How to recover from a bad birth experience
by Evonne Lack
Last updated: October 2008
For months, you prepared for the perfect birth. You took childbirth classes, read books, and practiced breathing exercises. Maybe you even hired a doula.
Then life threw you a curve ball.
You ended up in the hospital after planning a home birth. You got an epidural when you were hoping to go med-free. You needed a cesarean section when you were sure you'd deliver vaginally. Instead of having the profound, beautiful experience you imagined, you felt frightened, powerless, overwhelmed, and possibly alone.
There are countless ways that birth can surprise us. And as a new mom, you may feel upset and even guilty about things not going the way you'd planned. But you're definitely not alone in struggling with the aftermath of a disappointing or difficult birth experience. Here are some steps for recovery:
Help your body heal
Unfortunately, difficult births often make for more difficult physical recoveries. You may be dealing with a bad tear or a painful incision.
"I felt like I had been hit by a truck and then someone came with a baseball bat and tried to finish me off," says one mom who had a c-section after pushing for four hours.
Your body needs to recover, and the best way to do that is to rest — which is easier said than done now that you have a newborn. The trick is to focus on yourself and your baby, and let the other things slide. This means letting the dishes pile up in the sink, procrastinating on thank-you notes and phone calls, and ignoring the vacuum cleaner.
"Remember, your baby doesn't care if you haven't taken a shower or if your kitchen's a disaster," say Devra Renner and Aviva Pflock, authors of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids.
Take help from anyone who offers it.
If people want to bring you dinner, don't turn them down! In fact, you can ask them to bring over some mood-boosting foods or the fixings for some healthy snacks.
To help care for any older children, hire a sitter, see if a friend or family member can pitch in, or add a preschool day. You might also want to temporarily relax your television restrictions for the older kids — during this chaotic time, a little extra probably won't hurt.
Mourn your "dream birth"
At nearly 42 weeks pregnant, Karen Solomon desperately wanted her labor to start on its own. "I didn't want my baby to be rushed," she explains. "And I wanted labor to be a fun surprise. Maybe I'd be playing a game of checkers, for example, and suddenly I'd feel that first contraction."
But before her labor could start, Solomon developed preeclampsia and had to be induced. She ended up with an epidural and c-section instead of the medication-free vaginal delivery she had hoped for. "I grieved, deeply and truly," she wrote in her first-person journal on BabyCenter.
It can be emotionally wrenching when your baby's delivery resembles a medical school film instead of the beautiful, transcendent videos from your childbirth class. "I feel like I missed out on a really important experience," says one mom.
Well-meaning people may unintentionally make things worse by saying, "At least you have a healthy baby." While this is a wonderful thing, it doesn't mean you aren't allowed to feel upset or that you should dismiss your feelings.
In fact, to resolve your sadness, you first need to face it. So try to let go of any ideas that you "shouldn't" be feeling this way. "Your feelings are real and valid. Acknowledge them," says Michele Moore, a family physician and coauthor of Cesarean Section: Understanding and Celebrating Your Baby's Birth.
Talk it out
Many people find that talking about what happened helps them work through their disappointment. "A circle of friends can be wonderfully supportive," says Moore. You may also want to try a support group or visit an online group for women who had difficult or upsetting births, like the one in BabyCenter's Community.
If you like to write, try journaling about your experience, either on paper or online.
"I knew I had a problem when a friend sent an e-mail describing the birth of their first child and how beautiful and peaceful it was, and I went into a rage. I started writing about my experience and admitting how much it hurt me," says one mom.
Some birth experiences are not just disappointing, but traumatic — and they can have long-lasting emotional and physical repercussions. If talking to friends, family, loved ones, or other moms isn't helping enough, consider counseling. Look for a counselor who has expertise in this area. You can ask your doctor for a referral.
Alyse Levine, who delivered her second child by emergency c-section after her daughter's heart rate dropped, recently started therapy to talk about unresolved sadness related to the birth.
"The sadness was initially from the c-section and the tough recovery but later transferred more to discovering I had a chronic illness," Levine says. Also, "my daughter had a bad cut on her scalp from the in-utero heart monitor that was attached to her head. She has a permanent and rather large scar."
Says Levine: "I need a safe haven to deal with this."
Don't blame yourself
"How many of you are going to use a dangerous epidural for your own selfish comfort?" scolds the childbirth instructor in the comedy Baby Mama. The line is firmly tongue-in-cheek — but the truth is that women often feel guilty for receiving any kind of intervention during labor, from IV medication to vacuum extractions to c-sections.
"I felt like I failed, my body failed, and everything just went haywire," says Levine. For some women, the feeling that they "failed the first test" by not being able to have an unmedicated and uncomplicated vaginal birth can affect how competent they feel as mothers.
As Moore puts it: "Women with c-sections or difficult births may have the feeling that they are starting off already behind in their mothering."
The truth is that you did not fail. Every labor and birth is different — and some are simply more complicated than others. Medical interventions can be necessary to save the life of a mother and child. Medications for pain relief during labor are often warranted and necessary.
Try to reframe your feelings: You're not a failure, you're a survivor. You got through a terrible ordeal, and so did your baby. If anything, this gives you extra preparation for parenthood, which is full of unexpected ordeals.
Look at what went right
Even though you didn't get the birth you hoped for, try to consciously remind yourself of the things that went right. You may even want to make a list, suggests Moore. This can provide some much-needed perspective. As Karen Solomon puts it, "Natural childbirth would have just been the cherry on the sundae. I still got my kid."
It can be hard to see what did go well in a complicated and traumatic birth, especially if you or your baby suffered an injury or worse. If you're having trouble, talk with your doctor about counseling. You may also want to get support from moms in BabyCenter's community who are also grappling with grief and loss.
Ignore the judgments
"I could handle the pain. I just put my mind to it," boasts your neighbor who had a drug-free home birth. "It's too bad you didn't delivery vaginally, there's nothing like it," your sister-in-law e-mails.
These comments can be painful, but try not to let them get to you. Moore, who had a c-section herself, handled her fair share of judgmental comments by consciously reminding herself of her baby's health. "I reflected on the fact that my baby was as wonderful as theirs," she says.