Caesarean birth is not everyone’s first choice when planning the type of birth we’d like. For many women and people who give birth it would be the very last type of birth they’d opt for. So when we are faced with our least favourite choice, the thing we’d worked so hard to avoid, our worst fear, what do we do? How can we cope with the disappointment of a birth that’s so far from the birth that we’d dreamed of that it resembles a nightmare? What went so dreadfully wrong, and who can we blame for this travesty? As a midwife and mother who’s first baby was born by unplanned caesarean I’d like to explore these questions further.
A less than ideal birth?
Why does a less than ideal birth have to mean less-than? Could our less than ideal birth leave us feeling less than complete? If our bodies apparently failed to give birth, or we didn’t get to do the things we’d planned to do when greeting our babies, is there a sense of failure? I certainly remember feeling that my body had failed to birth my first child, and that I’d somehow failed to be there for her immediately after birth. These are very common but totally irrational thoughts as we try to make sense of how our plans went so wrong. There must be someone to blame, and that someone must be me. But our brains must be so confused at this time, as I was obviously not slacking by needing a life-saving caesarean, then haemorrhaging and being unconscious for hours after. Where does that self-blame come from? Wherever it comes from it is misplaced in the case of unplanned caesarean.
How can we even think that we are to blame for things going wrong? I can joke about it now, as it’s approaching 23 years since my baby and I nearly died. I can see rationally that my caesarean was a life-saving measure, and that my daughter shows no signs of the early neglect she may have suffered. But do you know what? It still hurts to think of those lost hours when we were not together.
Best laid plans
Like many women I’d prepared for a homebirth, but of course I knew as a midwife that anything could happen. It just wouldn’t happen to me, as I was so well prepared. I watched all my plans evaporate when labour didn’t progress and I transferred to hospital for analgesia and augmentation. A catalogue of nightmarish scenarios ensued, and my baby was found to be presenting by the brow (forehead, instead of the back of the head coming down first). Of course trying to force a malpositioned baby through a pelvis for hours is never a good idea, so my body haemorrhaged after my caesarean and I was returned to surgery. Postnatal depression inevitably ensued, marring a majority of our first year together. It just didn’t make sense. I’d done everything so right. How could it go so wrong?
Are birth plans worth the paper they’re written on?
I’m not sure one can actually plan a birth, knowing that birth is inherently unpredictable. I think writing a birth plan is a good exercise in looking at and discussing your birth preferences with your birth partner. It can also be a useful communication aid for your midwife to read whilst you are busy birthing and not able to fully express your wishes. Beyond this it is of very limited value. If you do write your birth preferences down please just write on just one side of A4 paper, use bullet points, and try not to be too outcome orientated. What I mean by this is do not write “I am having a homebirth, vaginal birth” etc as these are never guaranteed. Its fine to write “I hope I’ll have a homebirth” or “I’d prefer x to y if I require pain relief” or how you’d like to spend the first moments with your baby if possible. Please do keep it short though, as I’ve heard doctors joke that women with long, inflexible birthplans are bound to need medical interventions! So plan all you like, but your baby may have an entirely different plan of it’s own. I do believe that all babies do their best to come out the way we have planned, but some get stuck, some run out of energy, and if left to a natural conclusion some babies and women would not survive the birth process. Nature doesn’t always get it right despite our best efforts, and timely caesarean surgery saves lives.
Less of a birth=less than a woman?
Why should we feel “less than” if we’ve accepted life saving surgery, albeit unwillingly? As a midwife I see so many different types of birth, and not one has more worth than another. All women are strong, beautiful and powerful in their birthing. This transformational state has equal value whether it is long or short, painful or ecstatic, vaginal or abdominal, surgical or physiological. Each birth brings forth a baby as well as the birth of new parents who need to start their parenting journey in an empowered way. It is a true rite of passage, where we are presented with obstacles and challenges, so we can discover how courageous and strong we really are. When women are well supported in their births they get to see their strengths and triumphs, and start their journey to parenthood in a joyful way. Without support and explanation they may be left feeling disappointed or even traumatised by such an unplanned outcome.
So how can we lessen the impact of unplanned caesareans and enable women to feel strong and empowered in their birthing? It’s important to have continuity of midwife, or a doula if possible. Research has shown that continuity of carer leads to better outcomes. Women can empower themselves by learning assertiveness phrases and asking for everything to be explained, so they are in charge of the decision making. They can organise 2 good birth supporters, who will support their choices, and be able to help practically as well as emotionally after an unplanned outcome. Women will need opportunity to debrief their birth with their care provider after unplanned caesarean. And as care providers we have a duty to help women understand and integrate their birth experiences. Unfortunately most women don’t have continuity of midwifery care, but all midwives and doulas can help a woman after unplanned caesarean birth. We can do this by listening, by witnessing their story without interrupting, then by answering their questions. We can believe them and validate their experiences, letting them know they made the best choices possible (being a professional means putting aside our personal opinions). We can congratulate them on their intuition, bravery, endurance etc, for giving it everything they had and then some, because of course every woman does. Don’t forget to mention her beauty and dignity in birthing, her graceful acceptance of the inevitable, and big up her support team too.
That woman is a birth warrior, she has done battle with nature and her worst fears, she has bravely laid her body down on the theatre table and has said “cut me open for the sake of my child’ risking her own life to save her unborn baby. She then returns from her battle triumphantly holding her reward, her baby, and should be welcomed home as a returning Hero. How can this warrior’s birth ever be seen as less than?
As a midwife I’ve had the pleasure to see empowering and ecstatic, planned and unplanned caesareans. I have personally had a vbac so also know the joy of vaginal birthing too. All births are great opportunities for us to grow and become more than we ever thought possible. This is a process of growth not lessening, so let’s treat it as such, and celebrate all birthing women as the birthing Goddesses they are.