Childbirth Grief: When Childbirth Doesn't Go the Way You Planned It

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By Tina Payne Bryson

Many of us dream of the day we’ll have a baby. We know that delivery will be painful and challenging, but we expect it to be miraculous. We also expect that we’ll be able to plan and decide how our childbirth will happen. But often, the whole experience doesn’t go according to plan. And when it isn’t what we hoped, we can experience anything from mild disappointment to devastating grief.

I have a friend who went through a really difficult delivery with her son. She expected to deliver at full-term and take her healthy baby home with her. But her delivery was too early, and her fragile, less-than-two-pound son had to stay in the hospital long after she went home. Both mother and son experienced life-threatening emergencies during and after delivery. Not what she expected. Not what she wanted.

There are several reasons that even less traumatic birth experiences can cause new mothers to feel powerful emotions of disappointment, sadness, or grief:

  • Control over making decisions was taken away from them.
  • They were rigidly clinging to a vision of a perfect delivery that they thought should happen only one way.
  • They weren’t informed or prepared for options and contingency plans.
  • They were forced to make a decision they didn’t want because they felt that they didn’t have any other choice (perhaps because the doctor said that the baby was in danger).

Many women face these common experiences and the disappointments that follow. So what do you do when you this monumental moment in your life hasn’t gone as you had dreamed and expected? How do you handle your feelings of disappointment and grief? Here are some suggestions:

Focus less on the “the event” and more on the relationship with your new child.

This is easier said than done, but it’s important. Yes, you need to deal with the birth itself and process the emotions you experience. But keep your focus on getting to know your baby, and on developing a strong attachment. Remember that the event of birth is only one moment in time in a lifetime of moments with your child. What matters most is what happens from here on out.

Tell your story.

One of the most powerful ways any of us can deal with painful situations is to tell and re-tell the story of what happened. Doing so can be incredibly difficult, especially when we are grieving. But there is no question that deep and lasting healing can occur when we talk about what we’ve been through, and even when we journal about the experience and how we feel about it. It takes courage to do this, but it is necessary for healing.

Strategically block doomsayers from your life.

There are times in our life where we just have to put up with the negativity of the people around us. This is not one of those times. Yes, you need to be realistic about your situation. But right now you need to surround yourself with people who bring nothing but love, support, and encouragement. If someone is bombarding you with negative words about what you should have done differently, or about the future of your child, gently but firmly ask them to go bombard someone else.

Re-frame your perspective. One of the most helpful things you can do right now is to adjust your perspective and expectations. One key aspect of mental and emotional health is resilience—the ability to withstand, recover, and bounce back from difficult situations. So tell yourself that right now, you’re simply being given extra practice at bouncing back from adversity—a quality you’ll need as a parent, and that you’ll want to model for your child. If you find yourself having a hard time connecting with your baby or feeling depressed, you should immediately seek the help of a mental-health professional. It’s essential to get back on the right track as soon as possible so that you can be the best mom possible, and feel joyful again.

Learn to receive and accept care from others.

For many women it can be hard to admit that we need help. Especially when it comes to things that are supposed to be “natural”—like childbirth and caring for our young. If your delivery didn’t go as planned and you find yourself dealing with hard realities you hadn’t planned for (and may not be fully capable of handling by yourself), then you have to let others help you. Remember: Your baby needs you at your best at this moment. And to nurture your little one well, you might need to be nurtured a bit yourself.

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