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Have a birth plan. Be prepared to throw it away. Still have a good birth experience. No, really.
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was in my first year of journalism school. The semester she was born was the semester our class moved into the smaller computer lab, where I sat with my friend Peter. I was married, pregnant and pushing 30 whereas Peter was single, in his early 20’s and still living with his parents, very much a Greek boy who very much loved his mother and sister and felt a certain protectiveness towards the women in his life. But we got along fine, and made each other laugh during the long hours in the lab and the editing studios.
But as we moved further towards my mid-March due-date (the baby was due right before March break, and I had a calendar on my wall detailing how I would finish all assignments on time and only have to miss that week of school), Peter became quiet and a bit…squirmy. I didn’t press him, because I thought maybe he was having issues with his girl or something, and new that if he wanted to talk to me about it, he would.
And then, one day during a lull in class, he slammed his hands down on his desk and turned to me. “Kira. We need a plan. What’s the plan?” I’m sure I made a noise equally as intelligent as the look I gave him. “Huh? What are you talking about? Are we taking over the world?”
“No,” he said firmly, with a light in his eyes that indicated to me that this was something that had been bothering him for a while. “What do I do if you go into labour during class?”
“Um,” I said, having not really given it too much thought, instead focusing most of my attention to following as closely to the schedule on my master calendar as I could.
“Phone Chris?” I suggested weakly. “But what if Chris isn’t home?” he asked with some desperation in his voice. “Huh,” I said, thinking about it for a minute. “I dunno, call my cousin Dave? Drive me to the hospital?” “But what if your water breaks in my car? Should I keep a tarp in there? I don’t think I could handle being in the room.”
Obviously, Peter had been giving this some thought. Much more thought than I had, which, admittedly, was almost none. We had taken the pre-natal classes, sure, but the birth was almost a month away, and we hadn’t got to the point in doctor visits yet where we discussed birth plans. Also, I have never– aside from anal homework charts – been much of a planner. “That’s an awfully long way away to think about things” is a family motto for anything more than three days away. Now, granted, this is also a really good phrase to spur less laid back (or lazy, depending on who you ask) in-laws into planning things for us, but in terms of a birth plan, I just hadn’t got to the point yet where I felt I needed to think about it.
My water broke early on the morning of February 10, more than a month before the baby was due. Our appointment to discuss birth plans with the doctor was three days away. We had taken the hospital tour four days before. We knew where to go, but that was about it. So (after first calling the hospital to say “my water broke, what should I do?” to be responded to, after a moment of disbelieving silence, with the brightness that is reserved for answering particularly stupid questions “uh, maybe you’d like to come to the hospital?”), in a short period of time, Chris was popping wheelies in the wheelchair he was delivering me to labour and delivery in, both of us blissfully unaware as to just how much things were going to change.
Around ten hours later, I gave birth to Maeve, daughter number one, vaginally and without drugs. Her breathing wasn’t making the doctor happy, and so I just had enough time to touch her forehead and whisper “oh, hi Maeve!” before she was whisked away to NICU and I settled in for an awful lot of stitching (done by a resident doctor who I later saw had gone into Orthopaedics, and it is probably a good thing he is not dealing with vaginas any more and THAT IS ALL I AM GOING TO SAY ABOUT THAT), In fact, she was almost two hours old before I finally go to hold her. And guess what?
We bonded just fine.
Four years later, daughter number two, Marin, came along after another vaginal drug free birth. This time, the nurse (who was working her first ever labour and delivery shift) grabbed the infant and placed her on my chest. We had time enough to see that it was another girl before my doctor’s hands were reaching over my legs and grabbing the baby, who, moments before, after a terse look at the baby’s heart monitor, I had been instructed to “push this baby out now. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a contraction or not,” and rushing her to a table to try to get her to live. She came out flat. Blue. Apgar of zero. He called the emergency NICU team, but decided he couldn’t wait for them and intubated her right there. Again, my child was whisked off to NICU while I waited, helpless, as I was stitched (amidst comments from my doctor of “oh my, what happened last time? Did they stitch you at all?”) up. Again, it was almost two hours before I got to meet my child, and because she was hooked up to all kinds of instruments, there was no holding going on. I could put my hand through a hole in the incubator and rub her back.
We bonded just fine.
She would have died if we hadn’t had her in the hospital.
I can’t imagine our live without either of them.
So, when my husband’s sister and her husband decided that their first child would be born at home, with a mid-wife and no family allowed near the baby for a few days so that proper bonding could happen between parents and baby, because “this is our choice and this is natural, my body won’t let me down, and we’ve done a lot of research on the internet” my husband and I voiced our concerns. “Oh, but,” they waved us off, “you knew there were troubles in the pregnancy beforehand. Ours looks fine.”
Well, no. No we didn’t know there would be problems with Marin. I was actually really, really good at being pregnant. Healthy as a horse, with good vitals for the kids the whole time. Lots of energy, and no puking ever. That didn’t stop both of my babies from being born with issues that required immediate admittance to and attention from the NICU.
As for our nephew, he was born after a lights-flashing siren-blaring ambulance ride to the hospital and an emergency c-section. His parents say it was the most terrified they’ve ever been, and second nephew was born in the hospital. They still had a mid-wife, and he was delivered vaginally, but this time, they were close to medical equipment should it be needed.
So when I hear women going on and on about how this is their body, the birth will go the way they say it will, and that their control over the situation is vital and the most important thing, I think, “well, no. Not really.”
First of all, let me clarify by saying that I think that expectant parents should go into every birth as empowered and as knowledgeable about their various options as possible. Know what kind of pain controls are available. Know what kinds of methods of coping with the pain there are to help you push through if you want to do it drug-free. Know who you want to have in the room with you. Know yourself enough to know when then pain is too much, and don’t be ashamed to ask for drugs if you need them. Childbirth hurts. If you don’t have a high pain threshold, get the fricking epidural. Any other woman who judges you for having done so is not your friend. If you don’t want one, have people who will back you up in your refusal and remind you of your reasons when the pain is making you try to crawl out of your skin.
Know your options. Discuss them with your care provider.
Go in with a plan. Be prepared to drop said plan at a moment’s notice.
Because it is actually not you or your body that will dictate how the experience goes. The life – and the human – coming out of you have a pretty large say in the matter. Sometimes, they are breech. Sometimes, they are too big. Sometimes, medical complications arise. Sometimes, they come out flat for no reason. In fact, when a friend of my parent’s was telling her daughter, who is a L&D nurse, about Marin, the daughter’s reply was “oh Mom, you’d be surprised how often that happens. And no one knows why.”
Go in with a plan. Be prepared to drop said plan at a moment’s notice. Because shit happens.
Be prepared. Have an idea of what you want. But be flexible. Be prepared and willing to go another direction as the situation dictates. Keep your eye on the goal: a healthy child and a healthy mother.
Too often, I see women who go into mourning because the birth did not go as they planned. They let that disruption take away from the joy of bringing a life into the world. They focus on the what wasn’t, instead of rejoicing in the what is. It is fine and natural to feel disappointment, but can we focus on the bigger picture, please? People talk to me with condolences when they hear about my experiences. And there is no need for it. Sure, things didn’t go as planned, but my plan was not the be all and the end all of the day – it was bringing home a healthy baby, and I did that. Twice. Goal achieved, no need for sadness. My plan was never about me.
Yes, be cautious of doctors who want to over-medicalize your childbirth experience. If they can’t give you a good reason for wanting to do a c-section or induction (my brother was induced because my Mom’s doctor was going on a golf trip and wanted to be present for the birth first), maybe get a second opinion. And I can’t see for the life of me why a woman would choose to be but open when she could give birth naturally, but then again, why do I get to decide for her what makes her a better woman? Shouldn’t I, as a woman, support her decision, as another woman, to have a convenience c-section if she chooses? Isn’t that her right (Similarly, can we also stop shaming women who choose not to breastfeed, or who have trouble breastfeeding (and it happens) and need to use formula?)?
Be just as wary of people who tell you that it is a woman’s prerogative to give birth in a setting of her choice with an iron-clad plan. Be wary of people who tell you that you are a warrior, and your birth plan is your battle plan, and that this is a battle that cannot be lost.
Giving birth naturally at home or in the woods or in a tub or on a train does not make you more of a woman than one who gives birth in the hospital with an epidural. It makes you a mother, as much of a mother as the woman who has a different experience. And nine times out of ten, I am pretty sure a home birth turns out just fine. But for that one in ten person where the birth goes awry? Let’s just say that, when women confidently tell me that THIS is how things are going to go and THIS is what is going to happen, I cringe a little bit. My mind goes straight to that one in ten. Because I had two of them. And I am so grateful that I erred on the side of caution.
My wish truly is that every mother gets the birth experience of her dreams. And I think there are a lot of ways that women can educate themselves about their options, and lots of different ways that parents can make birth a special and memorable one. I truly hope you get the day you plan for. But, in the event that shit happens and things go differently, I hope that you can forgive yourself, that you don’t feel less than or like a failure. I hope that when you finally get to hold your baby and you look down into their eyes that you can accept that things turned out okay in the end. And feel good about that. You created and brought forth life. It is pretty amazing.
My girls are 13 and 8 now. They are wonderful, smart, funny, kind, complicated human beings who continue to fascinate me every day. Our bond comes not from the first moment we spent together, but from the thousands we have shared since.