhood? It’s a long journey. It’s a different journey for everyone. Some women can say they walk it on their own. Others need to walk with a professional counselor. Some need medical interventions, natural or pharmaceutical. Some need to process the past, and learn to live in the present. Some must come to terms with the trauma they survived and walk a path towards healing. None of the paths are easy or short.
You may be trying to keep positive, and I encourage you to hold that warm intention in your heart for your birth; but if outcomes don’t occur as planned, the ghosts of trauma, guilt and shame may be screaming in your ears. Instead, voice the fears but welcome the possibility that things will go well. Hold the possibilities of the good and most positive birth experience possible while holding the knowledge that what will be, will be. Most of all, love yourself and accept the birth for what it is – a transforming, movement into motherhood full of excitement, joy, hardship, disappointments, courage, strength, awesomeness, sleeplessness, feminine power and a little of all of the above – regardless if it is an ideal birth or a “not-so-perfect” birth.