Friday, February 16, 2007

Birthing Guilt

Every once in awhile Partner will look at me and say with wonder and love, “You birthed this baby!”

What might an ideal reaction to such a statement be? I imagine more wonder and love, like “Why, yes, I did!” or perhaps pride and joy? Neither reaction is mine: instead I often grunt and look away. When she presses the point I usually grumble “Well, okay, if you say so.” This annoys her, and I wish she would have never said anything.

Because, you know, I don’t feel I really birthed anything.

I think back to those Bradley classes we were doing—I really enjoyed them. We had a great little group—only four couples total. Even though we took the classes deep within Republican territory, everyone was so welcoming. One man, who I pegged as the most conservative, ended up bringing me a website address dedicated to gay and lesbian families. I loved practicing my meditation techniques. I was sure I was going to get through the birth in the most natural of ways: laboring at home until my contractions were two minutes apart, getting in the bath when we reached the hospital, playing my mix cd (which I made for everyone in my class) of relaxing labor music... We both had a vision of what the birth was going to be. We had a birth plan that never even made it to the hospital. And I just re-read that birth plan. How naïve. How blithely unaware. It’s my one beef with Bradley now: there’s all those classes on how to do it right and then a small little blip about what might happen if things go awry. Retrospectively I could have used more advice in that arena, specifically about how robbed I’d feel if things didn’t go the way I had planned.

In some ways I felt like a fraud—I was a post-op patient on the mother-baby recovery wing. I didn’t even have the baby with me. After I left recovery and was wheeled to my new home for the next four days, I remember apologizing to the nurse on duty when she came in and found me crying. (Partner was still in the NICU.) “It’s hard to be here without a baby,” I said to her. But that was the tip of the iceberg.

In reality I felt very betrayed by my body, and still do. I don’t feel like I gave birth, but that someone instead plucked my baby out. I never really went into labor. When the pit drip was stopped, all my contractions stopped too. Birthing the baby vaginally and naturally was representing something to me about my own womanhood, and then it never happened. I had a scary scar with staples that Partner wouldn’t even let me look at. I could barely walk and my child was in the intensive care.

The day that Cricket had to get into the isolette because of his jaundice was the first day I was in the NICU without Partner. She had to go to class and I was there alone. The minute I saw the isolette round the corner and come into Cricket’s little area, I lost it. Tears, tears, tears. Every NICU nurse there was fantastic, but thank God my midwife was also present. She held me while I just cried and then looked at me and said, “You have to stop blaming yourself for all of this. None of it is your fault.”

She hit the nail on the head. I did blame myself. Intensively. Every moment I saw our Cricket in the NICU, heard an alarm ding, saw him paw at his NG tube. It must have been my fault. When we came to the hospital, I asked what might cause the water to break, and someone honestly told me that often it’s infection that causes the water to break early. Infection. See? Something I caused—talk about Catholic guilt (think sex) rearing its ugly head. To top it off, I did indeed have an infection around Thanksgiving. I took the requisite dose of metronidizole and it cleared up. And then it didn’t help that my mom, well meaning of course, kept asking me if they had figured out if I had an infection, if that’s what made the water break.

(Later the midwife told me she didn’t think that was it at all since the only time I ran a temperature in the whole thing was right after surgery, which is fairly common. Of course I have written off these assurances as a mere salve to try and make me feel better.)

At a brunch this past Sunday with eight fantasticly smart women, I remarked that motherhood seemed like a vast conspiracy to foster guilt, and for me it started with birth. Not only do I feel like I didn’t really give birth, but I feel that somehow it was my fault.

Don’t tell me it’s crazy, or that yes, I really did give birth. On some intellectual level I know that, but emotionally this was very hard on me. I know I’m not alone either. Recently Suz blogged about this very eloquently.

I do think the c-section rates in this country are ridiculously high and that many sections don’t need to be performed. I don’t think that my birth was one of them, but I wish I had read or talked to more people who were less dogmatic about it before I went into the hospital. I want to be a natural mother, but somehow felt like a fraud for wanting that after having a baby via surgery. I still feel that way to some degree, as if my scar marks me as weaker in someway.

Reading over my birth plan just makes me depressed. I talk about wanting the baby immediately placed on my stomach, waiting for the cord to stop pulsing, breastfeeding immediately, not wanting to send the child to the nursery at all-- *Sigh*

I want to try and put the guilt to rest—I think it will be a lifelong battle, but today I’m going to start by deleting that birth plan. We got a beautiful kid—who cares how? He’s tucked in on my chest now (in the sling!) and perhaps instead of focusing on the birth plan gone awry, I could look down at his beautifully shaped head, thanks to the c-section...

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Anonymous Jeannie said...


Parenting is full of guilt, and hard choices, no matter what you do. You and your body did a great thing -- you nurtured Cricket in the womb, and you are being a great mom now. When the birth time came, you did what you had to to ensure he was as well as possible. The fact is that no matter how he was birthed, you did as much as you could as a mother to make sure he had the best possible scenario.

There is mourning and grief in not having the birth you wanted, and that has to be acknowledged. But at the same time, try and acknowledge the many, many, many things you have done right as a mother, and are doing right now. He is healthy, and thriving, and loved, and that means the most of all.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Oh Katie. I'm sorry your Bradley teacher didn't cover birth guilt and feelings of depression in more detail--I cover it quite often in my classes. It's very real and very hard to accept when you've planned for something quite different.

Most people are probably saying "Your baby's here and healthy now, and that's all that matters." They're right and they're wrong. Cricket's here and you're both healthy, and that's the #1 goal of Bradley. But that's not all that matters. It's the most important thing, but it's not everything. You had a plan, you visualized it and dreamed about it, and you didn't get to have it. There's a mourning involved with the loss of a dream. Give yourself that time, don't feel guilty about needing it.

Remember that you and Partner made the decisions that were right for Cricket's birth--not some fictional, everything-goes-perfectly-and-I'm-still-smiling-at-10-cm birth. Each birth is different. Cricket needed the two of you to make the tough decisions, and you did. Not because you wanted to--because that's what he needed. If anything, you're stronger than someone who gets exactly what they'd wanted because you had to start making the tough choices before he was here.

As far as your water breaking early, there are many other things than infection that cause it to happen. Please don't try to shoulder blame about that--your midwife wasn't just blowing smoke when she tried to reassure you. She's right.

Have you talked to Partner about your thoughts, and really explained to her that this is a big problem for you? She may not realize just how much it's bothering you to hear her say anything about the birth. (FWIW, and I know that it probably means nothing, you did birth your baby. You gave your body over to the doctors and went through a very difficult surgery to give him the birth he needed.)

I feel like I've been totally ineffective in saying anything of use here, but just know that we're here for you.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Beth Anne said...

My son is 10 months old and I still struggle with his birth. I have to say that it does get better with time though. I pushed for 3 hours and then got a temp. It was either forceps or c-section and I didn't want to take a chance with the forceps. I always wonder that if maybe I had a different doctor (the one in the practice that I like the least is who delivered my baby), if things would have been different. I kept feeling like I failed. That maybe if I hadn't progressed, I would feel better. But I feel like I got to the end and just couldn't cross the finish line. But of course, the most important thing is my son is here and safe. Ten months later, it really doesn't matter how he got here. There are many memories you will have of him that will make the memory of the birth less painful. Look forward to all the good times ahead!

1:55 PM  
Anonymous Terra said...

I'm sorry to hear that you are going through this guilt. Trust me when I say that even if you didn't have a c-section things might not have gone as planned. With my second birth I got a lousy midwife because my dear precious midwife was on vacation. She turned my birth into something awful that I felt sad about for months. Time will heal this wound, and don't feel alone in your sadness, I've been there too.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Trista said...

Kristin and I went to hypnobirthing classes and created our birth plan and had all these rosy fantasies that all went out the window one by one when Kristin's blood pressure spiked and she needed to be induced early and then ended up with a c-section.

And we both felt the same way: betrayal that we hadn't been prepared (or prepared ourselves) for what could go wrong, and what our options would be if they did, and how we both would feel about how things shook down.

I'm so sorry that you're feeling like this. I know Kristin felt similarly for a while, and it was part of an increasing post-partum depression. But I don't mean to dismiss what you're feeling by saying that. I know that our good friend Wendy had to have a section, and her baby was in the NICU for a long time and she struggles with these feelings now, too.

You did an amazing thing. And one day hopefully all parts of you will feel that. And it's ok that you don't feel that right now, too.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Emilin said...

My childbirth class covered only what not to do. We spent only a little time preparing for birth (so little that we devoted the next ten weeks to doing it on our own), and like yours, there was no talk of how to deal emotionally with interventions when they're needed or wanted.

Guilt is everywhere now. :\

3:42 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Oh Katie, I completely understand. I had a C-section and I also feel like I didn't give birth. We wanted the same kind of things for our birth plan: Vaginal birth, husband cutting cord, kangaroo care, nursing right away...

Due to pre-eclampsia, I was induced and given magnesium sulfate, which really though me for a loop. After 3 hours of pushing and not making any progress, my OB recommended a section. I was so exhausted I was happy to have one! I knew I couldn't push him out, so I was grateful there was an alternative. His heart rate was excellent the whole tiem, but I didn't want to push it. Everyone came through the surgery just fine, but I do sometimes feel bad that I couldn't get him out. Then I laugh it off and thank God for modern medicine; we wouldn't have our Bee otherwise! He was conceived via IVF with my cousin's egg & DH's sperm, transferred back into my uterus. Science got him in, and science got him out! We now call my section scar "the Bee exit", which for me is "proof" that I carried him and he came from my body. Physically, I don't feel like I've been through birth, which I guess is usually how it's supposed to be. If we all went around feeling like we've been through the wringer of child birth, there would be a lot of only children out there!

Yes, the bottom line (healthy mother and healthy child) is the most important thing, but of course we wish that the delivery would have been more of what we wanted, more what we envisioned it could be.

Don't worry about the guilt - please try to brush it off. You were able to experience pregnancy and bring forth a beautiful son! Who, with a few hiccups at the beginning, is doing just fine and thriving at home with his mom and mom. Yeah, I wish I could have had things differently too. I guess in time we just have to make peace with our expectations and the reality of our situations. I'm just really grateful that at the end of the day, we have healthy, happy little boys; our sons. Just wait until he starts laughing; I swear it makes everything worthwhile.

You, partner and Cricket are all in my thoughts. Enjoy your weekend, and be well!

4:34 PM  
Blogger Isabel said...

You did the best thing for the baby. *YOU* did the *BEST* thing. Of course it would have been better a different way, a way without c-section or NICU, but I'm still proud of you. That's an amazing scar you have now: a scar that says 'I would do anything to keep you healthy'.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Nico said...

I feel like a fraud too - I didn't have any labor at all with my scheduled c-section. I so wish that it could have been different. But I did everything that I could, and nature conspired against me. Same for you. It is NOT your fault, it is not anything YOU did. Life sometimes just isn't fair. And this is one of those times. Some women get to experience the birth of their dreams - others of us have to throw those dreams in the toilet and then shit on them. But the beautiful thing is that the end result is the same - a healthy, happy, wonderful human being to enrich our lives with. I still think wistfully back to my birth plan every now and again, but less and less often as time passes and I get to enjoy my lovely son. I hope that you also can find a path to acceptance as time goes on. (And I hope that all didn't sound patronizing - NOT what I meant!)

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know if it makes any difference to you, since our situations have little in common but on the topic of guilt--

It took me a long time to stop feeling guilty about Nat's traumatic birth experience and her 3-day wait in the nursery for a mama to love her (we took her home on day 3, which was as early as legally possible). And it can't be argued that it had anything to do with me, and it doesn't compare to many days in the actual NICU. I do think guilt is a primary aspect of motherhood in our culture. We feel it because we are constantly called saints or demons with total control over our children, when in fact we are just people with no control over our children.

You are brave to delete the birth plan. That's great. Congratulations. I think it's really best for our kids when we shake off the unrealistic stuff and move on (when we can).

12:38 AM  
Blogger LilySea said...

Don't know why that came out anonymous. It was me!

12:39 AM  
Anonymous Liza said...

I'm so sorry you are having such a rough time with the guilt.

Erin and the others who encouraged you to let yourself grieve the loss of the birth experience you dreamed of having, and to talk with your partner about that sense of loss and guilt, they're smart women. I hope you can find the space to be with the feelings, and maybe then to let them diminish, maybe even disappear.

I do think your birth experience is a huge metaphor for the whole of parenthood, though. When we have vivid, maybe even rigid, expectations of how this adventure is going to look, I think we set ourselves up for disappointment.

Keep in mind, though, that at the end of the day, you and Partner did make decisions focused on your commitment to Cricket's health, not on your own attachment to how the birth should look.

The more you can focus on the big picture -- and your success in the big picture! -- and allow the details to be however they turn out to be, the easier I think things will be for you both.

9:13 AM  
Blogger lagiulia said...

I feel much the same way about my c-sec with my twins. I never wanted one and still regret having had (needing) one. I am still not convinced it was the only way, even though everyone told me it was. That is my stubborn mind holding on to a dream that has already been dashed, which of course is completely unproductive. To point out just how unwilling I am to acknowledge that I did my best: I had gone into preterm labor at 27.5 weeks but then was able to hold onto them until 34 weeks. Everyone says how amazing I am for doing that, but I still think about the c-sec. It is getting better with time, though, and I hope that it will for you too. I guess the bottom line is that the birth, in the most absolute of realities, is about the baby, and your baby is alive and well. That doesn't make it easier to accept your experience, I know. You are not alone in your feelings.

2:21 PM  

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