When Giving Birth Doesn't Go As You Planned

“All that matters is a healthy baby.”

A well-meaning phrase that most people intend to be supportive, but can rip out the heart of a mom recovering from and processing through a traumatic birth that didn't go according to plan.

Of course baby’s health is of the utmost importance to a mother. Suggesting otherwise is insulting. But let me be clear, it is not the ONLY thing that matters. A woman’s experience also matters, and her resulting feelings, whatever they may be, are valid. Because moms matter, too...

How Our Birth Plan Went Awry

While keeping an open mind, I had high hopes of a peaceful water birth for our first child when I wrote out our birth plan. I took a natural birthing class and read passages by Ina May Gaskin. I surrounded myself with friends who understood our goals and shared them. I sought out a doula, midwife and birthing center that were aligned with our beliefs. It wasn’t until after a failed induction, 38-hour labor, a myriad of interventions and an urgent c-section that I learned about this not-so-little thing called birth trauma.

I remember how isolating the feelings of birth trauma were. The first few times I tried to talk about my experience and my feelings, I felt shut down. I heard that we were both healthy, so I should just be grateful. Of course I was grateful, but I was also sad. And confused. What went wrong? And that I should be relieved that at least I didn’t have vaginal tearing. Yes, I wholeheartedly agreed that was a good thing. But I had this awful six-inch incision across my abdomen and that hurt like hell too. And of course that I shouldn’t have agreed to an induction at all. Well, I assure you my husband, midwife and I didn’t come to that decision lightly at 41 weeks and 4 days. And so what if we did? Does that mean we deserved a traumatic birth experience?

Where was the compassion? The acceptance of my feelings? The support I desperately needed as a new mom?

There were so many things people had to say about MY birth experience that I began to feel ashamed for feeling the way I did. Like it wasn’t ok for me to love my baby and hate his birth. No one seemed to understand that I could feel both. And that one feeling didn’t negate or invalidate the other. I felt so alone.

To Repeat or Not To Repeat. That is the Question.

My son was only 14 months old when that little pink plus sign appeared. Amidst the excitement, I felt panic. Instead of opening up about that panic, I tried to bury it. If I’d learned anything with my first birth experience, it was that it wasn’t safe to talk about birth trauma and presumably not safe to talk about the resulting fear I felt about my impending second birth.

On my very first visit, the OB asked what my birth plan was. Conflicted was an understatement. I was scared and had no idea whether or not to even try for a vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) or to plan for a repeat c-section (RCS). I told him I wasn’t really prepared to make any decisions because both options terrified me. He was understanding, and kind and gentle with his words. He just listened as I wept, appointment after appointment, weighing the options and feeling no more empowered to make a decision, regardless of the overwhelming support or plethora of evidence-based research data he provided.

I simply didn’t know how to trust my body that I had felt failed me so badly the first time around. I felt like my body was a lemon. I didn’t believe it could do it. And I couldn’t let myself want a VBAC, because if I did and I failed, I wasn’t sure I could emotionally handle it.

It wasn’t until somewhere around 6 months after many tearful conversations with my husband, my OB & midwife team, and my very close circle friends that I decided to let my body decide for me. My OB and I agreed to schedule a RCS for a few days for after my due date and if baby girl came on her own before then I would follow my body's lead on it. We explored all the family-centered cesarean options and put plans in place to support us through that (anticipated) recovery. I really believed I was going to the OR and just a few weeks before my due date, I finally made peace with that.

But baby girl had other plans. I went into labor spontaneously at 40 weeks and 1 day. Labor started early on a Monday morning, but my non-believing self kept it to myself for half the day. After all, I was scheduled to go to the OR 48 hours later. Somewhere around lunch that day I casually mentioned to my husband (by text message, no less) and close circle of girlfriends that I’d been having contractions all day. Despite them being about 7 minutes apart, I assured them all that it was nothing and to carry on, business as usual. I just couldn’t believe that it was really happening. That my body had figured something out this time around.

I continued working into the mid afternoon. They finally coaxed me into checking in with my OB after things seemed to be staying consistently around 6-7 minutes apart for a while. Even when I called, I told them that it was probably not worth my time to come in and that I could just plan to come on Wednesday morning, as scheduled. The nurse laughed and said she’d call ahead and they’d expect to see me in an hour or so.  

When we checked into the hospital that night, I was only around 3cm dilated, which only confirmed my doubt. “See?” I said. “I’ve been in labor ALL day and I’m only at 3. My body doesn’t know how to do this.”

Luckily, or maybe it was divine intervention, I was set on not having her birth date be 9/28 (that’s another story, for another day). So I decided to wait until midnight and see what progressed and make a decision from there. By midnight, I had just barely made it to 4cm. I decided to get an epidural in anticipation of going to the OR in the morning, took a sleeping pill and passed out.

Upon waking in the morning to another 4cm report, I decided 24 hours of labor with very little progress was more than I had bargained for. To me it felt like deja vu. I was ready to go the OR. I was terrified that if I didn’t, I’d go through all that work of labor only to end up in the OR anyway, thereby making the recovery that much worse on my body. And I wasn't emotionally prepared to handle that kind of disappointment either. I announced I wanted to stop and do the RCS.

From here, Nurse Angela, I am certain, changed the entire course of our birth experience for the better. Upon telling her I was ready to have the repeat c-section, she left to get me on the OR schedule. When she returned, she said that it was booked solid all morning and I couldn’t get in until noon. Little did I know that she was just trying to give my body more time to progress, to pass this mental block I had. She gave me the gentle nudge I needed to give my body more time, without me even realizing she was doing it. She believed in me even when I didn’t.

Then, somehow, I was at 6cm by lunch… I told them to take me off the OR schedule. And then late that afternoon, I somehow heard the words “8 centimeters”. The realization that I had passed this perceived 6 cm threshold of where I had previously stalled was quite frankly a little jarring. My mind wasn’t prepared to process that information. What did this mean? Was this really happening?!

Turns out, it was.

Even though I never truly believed it would happen and I was terrified the entire time... and it wasn't even until I could reach down and feel her head that I believed it could happen... because it was happening. She was born vaginally about 38 hours after labor started the day before.

Ultimately, everything about my second birth looked and felt so completely different. This time it was also a LONG labor, however unlike the first time it was relatively intervention free. I did get an epidural (thank god for that!), and the midwife did break my water, but that was about it. I let my body do its thing and, miraculously, it did it. I did it. We did it. I had an incredible support team at my side who never stopped believing in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself.

Birth Can Be Healing

I never imagined the healing power this birth would have on me. I’m not saying that my daughter’s birth experience completely makes up for my son’s. I had to allow myself the time and space to mourn the loss of the peaceful water birth I so deeply wanted for him. And I needed people to love me through that pain and accept it as valid, even if they didn’t understand it.

I know that I will probably always carry a bit of an emotional scar from that first experience. But, much like my six-inch incision, the scar is fading and I am much, much stronger now for it. I can appreciate his birth in a new way now. In a way that allows me to feel grateful for the interventions that allowed us both to survive birth relatively unscathed. And I am now better equipped to support another mama through her feelings about her own birth experience, whatever the may be, and for that too I am grateful.

So if you find yourself struggling to work through your own birth trauma or to prepare for a birth after a previous one that didn’t go according to plan, I offer you this:

  • Know that your feelings are valid, real, and important. And if no one else in your own personal little corner of the world gets it, know that at the very least, I do.

  • No one birth defines another. Every birth truly is different, each one is its own. Don’t let past “failures” dictate your future.

  • If you find yourself struggling with a decision about your own birth plan, give yourself space NOT to decide what it will look like right away. You may fluctuate back and forth, even up until the moment baby is crowning, and that's ok too.

  • Know that ultimately whatever path you choose for your next birth, and whatever the reason you choose it, it is valid. Even if that means choosing to pursue other paths to becoming a parent again.

  • Surround yourself with people who both love and support you, and who are willing to stand up for what matters to you (even if they don’t totally get it). That goes for your family, your friends, and your care team.

  • And lastly, don’t be afraid to seek help. Asking for help shows strength. And there are so, so many people and resources out there available to help you understand and navigate these complicated feelings.

Did you write a birth plan? If so, what did that look like compared to the birth experience you had? Were there times you felt overwhelmed with making the decisions about your birth process? Share with us below in the comments.