You did not fail just because your birth didn't go as planned

March 3 2010 | Guest post by Therese Charvet
Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
Photo by Calima Portraits
Photo by Calima Portraits

Q: I planned a natural birth with a midwife and ended up in the hospital with all the medical stuff. I feel like such a failure and can't seem to get over it. Can you help? -Anonymous

Birth is one of those unpredictable, uncontrollable situations in life. You've certainly learned that lesson with your whole body, right? And this is really an important, essential lesson to learn because, as it turns out, most of life is unpredictable and uncontrollable.

So first off: Congratulate yourself for successfully undergoing a "rite of passage" where you learned this important lesson! Especially as Americans, we often think we have control over our lives — and we certainly do more so than most peoples around the planet. But ultimately each of us has to grapple with that which is beyond our control. We have to learn about surrender.

Surrender is different than failure, in that conscious surrender can actually be empowering — imagine that! A sense of failure is just the opposite — totally disempowering. A humble sense about how little control we actually have over some aspects of life is a better attitude. Sometimes "shit happens" and there's nothing we can do except roll along, hopefully with a good attitude about it.

Obviously at some point in your birth experience things went awry, your well-laid plans evaporated! For some women, this happens during pregnancy, for others it happens during the birth; for others it happens when their baby is unhealthy or challenging in other serious ways. Most of the time, the things that happen are beyond our control. Life is just teaching us what life always teaches us: expect the unexpected and learn to dance with it.

So step 1 for "getting over it" is to quit blaming yourself and/or feeling that you failed. Instead, celebrate yourself for being on a "mythic journey" and learn to negotiate the twists and turns in the mysterious river of the woman's blood mystery called Motherhood. Learn to dance with it, laugh with it, cry with it, find the ways you are growing your wisdom as a result.

Also, consider doing some grief work. As someone who facilitates a monthly Wailing Ritual and twice yearly Grief Retreats, I certainly know the importance of releasing emotion! Depression results when there is repressed grief, so when recovering from a traumatic and/or disappointing birth experience– it is essential to set aside some time and/or make an intentional opportunity to feel and release grief or anger you are holding in your body/mind.

It's important that you yell, cry, tell the story with all the emotional embellishments you feel, hopefully held in a supportive, loving group — a mom's support group willing to go deep in this way, a gathering with a few close friends, or a grief ritual like we hold here in the Groves. That kind of release will provide a clearing so you can move on. If you skip this step, the trauma will still be in your body and will continue to stalk you with depression and failure. So get it out!

One positive way to help yourself get over a sense of failure about your birth is to counter every thought about how you failed with a thought of gratitude about something that went right. Don't indulge the negative thoughts; instead, speak aloud a positive affirmation!

No doubt, despite the change in plan, there are many things to be grateful for: you made it through alive (some women don't), your baby is alive (some babies are not), neither of you are paralyzed or impaired as a result of the experience (this happens)…these are some of the basics most women can be thankful for.

Look around every day and find more things to be grateful for: your cute baby quietly sleeping for a moment at your breast, a blooming flower, a sweet breeze, beautiful sunset, cozy moment with your partner, good food, loving friends and family, fresh air, clean water, trees etc. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude, and the sense of failure will die for lack of attention.

You are indeed growing your womb-an wisdom as a result of whatever happened.

Rest assured that despite the fact that your birth experience looked very different than what you had hoped for, you DID, in fact, experience the great rite of passage called Giving Birth! You are indeed growing your womb-an wisdom as a result of whatever happened.

The birth is important, yes, but actually a short-lived experience. Choose not to drag a negative attitude about it (and yourself) for months afterward. Surrender humbly to the reality of what happened, bless yourself for doing the best you could, then let it go.

Now it's time to keep on keepin' on, laughing and crying, dancing with your new baby, with yourself as a mother, with the wild ride on the river of life! Enjoy the ride as often as possible and trust that whatever happens, you are learning and growing and becoming a wiser woman.

  1. "despite the change in plan, there are many things to be grateful for: you made it through alive (some women don’t), your baby is alive (some babies are not), neither of you are paralyzed or impaired as a result of the experience (this happens)…these are some of the basics most women can be thankful for. "

    So very true. Be grateful, and enjoy every moment you can, with no regrets or backward glances. You did everything you could, with the situation you had, and you came through with a wonderful baby and a new mother – you!

  2. This is wonderful advice! Before my pregnancy I was positive I was going to have an au-natural birth, but after a rough pregnancy (bed-rest & pre-eclampsia) I had to accept that medical interventions were necessary, and I was induced. At first I was really devastated, and only prayed that it wouldn't end up in a c-section.

    Well, it did 🙁 My daughter's birth ended up being really REALLY rough. After 16 hours of labor and 3 hours of pushing, I had a c-section. To top it off, the anesthesia never really took, so I was actually able to feel parts of the c-section- yikes!

    Afterward I was surprised that I wasn't disappointed about the way it all turned out. Actually, I kind of wear it as a badge on honor: it was a really hard experience, and yet both me and my beautiful baby girl made it out happy & healthy! And that is the most important thing!

    As it turns out, due to all the complications, it would have been really unlikely that both my daughter and I would've survived a home birth. The experience has dramatically changed my perspective on many things.

  3. Wow, this post really rang true for me, (as I'm sure it will for so many new moms), not for my birth experience but for the day after. When he was about 12 hours old, we found out our baby had several congenital heart defects and would be needing heart surgery almost immediately (he ended up in surgery at 8 days old.) EVERYTHING changed; suddenly there were conditions on everything he would do for the rest of his life: "if his heart is still okay." The first couple of weeks were very hard, hoping he would make it through surgery and then wrapping our heads around the medical care he'll need to follow up with for the rest of his life. But two things kept us going: one, the knowledge that it was out of our hands and that all we could do is have faith in whatever we could– God, the doctors, our ability to care for this baby. Second was a sense of gratitude for everything that had gone right– that our baby was born big and strong (9 lb 9 oz), breastfeeding well right away, and he just happened to be born in the only hospital that could perform his surgery, and that they caught the problems at all, when he could have come home and gone into heart failure.

    Negative thoughts have amazing power and it was so hard to fight them off at times. Whenever I found myself particularly tired or anxious I would see little baby coffins in my mind, I would start wondering how I was going to explain to my older son that the baby was not coming home. But it helped me to remind myself that those thoughts are self-centered– not in a mean, judgmental way but in the way that they would not help bring any positive progress to a situation that I couldn't control.

  4. Thanks for this. I had planned a semi-natural childbirth and ended up with a c-section. I was fine with it because I liked my doctor and felt that she clearly explained what the issues were and why the c-section was the best choice under the circumstances. I ended up with zero disappointment at the change in plans. But what shocked me was how disappointed OTHER WOMEN were in me! THEY felt that I missed out! Or was misled by my doc. They were wrong, and I'm grateful that I got a healthy baby, and got my own health back quickly.

  5. This is a great post. I'm expecting Baby #2 in a month and a half, and my goal is a VBAC but as a result of my c-section, I'm having some anxiety about it and trying to remember to stay positive. I'm taking your words to heart.

  6. Wow! My baby girl was born just 18 days ago. After months of convincing others and myself that the all natural way was best, 24 hours of labor, epidural, pitocin….we had a c-section.

    What a disappointment. This is just so great to read.

  7. I have never given birth myself but your words of wisdom ring true for so many situations in life Therese! Thank you for sharing your advice with us, and best wishes to all the mamas out there and your own experiences

  8. I just wrote about this on my blog . . . we wanted as natural of a birth as we could for a high risk lady like myself, and ended up being in a somewhat emergency situation. I had zero regrets about how it turned out, because in the end we got a gorgeous little baby who was healthy, and a mom that is recovering well.

  9. Still upset that my daughter was born way too early, still feel like my body failed me, still want a do-over (but I don't want any more kids). I know, logically, that I need to see the positive, and I do…most days. But sometimes it still hits me that I totally missed out on something that was really very important to me.

  10. As a homebirth midwife, (with a 3 percent C-section rate) I counsel clients that when you are trying for a natural birth and have a C-section, the element of regret and doubt about birth choices often isn't there to the same degree: you can know you gave yourself and your baby the best chance at a natural birth, and that the C-section was really and truly necessary to keep everyone safe.
    And Marnie, I'm so sorry to hear about your birth, though I would like to reassure others using midwives that most of us would not continue with a home birth plan while a baby was in "severe distress for hours". Again, so sorry that happened to you.

  11. I have had 9 children. My first was an emergency c-section because he was in distress, and too large to come out. I was saddened and frustrated but he was happy. My next 3 were v-backs and those all went well. My 4th was an emergency c-section due to distress. She was born with a hole in her heart and problems with her heart valves. But we both made it. The doctors said, if they would have waited 30 minutes longer for the c-section, my daughter would not have made it. My 5 was a v-back, and then 6,7,and 8th have been c-sections. With 5 c-sections behind me – the doctors say NO MORE!

    For me, the first c-section was impersonal but along the way – I have learned and worked with my doctors – to have them put the baby on my chest as soon as they pull the baby out from a c-section and the baby is breathing – they put the baby on my chest and my husband can hold the baby there. Seeing and being with the baby as soon as possible is the most important. I am simply thankful that all of the children have made it and I made it through. I also am thankful for the experience of the ability of carrying a baby all together. There are many people who want children that can't, many woman who adopt but will never know what it feels to have their baby kick and have hickups ect. Life can through a lot of curves in our roads but taking the curves with joy makes the trip much easier.

  12. I would also just add, make sure your symptoms of feeling depressed are not actually PPD….it may not be, and I'm certainly NOT an expert, but I just wanted to offer that somewhat-PSA.

    Also, remember that the baby will not remember his/her birth AT ALL, just to put it in perspective 🙂 .

  13. For the original questioner and Amber (above) and anyone who is having trouble getting over a birth that didn't go as you planned, was traumatic, or both: I think Therese's advice and all the commenters' suggestions for putting it in perspective can be really helpful–eventually. But grieving has to take place first and sometimes gets skipped. Every time I try to short-circuit my negative feelings by talking myself out of them, it paradoxically ends up taking me way longer to feel better than if I just let myself be sad first–and this definitely happened with my traumatic birth experience.

    I'm so sorry you didn't have the birth experience you wanted, that you feel like a failure, or that your body failed you. That totally sucks for you, regardless of the many blessings you may have. Find somebody (maybe a therapist with experience in this area) who can really listen to what that was like for you. Journal it, paint it, find a way to express what was awful. It might be easier to move on after you've done that, to appreciate what you've learned from this and to feel grateful for everything that went right.

  14. I am currently pregnant with my first child and am so glad I found this article. I am seeing a midwife and planning a natural birth in a birthing center. I have had quite a few people criticize this choice, saying it is 'unsafe' or 'foolish' and have therefore become kind of defensive about the whole thing. It had gotten to the point where a c-section was my biggest fear and I have been having nightmares about them. I was so afraid that I wouldn't be able to handle the natural birth or that something would go wrong, and then I would feel like I failed. Or worse, I would have to tell all the same people with whom I spent so much time defending my choice for a natural birth that I couldn't do it.
    These stories have really helped me gain some perspective on what is really important. I'm so sorry for the ladies who are still struggling and I hope you find the peace you need. Thank you for sharing your experiences with a very scared new mom-to-be.

  15. I agree with Amanda. We are one month shy of our daughter's first birthday, and her birth went from a very normal home birth to a very traumatic c-section (not traumatic because it was a c-section, but traumatic in how it all happened). When I read this post, it was hard for me not to feel like it was a bit trite, and to wonder if the author was writing from her own experience. I suppose it's because I do still have some of the negative emotions surrounding my daughter's birth. Yes, she is very healthy and happy. As am I. And I'm glad that the author's words have been helpful for so many of you. But for those of you, like me, who read advice like this and think, "Who is she kidding?" know that you're not alone. There are those of us who are still sometimes sad–and maybe even angry–about our birth experiences. And I think this is normal and okay. It really bothers me when people equate having lingering sadness and anger over a traumatic birth with not appreciating the things that did go right–like the baby's health. We are humans who are capable of extremely complex emotions. It also really bothered me when people would tell me, "Oh, births never go how they are expected." Of course, many births take unexpected turns. But I have heard MANY first-hand stories of (home or otherwise) births going pretty much how they were planned. I think statements like this dismiss the feelings of those who have had difficult birth experiences.

    I don't think it's necessarily a matter of "getting over it." I think it's a healing process that cannot be forced, like Amanda has said. You find what works for you, what helps you get on with the day-to-day so you can focus your time enjoying your baby. But it's normal for those negative feelings to creep in. I say, acknowledge them, recognize them for what they are, and then move on to something else.

    • Thanks for bringing this up, Brooke. My baby was born in the hospital 6months ago, after a home birth transfer. I do not look back at the experience (today) with anything other than sadness and anger. Some of it is directed at myself (could I have done something different to affect a different outcome?), some of it is directed at hospital policies (I won't get into it here because I get tired of people telling me, "Intervention MUST have been necessary!" "Doctors ALWAYS know best!"), mostly though, I'm angry at the people who seek to minimize my sadness by telling me, "Well, the baby is alive and healthy, and that's all that's important!" (How very dismissive to women who have born children who AREN'T healthy, or alive.) As you pointed out; having a healthy baby is NOT all that's important. And being told that over and over really suggests to me that my feelings about the experience are irrelevant.

      It makes people uncomfortable to think that I'm unhappy with the experience. Do they look at me as less of a mother? Maybe they feel like I call their own birth decisions into question because I question mine? Maybe it's a political commentary that says women are only as important at their reproductive capabilities and the ends always justify the means where babies are concerned. I don't know.

      I've just begun to grieve my labor experience. I'm glad Therese added the comment to address grief. As Brooke said, we're not the only ones.

      • There is a great support book for homebirth cesarean- I am working through it now after my homebirth plans became a c-section. My LO turns two years old this month.

  16. Thank you so much for this. I am due in 8 weeks and planning for as natural a birth as possible (in a tub with a midwife, hopefully with no medication). However, I am also trying to prepare myself for whatever might happen (baby might have other plans!). I am trying to prepare myself for the chance that I might want an epidural, I may require IV's or electronic monitoring or even need a C-Section. I hope if I end up not having the birth I prepared for I can find strength in other mothers who have gone through the same.

  17. In mine and my midwives quest for a vaginal "natural" birth, my child was in severe distress for hours and was born not breathing. Being told after wards that an emergency c would have prevented all of her complications, I can tell you that the ultimate "birth experience" is having a healthy child that you get to hold after wards, no matter how it comes out.

  18. Therese has written some wonderful words. ALL mothers are Birth Warriors. Though every mother has a unique journey of discovering this about herself, for some, the disappointment, anger, greif, shame, fear, etc. they felt / feel is too heavy to dismiss.

    Talking through your birth story during the first few days and weeks with a post-partum doula, or another trusted wise woman, is very beneficial. Acknowledging your disappointment and embracing your grief are important steps to take. Best if it can be done heartily and fully and right away … otherwise it usually festers, no matter how positive an outlook you manage to muster….

    This huge energy needs to be realized, then released, before it can be transformed.

    A loving wise woman can simply listen, she will hear and acknowledge your pain. Then, with some time, she can listen as you start to rework your story, which can now focus on the complexity and beauty of your unique journey, and the great strength it takes to surrender so much.

  19. I'm so glad the topic of doing "grief work" has been mentioned, because that's a very important step that I overlooked mentioning in my initial post. As someone who facilitates a monthly Wailing Ritual and twice yearly Grief Retreats, I certainly know the importance of releasing emotion! Depression results when there is repressed grief, so when recovering from a traumatic and/or disappointing birth experience– it is essential to set aside some time and/or make an intentional opportunity to feel and release grief or anger you are holding in your body/mind. Its important that you yell, cry, tell the story with all the emotional embellishments you feel, hopefully held in a supportive, loving group –a mom's support group willing to go deep in this way, a gathering with a few close friends, or a grief ritual like we hold here in the Groves. That kind of release will provide a clearing so you can move on. If you skip this step, the trauma will still be in your body and will continue to stalk you with depression and failure. So get it out!

    I'm so glad Brooke brought this up as I realized I had overlooked mentioning it (DUH!) after sending the post to Ariel to post. I realized I needed to add this comment to the conversation and Brooke reminded me.

    I'm hoping all these thoughtful comments will help those who are working-through difficult experiences with your pregnancy, birth or postpartum period. Thanks for jumping in everyone!
    May the healing continue!

  20. I planned a water birth in a midwife led unit, then ended up beoing wheeled at high speed down the corridor to the medical unit for assistance with forceps, but talked everything through afterwards with hubby, and agreed that the best thing was that we were all healthy and well 🙂 think this positive mindset helped me get through the infected/split episiotomy as a result of the forceps, 3 weeks unable to move and the wound not healing properly until baby was 10 weeks old :/ however awful it was at the time, I now see that those extra weeks in bed helped me bond and establish a strong breastfeeding relationship with my beautiful daughter, now 18 months 🙂

  21. I can really relate to the feelings of anger and frustration with having an emergency c-section…to this day, I believe mine could have been prevented. I too, had planned for an all natural birth with my midwife. Everything went out the window after about 14 hours of labor…Pretty much the hardest thing I've had to do is work on letting go…

  22. I had planned this beautiful, natural hypno-birth. I asked my midwife and the nurses to give me no meds, offer me no meds, etc unless medically necessary. I told my hubby to not let me have drugs unless medically necessary. I ended up having to be induced by the mezzo pill, and labor started almost right away – a promising start! I figured I could go it naturally from there. And then I hit 4 cm. And stayed at 4 cm, for 17 hours. I had full on humungous contractions, but they were doing nothing. And my water broke. 15 hours after my water broke, which was about 4 hours into my labor, I was told that they would need to introduce Pitocin because I was still at 4 cm, and if I went 24 hours from my water breaking, I would have to have a c-section. At that 17 hours of labor point, when they talked to me about Pitocin, I had been awake for well over 30 hours. I was exhausted, had been having heavy contractions for about 14 of the 17 hours, and was just finding out that if I did nothing, I would probably labor for another many hours just to have a c-section. More to come.

  23. I told them bring on the Pitocin, but not without an epidural. Hubby did his job, he tried to talk me out of it. He asked me if I wouldn't regret it the next day. I told him NO WAY would I regret it, but I will always appreciate how he really worked at doing what I asked. I got the epidural, they started the pitocin, and 10.5 hours later, my baby was finally out in the world, healthy and happy. My epidural ran out about 1.5 hours before his emergence, so I still feel a little bit natural, but I have no regrets. I took the meds because I needed them, no two ways about it.

    And in the immortal words of a friend, who is a baby nurse, "if the baby comes out through the vagina, it IS a "natural" childbirth!"

  24. This is helpful 4 years (and another baby) later!
    For the birth of my second daughter, I did hope for a VBAC. But she chose to come into this world via C Section.
    I hired a doula who directed me toward reading a book that included a chapter on creating as peaceful a C Section birth as possible. A C Section is still a birth.

  25. i am from mexico so forgive my english mistakes, ihad pretty much the same story, my baby is 1 month and i also sometimes feel a failure, and i cant seem to get over it, im greatfull because he is so beautiful, my partner is also very supportive; but it is like an inner feeling of rupture, i had a 26 hour labor at home, and ended in the hospital and had 6 more hours there till i decided to get a c-section because i was exausted and in a lot o pain, i jut want to sAy taht is good to know we all are empowered woman because we give birth no matter how, and as the midwife said, shit happens and we cant control anything, so surrender with our hearts is the best we can do, and support each other as weman all over the worl, thank you.

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