What To Do When Your Birth Doesn’t Go To Plan

When birth plans turn upside down, feelings of disappointment can emerge. For many women, these emotions linger and impact their experience of early motherhood.

A woman in labor in hospital

From hypnobirthing and un-medicated births to planned c-sections, homebirths or mindful births, there are myriad ways to bring one’s baby into the world. However, when a mother’s birth plan veers off course, she may experience feelings of shame, sadness, and disappointment about her childbirth experience. Studies suggest those lingering feelings can taint a woman’s perception about motherhood, and in some cases, contribute to symptoms of postpartum depression—which is the leading complication of childbirth. 

As a psychologist who specializes in maternal mental health, I’ve noticed how birth trauma or having a disappointing childbirth experience can ignite self-blame, causing thoughts, such as “I’ve failed my baby,” or “I’m already a bad mother,” to arise, especially in a culture where so-called “perfect” births are often glamorized. “Did you have a natural birth?” seems to be a frequent question that’s brought up during breastfeeding support groups and new mom meet-ups. While well-meaning or seen as a conversation starter, this question may convey that there’s only one right way to birth a baby. 

Shelia had a relatively smooth pregnancy and had planned for an un-medicated hospital birth. In preparation for her baby’s delivery, she and her husband spent months learning techniques, such as mindful breathing and hypnobirthing—pain management tools they hoped to use during labor and childbirth. “I felt empowered and prepared,” Shelia recalls. 

But at a prenatal check-up during her third trimester, an ultrasound revealed that Shelia’s baby was breech. At her appointment, the doctor pointed to the grainy picture on the screen, “Looks like the baby is breech,” she said. However, she reassured Shelia and her husband that breech babies “could turn,” meaning a vaginal birth was still possible, but not guaranteed.

Determined to avoid a C-section, Shelia turned to Eastern medicine for wisdom. She saw an acupuncturist and hoped the medicine might perform magic. “Just imagine your baby flipping into the right position,” she thought to herself. 

When acupuncture and yoga poses didn’t turn the baby around, Shelia’s doctor recommended a C-section. “I felt like the birth I had imagined and spent months working towards was taken from me,” she recalls.

Left with those painful feelings, Shelia felt alone. When she mentioned her disappointment to her doctor, she was told: “At least the baby is healthy. C-sections are so common. Unfortunately, those words of reassurance didn’t suture Shelia’s profound disappointment or feelings of maternal failure. 

Pregnancy and childbirth are a vulnerable time and transition in a woman’s life. And when the birth plan goes sideways, women can feel out-of-control, which echoes a familiar yet uncomfortable feeling that washes over the first months of parenthood when mothers and fathers are getting a grip on the new terrain of child-rearing. 

However, knowing these feelings are common, and having someone to talk to, can help mothers process this web of confusing emotions. “The pain that the birth did not go as planned is real and can be lasting,” says Michelle Cilia, a psychotherapist who counsels new mothers. 

The danger, however, is how quickly such feelings can spiral into self-blame, which only leads mothers to feel inadequate in their new identities. “Shame happens when we blame ourselves,” explains Cilia. And even though, we can’t repeat the birth experience, it’s possible to heal from a disappointing birth. 

Share your story.

When disappointment stings and self-criticism follows, we can spin fictional tales about our roles as mothers. “I felt like I had failed my baby,” Shelia says. One way to challenge these beliefs is to share your story in a safe and supportive space. “Slowing down and telling your story can take you out of your reactive mind,” explains Cilia. 

Women are also surprised and relieved when other mothers open up about their birth experiences. “I attended a support group, and another mom shared her story, which was almost identical to mine,” Shelia shares. Learning that her feelings of disappointment and sadness weren’t uncommon allowed her to ‘let go’ of the belief she had done something wrong. “Once I no longer blamed myself, I felt less anxious,” Shelia shares. 

Finding a support group for mothers healing from traumatic births or a postpartum support group can be a useful place to start. At many hospitals, these services may be part of postnatal care, and doctors can provide referrals. Resources can also be found through local parenting groups and online parenting communities.

Honor anger.

Too often, women are conditioned to deny their anger, because we’re told it’s destructive and hurtful. Anger, however, is merely an emotion, and emotions do not hurt others; it’s how we react to painful feelings that can drive hurtful behaviors.

In reality, anger can be a friend. It tells us something or someone in our lives has hurt, betrayed, or disappointed us. And working through this anger is key to healing from a traumatic or disappointing birth experience. 

“Tell someone who will listen or write a letter to the birth professional or the hospital,” suggests Cilia. Penning a letter doesn’t mean you need to send it, but it can be a useful way to release pent up rage, she says.

Practice self-compassion.

Cognitive psychologists and mindfulness researchers have found that self-compassion can help unravel self-blame. “Part of the healing journey involves forgiving yourself,” says Cilia. Extending kindness to ourselves can be tricky, but finding some psychological distance can allow us to do so. 

For instance, you might ask yourself, “If my child came to me with a similar story or dilemma, what would I say?” In mindfulness meditation, there’s a practice called “loving-kindness” meditation, which entails reciting loving mantras like, “May you be happy. May you be healthy,” to yourself, the universe, loved ones, as well as, a neutral or problematic person in your life. 

Practicing loving-kindness can be a useful way to exercise our self-compassion muscles, and once we replace shame with empathy, unpleasant feelings may soften.

Talk to a professional.

“Finding a therapist to talk to may help women integrate the experience into their lives and forgive themselves,” shares Cilia. 

Sometimes, disappointing or traumatic births, conjure up forgotten memories of past bodily traumas, such as assaults or accidents. Unfortunately, this isn’t often discussed in birth preparation classes, and recalling past memories can catch mothers off guard.

In these cases, psychotherapy can aid in the healing process by providing a safe, neutral space to explore and understand one’s emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

Women may also be wrought with grief about not having the birth they’d envisioned. While grief can be like a roller coaster ride, understanding the stages of grief can help frame the birth experience, says Cilia.

It’s also important to remember that just as birth experiences vary, a mother’s healing journey also differs. There isn’t one ‘right’ way to heal from a disappointing birth, but knowing the feelings won’t last forever can provide reassurance.

“I wrote a letter to my doctor, not because I wanted to sue the hospital, but because doing so helped me work through my complicated feelings,” Shelia shares. 

For some mothers, turning the experience into something meaningful and transformative can also be cathartic. Women may choose to share their stories with other mothers or offer peer support to those who’ve gone through something similar. Doing so can feel empowering, which can distill feeling out-of-control and help rewrite the birth narrative.

 

Continue exploring

  • Motherhood isn’t a contest. Psychologist, Dr. Juli Fraga, talks about the rise of competitive moms and the resulting effects on maternal mental health in her article on how to break free of ‘mompetition’.
  • Some of us were raised by parents who never showed their vulnerability because they equated it with weakness, but the latest research shows that it can strengthen parent-child relationships…See our article on the power of being vulnerable as a parent.