The Birth Experience She Didn’t Want – Letter

This is an email sent to me from a mom having trouble reconciling her birth experience.

Dear Kathryn,

I am a planner both by profession and by nature.  Three years ago I planned every detail of my wedding and our honeymoon and, can I just say, both were amazing.  I also planned my pregnancy down to the very month of conception (I know, it’s crazy). My husband and I were so happy that it “worked.” I felt excited and optimistic about my future. During my pregnancy I researched and interviewed five midwives in my community and read everything I could get my eyes on about labor and childbirth. My friends joked that I was over-prepared but I so eagerly anticipated my homebirth that I gave a printout of my birth plan to family members! It outlined every last nuance of my ideal birth. But that seems like another life ago now.

As you can guess my birth experience turned out to be nothing like I had hoped. After a long, stalled labor I was rushed to the hospital for an emergency C-section. Afterwards, I had complications, requiring me to take medication that turned out to be incompatible with breastfeeding. So I never breastfed my baby at all. The birth experience was so wrong and so deeply sad. I can’t seem to get over it. Even though it’s been eight months, I still think about the details of the birth and its aftermath and I can’t stop re-imagining it. I have nightmares, and I obsess that there might have been something I forgot to do or something that could have been done to change things. I can’t shake the feeling that I failed at birthing my own child. Friends tell me to focus on our healthy baby girl, whom I adore, instead of agonizing about the birth. But in some ways, because of what we went through, I feel like I can’t be the mother I wanted to be. It hurts so much to write this but I also feel, because of my failure, that I may not be able to love my daughter the way she deserves to be loved.  Can you help.  

New Mom in Misery

Dear New Mom,

First, reaching out for help, and admitting you’re have these feelings, takes courage and you deserve great praise for that. I also want to reassure you what a well-grounded maternal instinct you have for considering how your internal world impacts your baby’s life, too.

I am so sorry this happened to you.  As you know, grief is not limited to lives lost. It can come in many forms, including regret and guilt over experiences you wanted to have. Allowing yourself to grieve the homebirth and the breastfeeding can be a way to validate these strong feelings. Often, connecting with your spiritual life or performing a grief ritual will help you to place what happened into a guilt-free place of understanding.

As humans, we are wired to be learners, and each experience we have, particularly those involving primal emotions such as excitement or fear, or body sensations like pain, “brands” our brains. The feelings that emerge as a result of this branding serve as a signal, should the experience happen again, about how to cope with it. From a biological perspective this makes sense – if you tripped and fell once, you would probably avoid the object you tripped over next time. But sometimes, especially with very intense brands, our rational self gets stuck in a loop with our primal self.  “I had a terrifying experience.  Oh God. What did I do to cause it? I don’t know. How could I have corrected this? I don’t know. How can I prevent this from happening again? I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.” Looping and looping, creating the compulsive, but unsuccessful, pattern of this has got to be figured out.

Let me assure you, New Mom, that you did do everything right. The ways of interacting with the world that have worked for you thus far in your life – planning, knowledge, your skills and education, as well as the skills and education of those caring for you during childbirth — were the tools you had at the time.  It doesn’t make sense why things happened so differently, given your thorough preparations. It doesn’t make sense, and it may never make sense, and that is part of the answer.

From a biochemical perspective, what you are feeling are flashbacks and hyperarousal (high anxiety), which are signs of Post Traumatic Stress – the brain’s way of hanging onto and trying to learn from an experience that was both highly emotional and highly physical.

New mothers tend to experience lots of anxiety in general, due to sleep deprivation and the constant demands of an infant, and postpartum hormone shifts. But when combined with a birth trauma, this anxiety can become even worse. With counseling, and sometimes medication, there are several very effective ways to calm those thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy, and changing how you relate emotionally to the experience can all be helpful. Debriefing with the care providers or others who were in the delivery room with you can also be helpful to understand a different perspective about your birth experience.

New Mom, motherhood can be a very “loaded” idea, and we tend to look outside – to experts or media images or others who appear to have it better – to map our own ideals. This is especially true if we weren’t parented the way we would like to parent.  Even things like breastfeeding and home birth can be placed on the “goals to be achieved” list, like grades in school. But this isn’t school. It’s motherhood, and it’s messy.

So it can help to look inside – to rediscover and remember where you understand yourself the best — to guide you right now. This birth experience need not define you as a person or as a mother. Parenting is unpredictable and exasperating, so practice kindness, not competitiveness, toward yourself as you move through this time of life.

One more thing, New Mom, is that the person you were before you had your baby is still there. She is just growing and re-emerging. Be assured that you will figure this motherhood thing out. You are a good mom, and you do have everything you need to love your daughter, and yourself, the way you both deserve to be loved.


*** Postpartum depression is very real and more common that we as a culture talk about. It most often shows up as postpartum anxiety. If you are not sleeping during the day, having frightening thoughts,  lots of anger, or are having trouble taking care of your baby, please seek help from a professional. There are many of us out here waiting to help.