Adrienne Camhi, a mom of one in Evanston, Illinois, planned to deliver her daughter Neva naturally. She hoped to labor at home as long as possible, move around frequently to ease her pains and go epidural-free for the duration.
“I did yoga four days a week leading up to my delivery,” she recalls. “I thought it would help [me to have] a medication-free vaginal delivery.”
However, after 36 “long, frustrating and scary” hours of labor, baby Neva started showing signs of distress, and Camhi was rushed off for an emergency C-section so swiftly that her husband wasn’t even able to be in the room. “It was in complete opposition with my plan,” says Camhi.
Many moms face a harsh truth in the delivery room: We don’t have quite as much control as we’d like to think. In fact, we often research our options, thoughtfully pen our birth plans, prepare mentally and physically for the big day—and then watch all our ambitions fly out the window as our labors unfold.
Facing the facts
Although the most common delivery day shakeup is an unexpected C-section, there are many occurrences that could leave you feeling dissatisfied with your birthing experience: opting for an epidural in the heat of the moment when you’d really hoped not to have one; missing the window for an epidural and feeling like the pain of delivery prevented you from being emotionally present at the moment of birth; needing an episiotomy or assisted delivery; or simply not feeling like your birth team was on your side.
“Birth will go the way birth goes,” says Carrie Contey, PhD, human development specialist and co-author of CALMS: A Guide to Soothing Your Baby. “You can prepare endlessly and still have things go completely differently than expected.”
The experience—good or bad—will have a profound effect on you. Reality might hit you hard and fast upon delivery, or you might not realize how upset you are until later. But it’s important to acknowledge that things happened the way they did—and that it’s OK.
Immediately following Neva’s arrival, Camhi was fine—she was mostly just relieved that Neva arrived healthy. But as the excitement of the event wore off, “I felt sad and anxious when I thought about my labor experience,” she admits. “I felt like I had missed out on the beautiful moment I hoped labor would be.”
Feeling the feelings
There’s a very real and true grief process that moms who’ve had a rough delivery go through. You prepared for and envisioned this day for months, and now you’ll never get to experience it the way you’d hoped. You’ve suffered a loss, and that can be pretty devastating.
“Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of the experience you were hoping to have,” Contey advises. “Whatever you are feeling is valid.” You may be sad, angry or disappointed. Don’t try to hide that. “Allow those feelings to be there without dismissing them or stuffing them down in hopes they will go away,” encourages Contey. It’s normal to mourn a little bit, even if you’re holding a perfectly healthy baby in your arms. Being sad about how things happened does not diminish your love for your baby.
If you need to cry or vent, let it out. “The more you can allow the feelings to flow, the quicker they will be recognized and then shift,” Contey assures. Whatever you’re feeling, go ahead and feel it; it’s the only way you’ll be able to let it go, so you can focus on moving forward.
Bonding with baby
In the aftermath of a delivery day gone wrong, you can still take steps to steer things back to the terms you’d preferred. Just because some things changed doesn’t automatically mean everything has to. Make the most of what you can control, Contey says. “As soon as you are up for it, get that baby skin-to-skin.”
That’s what Camhi did—and with positive results. The emergency C-section prevented her from being able to hold Neva immediately (two hours passed before she was strong enough to have Neva lie on her chest), but when it finally happened, the newbie latched on immediately and had no problem nursing.
“I thought [delivering naturally] and being able to do skin-to-skin immediately after delivery would allow me to have a better connection with my child and for her to breastfeed more successfully,” Camhi says. But, thankfully, she was able to get the results she desired, even with a two-hour delay.
Immediate interaction is great, but true bonding takes time. When you’re both well and home from the hospital, you can enjoy talking to, caring for and getting to know your baby. “This is a long relationship, and you have plenty of time to get connected,” reminds Contey. “If it doesn’t happen right away, it’s alright.”
Emotions can come in waves in the days, weeks and months following delivery, warns Contey. Some new moms find themselves unable to come to terms with their birth experiences. If this is the case, call your OB or midwife; she’ll want to evaluate you and possibly refer you to a trusted health care provider who can walk with you through the process. “You don’t have to work this out alone,” stresses Contey. “There are trained professionals out there who can listen … and help settle your nervous system after a big experience like giving birth.”
And lest you start thinking it’s all in your head, Contey explains that there’s a biological process behind why you feel the way you do: “When we go through big events that are physically scary or life threatening, we can get stuck in a fight-or-flight state.” Afterward, everything can seem frightening and unsafe. In fact, it’s not unheard of for a traumatic birth experience to result in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You might not be able to work through the process all on your own, and there is no shame in that.
Another emotion that might be at play is guilt—guilt that you didn’t give your baby the peaceful arrival she deserved, or guilt that not feeling satisfied with your birth experience makes you a selfish mom. As long as your baby’s healthy, you should be happy, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Following the birth of Neva, Camhi says she was grateful to the medical staff and thankful for a healthy baby. “But I still had a hard time letting go of what I had wanted labor and delivery to be,” she confesses.
As the old adage goes, time heals all wounds, and working through the grief process allows most moms to look back on their birthing experiences objectively. Camhi acknowledges that it was a rough road, but when she was holding her sweet baby in her arms, she didn’t mind. For most moms, the negative emotions associated with the experience pass, and the joy of motherhood takes center stage.
When it comes to birthing your baby, perhaps Camhi has the best advice: “Don’t worry how you receive your child into this world. Once you hold your little one and let go of your expectations (and others’ opinions) of what labor and delivery should be, the world is a much better place.”