Before the birth of my first child, I didn’t go to any birthing classes. I watched a couple of episodes of One Born Every Minute and concluded that I should trust the midwives. I just needed to push when I was told to push, and ask for pain relief if I needed it, and let the medical professionals take over the rest.
I thought having a birth plan would just set me up for failure. I saw women who went into labour with a plan as terribly naïve at best, hopelessly controlling at worst, and potentially even impeding the obstetrician and midwives from doing their job. Oh, I was so smug. Not for me the anguish of my friends, who had planned for natural births but ended up with caesareans, forceps deliveries, or epidurals.
In hindsight, it was a protective mechanism. I had watched friends put themselves through the wringer when their births hadn’t gone according to plan, some of them needing long-term therapy. Some had trauma responses or flashbacks, or were worried about how they would cope with subsequent births. We had long, tearful conversations over tea where I assured them that they’d done everything they could, and they shared their guilty feelings, the belief that their “medicalised” birth had been the result of some personal failing. My heart broke for them, and I didn’t want it to happen to me.
According to this midwife, all your birth plans are nonsense. (Post continues after audio.)
I started to see the pressure for a perfect birth as evidence of the unreasonable and unfair expectations on women. I decided that the labour and birth were unpredictable, largely out of my control. I couldn’t plan for the unexpected, so what was the point in putting undue pressure on myself?
I was terrified of being seen as one of “those mums” – militant women who had “done their research” on the internet, for whom the birth experience was more important than the delivery of a healthy baby.
But now, I’m not sure “those mums” exist. There are just some pregnant ladies who have armed themselves with knowledge, and some who are woefully underprepared.
I was eight days overdue and had developed obstetric cholestasis, a liver condition which has a potential to result in stillbirth. I had been suffering the symptoms for days, but ignored them, believing they were standard “last-days-of-pregnancy” stuff, and that my obstetrician would let me know if something was wrong. My obstetrician, for his part, hadn’t noticed anything was wrong because I hadn’t told him. When my mother, through worried tears, demanded I go to hospital, the nurses took one look at my jaundiced face and declared it high time I was induced.
After talking to my mother, she rushed me to the hospital and I was immediately induced.
I had fourteen hours of labour, an epidural, and finally an emergency caesarean. Throughout the whole process, I felt scared and alone. I had no idea what my body was meant to be doing – through my own wilful ignorance. I didn't know how to pace myself, hadn't prepared to stay calm, hadn’t even practised the much-derided breathing exercises. I felt adrift on a sea of pain and hormones, like my body was careening away from itself, totally out of my control.
It’s hard to say whether it would have gone differently if I’d had a plan. But I should have had the insight to realise that women's bodies are not merely vessels, to be poked and prodded and cajoled by medical professionals who know what they're doing. I would have – yes - done enough research to understand that I was going to have to do some of the work. And I would have prepared to do that work.
Don't get me wrong: the medical professionals were all top-notch. It's not that they did their job badly. It's that I didn't do mine at all.
I don't regret having a caesarean: I'm not sure being more prepared would have resulted in a different outcome. But it would have resulted in me feeling more in control. As it was, I had no understanding of what was going on, of what induction might entail, of how to remain in control of my own body. I had no idea that having an epidural meant needing a catheter. From beginning to end, I went along with whatever was suggested to me, because I did not feel knowledgeable enough to request an alternative. My ignorance kept me just as trapped as any plan for a natural birth might have done. And it was entirely self-imposed.
During the birth, I had no idea what I was doing or what was happening to me. I could have controlled that.
The risk we run when we advocate for trusting the medical professionals above all else is that we diminish the role of the woman who is actually giving birth. Most procedures which take place in a hospital require little to no input from the patient beyond initial consent, but giving birth is different. Woman need to be active participants.
A birth plan doesn't have to be prescriptive. It doesn’t have to dictate the music playing in the background, or the level of ambient lighting. It doesn’t even have to state whether you intend to have pain relief if you’d prefer to leave that up to chance. It can be written down, or just in your head. All that matters is that you’ve thought about it.
There’s got to be a happy middle ground between setting ourselves up for failure, and crystallising our hopes and intentions. Having a plan doesn't make us pushy or naïve, it makes us ready.
Did you have a birth plan? Did yours go to plan?