“I had a healthy baby, and that’s all that matters, right?” A new parent sits before me, holding her tiny baby, trying to make sense of her feelings, and holding back the tears that begin to well up in her eyes.
As a doula, from time to time, I witness the emotional reflections of a person who had a birth that was in some way difficult. Perhaps she had struggled with infertility, or had an unexpected surgical birth, or her baby needed help transitioning into the outside world and could not be in her arms for sometimes days or weeks. Maybe she had a child with special needs who now requires more energy than she had anticipated.
Post-birth hormones, physical recovery from birth, and life with the demands of a newborn are difficult enough with an “easy” birth. Recovery from an unanticipated outcome sometimes feels almost impossible.
Almost without exception, the feedback will be given from family, friends, or even online strangers that she should be grateful. She believes them, and feels confused and ashamed.
“It isn’t important how your baby got here. He’s here now, and that’s all that matters.”
“My sister’s children are adopted. At least you had a baby without having to go through that.”
“Look at your beautiful child, and be happy that she’s here. It won’t matter to her how she was born.”
“Some people will never get to be parents at all. You should be grateful that you get to be someone’s mother.”
“Vaginal birth can be difficult, too, you know. If your baby is healthy, it’s worth it and that’s all that matters.”
“Years ago, you probably would have been one of those women who dies in childbirth. You’re ok. That’s what matters.”
If this has been your experience, I may be the only one to say this to you so far, so let me say it plainly and clearly: IT ISN’T ALL THAT MATTERS.
Yes, sometimes birth needs help. This is undeniable. Yes, without scientific advances, some women and babies might never have survived. This is true. It in no way diminishes this truth to also acknowledge that this may have been a very different experience than what a mother hoped for.
You survived. You’re a mother. Your baby is here and healthy. Of course that’s important – it would be foolhardy to say otherwise. Here’s a truth: I’ve never heard one parent say, ever, that having a healthy baby and a living mother doesn’t matter. So for now, let’s just let that go. These thoughts don’t help, and can even be invalidating and shame-provoking in a mother who is in the midst of a grieving process.
Sometimes, a birth experience, even one with necessary intervention that ends in a healthy mother and baby, can initiate grief. Even when “all’s well that ends well”, mothers experience loss – of the birth she hoped to have, of the connection she expected to feel to her newborn, of her trust in her physical body to conceive and bear children in a biologically traditional and expected way, or of the child she thought she would have.
Yes, life brings us experiences, and each experience contains the possibility, if we allow it, to bring us life lessons – some we embrace willingly, and some we fight kicking and screaming. We’re human, and we grieve. We mourn. We’re normal. The feelings you have – whatever they may be – are ok.
It’s normal to love your child deeply and completely, and still feel sad or angry days or weeks or months later. Clinical depression or Post-traumatic stress are other matters that do need more serious professional help, and I’m not addressing those here.
It’s normal to feel isolated, like you are the only one who has ever experienced these feelings. It’s normal to feel guilty for feeling what you feel even with your beautiful child safely in your arms.
It’s normal to feel shock, or numbed disbelief. Some days you might minimize your feelings and tell yourself that “it wasn’t so bad”, and then seemingly out of nowhere be hit with feelings of overwhelm. Shock and denial can be the emotional cushions we use to protect ourselves from feeling everything at once, allowing our deeper feelings to come up in pieces that can be dealt with a little at a time.
It’s normal to feel pain, or guilt, or remorse – to wonder “if I did it this way…” or “If this had happened instead…” It’s important to the healing process to feel these feelings fully, without burying them or escaping from them via drugs, alcohol, distraction, or chaos. Some moments, the pain may feel unbearable. It’s ok to know where your sources of support are – a therapist, a support group, a sympathetic friend who will listen unconditionally – and seek them out.
It’s ok to feel anger. You might go through times of wanting to blame anyone you can possibly bring to mind – yourself, your body, your baby, your spouse, your care providers, your birth place, your family of origin. You might even want to bargain with The Powers That Be for a way out of your feelings – “I will never again _____ if I can just not feel this way anymore.” Again, this is a normal way to feel. I offer only a word of caution that these feelings, if lashed out at others, can bring damage to our connected relationships. This is a time, again, to find a safe way to release your emotions. Only by letting these feelings find their way out in a healthy way can we keep them from coming up unintentionally later.
It’s normal to have times of reflection. It’s acceptable, just when everyone thinks that it’s time for you to have moved on, to have moments of sadness. You may have moments of wanting to be alone with your sad feelings, and to not want to be told to “just get over it already.” It’s ok to not want the well-meaning encouragement of others who tell you to be grateful. It’s ok to want to tell them to shut up, and to think that they’re not helping. A healing process takes time. It may take weeks or months or a very long time to come to terms with the big picture of your loss, whatever that loss may be. Allow yourself the time you need.
You might have days that really are just ok. Time passes. Your feelings settle. You adjust. Life begins to feel normal again. It’s ok to let these days happen. It’s normal to wonder if you are being disloyal to yourself or your feelings when these days come. You aren’t. It’s permissable to feel unstuck. This is part of healing, too. There may be normal days alternating with sad days, “stuck” feelings may come, and go, and show up again and this, too, is ok. Sometimes you might feel pressure to “hurry up and get through it”, and there is no need to feel guilty when you don’t want to do that.
The time will come when you reach the place where you begin to want to seek realistic solutions and to reconstruct your life. You might feel like your mind is working again, and you want to think through the details of how to function with the birth you’ve had, or the child you have, or life as you know it. This, too, is part of healing, and it’s perfectly right that it takes time – a little or a lot – to get to this place. The time comes – and it does come – when you accept the reality of your situation. You might never be the same YOU that you were before this time of loss. You’ve been through pain. You’ve been through turmoil. You’ve changed. You will find a way forward. You might even begin to plan and look forward to times in the future as you mother your child. You reach the place where you begin to feel able to think through what next time might look like, if you choose to have a next time. You may eventually even be able to think of your loss without pain. Sadness, yes, maybe always, but the gut-wrenching pain does pass.
“A healthy baby” isn’t all that matters.
You matter. You are a person who has experienced life, experienced loss, and lived to tell about it. This is now part of your life story, and it is important and significant.
Your feelings matter – the grief and the joy. The full spectrum of these feelings are normal and healthy.
Your birth experience matters. This is your once-in-a-lifetime memory of your child’s coming into the world, and you will carry it with you always. Wanting to feel your child grow inside your body, or feel your perfect baby emerge wet and squalling from your strong and healthy body without complication, to arrive safely in your arms while you instantly fall in love more deeply than you have ever known is a biologically normal desire. It’s not a selfish thought. It is a healthy, normal hope and expectation, and it matters.
Your baby matters. Having a healthy, safe and untraumatized little one who is growing, thriving, happy and content to be here is the heart’s desire of every parent.
Your healing matters.
Your feelings matter.
Your sadness matters.
Your joy matters.
I wish you peace and ease.
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