When Birth Goes Differently than ExpectedJun 14, 2023
Birth is a complex event - both physically and emotionally for us and our partners. A good way to navigate those complexities is to discuss and note down your birth preferences to help manage expectations and create informed decisions, but what happens when birth goes differently than planned? Dr. Pip Houghton, family doctor with a passion for supporting new mamas and a special interest in perinatal mental health care, shares with us her personal and professional experiences in dealing with the aftermath of birth that does not go as expected. Dr. Pip and Dr. Alicia discuss the differences between disappointment, grief, and trauma, and how to navigate those emotional intricacies before they potentially grow into larger issues. Today’s topic is crucial for perinatal patients and providers alike.
What do we mean?
People who have a childbirth experience that does not go as they anticipated or planned, can be left with emotions or issues that can be difficult to process or catch them off guard. Even a medical professional such as Dr. Pip describes feeling unprepared for a lot of the emotions that came up for her postpartum, which she realized arose from her birth experience and some unmet expectations within it. But what did these emotions signify? Were they a form of depression, or an indicator of trauma? Or can a disappointment of something that didn’t occur feel equally punishing?
Disappointment, Grief, Trauma?
What Dr. Pip came to realize and learn, is that disappointment and grief can take on many different shapes and forms. Often we are quick to judge that “as long as mom and baby are healthy” there is “nothing to worry about.” But when birth doesn’t go as expected, sometimes we are left griefing a hope or wish that didn’t come to be. Your care provider may have a slightly more holistic view on potential ways your birth may go, but if you were preparing for a vaginal birth and had to have assistance via forceps or vacuum, this may leave you with unresolved emotions. Why was it necessary to intervene? Could I have done something differently? I thought I was prepared for every eventuality, so why do I feel disappointed?
Disappointment happens when expectations are unmet. Sometimes we don’t understand the disappointment because we didn’t even realize we placed value on a certain outcome. Whatever the reason, identifying the emotion and properly addressing it is key to avoiding it balloon and grow into a potentially deeper and more damaging experience. Try to identify the disappointment and grieve the loss of a hope or expectation. And remember to “embrace the and” - we can both grieve a lost outcome and be happy to have given birth to a healthy baby - a balancing of emotions.
Author and licensed counselor Aundi Kolber writes “any event that overwhelms your nervous system’s ability to cope is trauma.” The definition can be further subdivided into what is often named “Big T Trauma” such as war, a car accident, violent acts, and “little t trauma” like bullying, or moments when our autonomy has been taken away. Both types can overwhelm our nervous system and make it difficult to function and process things properly. For partners who've seen their birthing partner go through a difficult and maybe life threatening experience, it can be an equally traumatic experience to process. For anyone wondering if their experience might qualify as trauma and is unsure how to process it, we recommend visiting a trauma informed counselor.
No matter your experience, we all grieve and process things differently. Try to give yourself - and your partner who may also be struggling - the space and grace to process things in their own way. Even in a birth that “went well and the baby is healthy,” deeper seeded expectations we may not even know we had may be leading to disappointment and feelings of dissatisfaction. Try to recognize them, grieve or seek counseling, and feel the weight lessen over time. You’ve got this, mama!!
For more support and resources, check out these links! Dr. Pip can be found at her website, Making Mama Well Instagram, and Facebook. Check-out our FREE Birth Preferences Course by clicking this link. For a deeper dive into these topics and more, consider our affordable, online Pregnancy to Parenthood Masterclass to empower yourself with the knowledge you need to have the best birth experience you can!
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