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I Wanted a Good Birth — And I Didnt Get One

Two writers, Jessica Smock and Lauren Apfel, discuss what constitutes a “good birth.” Jessica wanted a controlled birth — her story is below. Lauren wanted a healthy birth — read her story here.

My son’s birth almost three years ago was not a good one. I say this despite the fact that he and I were both healthy when we left the hospital a week later on a glorious May morning.

Before he was born, I hired a doula and carefully typed out a birth plan. I practiced my breathing exercises, preparing for a medication-free delivery. I nodded along when people said that a healthy baby is all that matters and part of me believed it. My rational mind accepted that childbirth was not something that could be planned entirely in advance. I knew, in theory, that all of my doula’s wisdom and training might not be enough to keep me from asking for an epidural. And yet, another part of me aspired to a natural childbirth experience.

When my due date passed, and then another week, and then almost two, I finally gave in to my doctor’s suggestion that I should be induced. Yet the night before my scheduled induction, I went into hard, fast labor after eating an otherwise relaxing steak dinner. My doula rushed over to our house, but my contractions were already just a couple of minutes apart.

Most women's conception of a Despite my months of preparation, despite my birth plan (that stated that I would wait to go to the hospital until absolutely necessary), I shrugged off my doula’s attempts at rubbing my back. I refused to sit on the birth ball. I would not stand up or get into any position to begin my breathing exercises. I screamed at my husband when he tried to play the iPod labor playlist we had selected weeks ago. I curled up into a ball on the floor and demanded to be taken to the hospital for an epidural. Immediately.

That birth plan would stay untouched in a folder packed away in our hospital overnight bag, but I felt neither guilt, nor ambivalence, nor any sense of failure about giving up on the idea of an unmedicated delivery so quickly. I was happy and giddy, in awe that I would see my baby son in a matter of hours. In the delivery room, I even joked that I may have broken some sort of record for the speed with which I had abandoned the goal of natural childbirth after only a few contractions.

And do you know why I felt no disappointment? Because I still felt in control. I was making a choice for myself among various options about what I wanted for my birth. And if that choice was different from what I had originally planned, that was okay because it was still a decision for me to make.

And then, during the final stage of labor, something changed. While I was pushing, my son’s heart rate dropped — and stayed — dangerously low. I was immediately rushed, alone, into the operating room, where I had a chaotic and frightening C-section. It was like we were in a panicked battlefield hospital, with doctors charging in and out, shouting orders, surgical tools dropping. My son wasn’t breathing when he was born so I couldn’t see him right away. It turns out he had an umbilical cord that was much too short for a successful vaginal delivery.

In the years since, I have thought a lot about what happened during the last hours of my son’s birth, what troubles me about it, what still disappoints me, despite the fact it all turned out fine in the end. It’s not just that it was scary. What I keep returning to is the realization that I was forced to give up control. I did not expect absolute control: Childbirth can never be exactly what we expect or desire. What I mean is a more complicated understanding of control.

A doctor and researcher named Anne Lyerly has done hundreds of interviews with women about their childbirth experience, and her book A Good Birth was a revelation to me. She found that most women’s conception of a “good birth” is much more nuanced than their doctor’s outcome-based definition of a healthy baby. These women felt that their emotional needs were as equally important as their medical ones.

For most women, including herself after her own C-sections, Lyerly explains that “a good birth is one that we have a hand in shaping… a birth that’s informed by things we value, a birth in which we’ve been able to decide among options, a birth in which we feel involved and present.”

I wanted a birth of connection, of agency, of informed decision-making, and that’s what control meant for me. Instead, I was sedated, with none of my support system beside me. I wanted to feel safe and secure during childbirth, and instead I was terrified for me and my baby. I had no options and gave no input. I had no knowledge about emergency C-sections and did not even know how difficult and dangerous mine was until much later on.

For my next birth — if there is one — I am hoping for a good birth. Of course, I want a healthy baby too. I have come to realize I am much less interested in how my child is delivered (by C-section or vaginally) or whether or not I ask for pain medication than whether I feel safe, respected, informed and supported. What I really want is to understand what is happening and why and to have people surrounding me who know me and care about me.

Photo source: thinkstock

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