Y’all, when it comes to birthing, I was perfect. I had a vaginal, un-medicated birth and my daughter was healthy and beautiful. Aren’t you impressed? Well, hang on just a sec and let me give you a little context for my “perfection.”
When Rue came out all slippery and purple, the midwives placed this strange squish on my chest and I remember feeling… relief… then… not much. Lots of women talk about feeling a rush of overwhelming love when their babies are born, but not me. I was mostly just glad it was all over, and then everything else was a disconnected blur. I remember speaking in a voice that didn’t sound like my own. I remember staring at the swirl pattern her ears made. And I remember the disappointment. Everything, including my beautiful baby, looked perfect, but it felt far from it.
Let me explain.
I caught a summer cold on Saturday. Still snotting and coughing, labor started Monday afternoon and Rue was born Wednesday afternoon, about 45 hours later. I had intended to give birth at the first free-standing birth center here in Illinois. But Rue was born in the hospital after her heart rate decelerated during a non-stress test when I was just beginning active labor, rendering me un-admittable to the birth center. I struggled to adapt to the change of venues and my labor slowed, dragging on and on and on. As the saying goes, babies always do come, and eventually, she was born under fluorescent lights in a 60s era hospital room with scratchy blankets and the smell of antiseptic. Basically, the opposite of all my hopes and expectations.
I already knew this, but it took my therapist saying it many months later for me to realize that expectations are just fear setting you up for failure. What were my expectations? Oh you know, just a vaginal, un-medicated birth in a birth center with a healthy baby at the end of all that work. The thing is, that’s not horribly unrealistic. I actually hope that for my second baby, due in August. But the difference this time is that my hope is not rooted in fear (can hope even exist with fear feeding it? That’s another post ha).
I was so afraid my entire pregnancy, and as an attempt to control the un-controllable, I set these “reasonable” expectations and insisted on imposing my conceptual will on how things would go. I would listen to friends and acquaintances who had more conventional experiences and say out loud “You do you. You go girl.” But inside, I was all judgey and insecure and scared. Isn’t that how it always is? The things I get judgiest about are the things I’m most insecure about in myself.
What was I so scared of? Something going wrong, not being able to withstand the pain, not being able to bond with my baby because of scary interventions like c-sections.
Allow me a brief rant before I return to my story of self-awareness and growth:
There seems to be this either/or thinking in our talk about birth (and parenting and freaking everything, actually) that either you “don’t have to prove anything” and you are gonna get that epidural/scheduled c-section, because why suffer? Or on the other side are the earth mamas who say if you don’t suffer for your baby, you don’t love her/him. You do a natural birth, no matter what, by god, you breastfeed until you bleed, and you give, give, give constantly because that’s love and attachment and not what our mothers gave us. Sweet lord, this dualism makes me so angry. I thought I was holding a good balance with these approaches during my first pregnancy, but I was definitely leaning towards the crunchier side. And unbeknownst to me, my entire worth as a woman was slowly twisting itself into what kind of birth I had and what kind of mother I am and how organic my baby’s diet is.
But you know what? C-sections save lives. Interventions prevent infant and maternal death. The norm throughout history and in many places in our world today is that being pregnant and giving birth is a risky endeavor. So those who say you should never have interventions are throwing the baby out with the Pitocin. (End rant.)
Speaking of, at one point during my labor, one of my midwives was pushing Pitocin and I resisted, digging into my ideal of how I was about to do birth. She made some quip about how women in the Third World are dying from not having Pitocin and I sobbed. Although I just said it and believe it to be true, saying that to a woman exhausted from labor was the most inappropriate thing I can think of. You know what she didn’t tell me, which would have been helpful and appropriate? The reason they wanted to administer Pitocin was that my uterus had been working for over 36 hours, and it might get fatigued and be unable to contract after the baby was born, leading to possible hemorrhaging.
You know, they were interested in saving my life and preventing serious damage. I didn’t get that information until later on in the process (incidentally, after the midwives changed shifts and I got a new one). It doesn’t help to wonder about the what ifs, because who knows what I would have done or how things would have played out had I known that tidbit earlier.
But I do have that information this time. I know that when my first baby was born, one of my biggest fears came true: I couldn’t connect with her. Not because of a medical intervention, but because I was so damn tired, I didn’t have any emotions left to connect with her. I didn’t love her. I felt adrenaline and excitement and then the exhaustion set in and unmet expectations kept slamming my heart and didn’t stop.
I do not think I “did this to myself”; there were lots of factors, including a medical team that did not communicate well, that led to this insanely long labor. I didn’t have control over many of them. What I hope to take with me into my next labor is a new awareness of my tendencies towards control and perfectionism. Those are usually good signals to me that maybe I’m afraid or feeling shameful (Thank you for the insight, Brene Brown!). I hope to bring my new mantra with me: “observe and respond”. Notice what’s going on and respond intentionally instead of saying “Nope, this is how it’s going to be.” Because all that does, in birth and my life in general, is create suffering.
So those who say “you don’t have to suffer” are right. You don’t. I don’t. For me, I hope that a free-from-suffering birth looks like an unmedicated, vaginal birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl without the perfectionism this time. If something goes awry and I end up back at the hospital with an intervention of some sort, I know I can face it. I have already gone through the one of the worst feelings in the world: not loving my new baby. I came out on the other side, full of love for my spunky girl. Come what may, I can do this.
What about you? In what ways do you feel like you have to be perfect? What have you found helpful to move through the perfectionism into less suffering?