We all know that life – let alone birth – doesn't always go according to plan.
However, birth is a massive life event that a woman will never forget, and sadly, not all women end up with the birth (and memory) that they were hoping for.
For some women, their birth experience is almost unrecognisable from the carefully thought out birth plan they filled out with their midwife weeks before. No matter how flexible or easy going the mother-to-be was, after nine months of worrying and daydreaming, it's almost impossible not to feel disappointed when birth doesn't go the way you imagined it might.
Some women spend months planning a blissful home waterbirth, only to be transferred to hospital to birth their baby. Others may long to have a natural birth, but end up medicated as they welcome their baby into the world.
A whopping one out of every three births in Australia and the United States ends in a c-section. This is well over the World Health Organization's recommendation of 10-15 percent. After this point, research has shown that it doesn't save lives. Therefore, many c-sections are not life saving and are unnecessary — and new mothers are left having to pick up the pieces, with a new baby in their arms.
A disappointing or traumatic birth, huge shifts in hormones and a physical and emotional recovery can make for a very difficult time. If she's had a c-section, there will be a longer physical recovery period too. Sadly, the rates of depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) are way higher than they should be – because birth experiences significantly impact women. A new mother may feel like she's in the middle of the ocean drowning… then someone throws her a baby.
Not only does Australia and the United States (as well as other countries) have a poor medical support system for homebirth, but our intervention rates are way too high. In addition, people believe that a new mother’s feelings about the birth aren’t important – as long as the baby is okay.
When someone you care about doesn't get the birth experience she longed for, it can be hard to find the right words to say. You may feel like shying away from the conversation. Or perhaps brushing her experience under the carpet, by saying, “At least it was worth it in the end!”, or, “All that matters is the baby is healthy!” This is what she wanted too. But what you're actually doing is saying her feelings don’t matter, when they do.
Would you tell someone with depression, “At least you're alive, aye!”
All women are different, and there is no way to predict how your friend or family member will be feeling about the birth. Try not to put words in her mouth. Instead, give her the space to talk, and vocalise your support for her.
Here are some things that your friend may appreciate hearing as she comes to terms with the birth:
#1: “Do You Want To Talk About It?”
Don't approach the subject with hungry eyes and a gossipy tone, instead acknowledge that not everyone wants to discuss their birth stories, especially right away. Instead of hurling a series of questions at her, ask her whether she wants to tell you about the birth, and then let her lead the conversation. All too often birth stories are devoured as gossip, but remember, this isn't just a story, it's your friend's life. If she says that she would rather not talk about it, accept this but offer your ear should she ever want to discuss it in the future.
#2: “That Must Have Been Hard/Scary/Upsetting”
There is a tendency to hear birth stories as ‘freak shows’, and to forget that these stories are about real people. Listen to what she is saying, and empathise with her. Identify the emotions you are picking up on, and express them so that she knows you understand. Leave out the OMGs, and instead focus on the raw emotions being expressed in this story. Remember, your friend may not have had time to sort through her feelings about the birth yet, and this may be one of the first time she has talked in detail about it.
#3: “You Are Such A Strong, Amazing Woman”
Women who feel let down by their birth experience, often worry that they have failed. They may feel they have missed out on that sense of empowerment and strength that some women discuss when telling birth stories, and this can lead to feelings of insecurity. All women have inner strength, and accepting a change in a birth plan can be a very difficult thing to do, though it may not feel it at the time. Congratulate your friend on her decisions and strength, and show her that you think she is a warrior, even without the birth she was planning.
#4: “I'm Sorry It Didn't Go To Plan”
Society seems to be almost uncomfortable with the idea that a woman may feel resent after the birth of a healthy baby, as though it is a mother's duty to accept any means to an end. In reality, however, many women feel upset or disappointed with their birth experiences, and some feel uncomfortable about voicing these feelings for fear of being seen as selfish. By sharing your condolences, you can help your friend to accept her feelings as normal, and know that she has the support of her loved ones around her.
#5: “Are You Ok?”
Women who share their traumatic birth stories are often met with comments about how the birth would have been worth it now that the baby is here. Of course, any mother will tell you that the safe birth of her baby was the most important factor – but, and it's a big but, it wasn't the only factor. How a baby is born is important too, especially to the mother. It may take her a while to emotionally recover from the birth at a time where her hormones are undergoing a significant adjustment, and she may find herself grieving the birth experience she didn't get. By asking whether she's ok, you're not only showing her that you care, but also that you are one of the few who understand that healing is not just a physical process. And NEVER mention the ‘H’ word (hormones). That too undermines her feelings and may serve to make her go deeper and darker into herself.
#6: “Your Feelings DO Matter. It's Ok To Be Disappointed”
Some new mothers experience feelings of guilt, and worry that they are selfish for feeling disappointed in the birth. This can prevent women from speaking openly and honestly about their feelings. These feelings may not seem too common, but in reality this is because women feel unable to express these emotions, and instead feel they should soldier on. Let your friend know that it's ok to feel disappointed, and that it is in fact a completely normal and healthy emotion to feel.
#7: “Have You Considered Professional Birth De-Briefing?”
If the woman you care about seems really stuck with her feelings about her birth, more independent birth professionals are offering birth debriefing services. They can be hard to find, so a good port of call is a doula or independent (homebirth) midwife. They have counselling skills with an understanding of the birth process, so they can help women heal from a traumatic or disappointing birth.
#8: “Have You Heard About Birth Reclaiming Ceremonies?”
This is another beautiful little ritual to help mothers heal after a difficult birth. Some doulas offer this service, and even if others don’t, many are more than happy to help with one. A birth reclaiming ceremony gives the mother an opportunity to be in the same environment as she hoped for her birth (with her baby). For example, if the woman transferred to hospital after a planned home waterbirth, she will have an opportunity to get back into the birth pool (or bath), with a loving, supportive, understanding person who will be their ‘guardian of grief'. Lisa Chalmers from Australian Doulas has helped several post-natal mothers with a birth release ceremony. She says, “I think it is so important that a woman doesn't do this alone… we need our pain validated and this can be so emotional for women.”
Read more about birth reclaiming ceremonies (which includes an amazing story) in our article HERE.
#9: “I'm Always Here, If You Ever Want To Talk”
She may not feel like talking right now, perhaps she never will, but even just knowing that she has people who care about her, may help her to feel more positive. Let her know that you care, and that you are always on call if she needs you. Let her know that she is loved and important, and that you are part of her much-needed support network now that she is a mother. Knowing that people are there for her, even if she never calls on you, could help her to feel supported during this recovery period after the birth.
Highly recommended: Is A Healthy Baby All That Matters?