I remember the first birth I ever saw.
I was in nursing school and observed a cesarean section. The baby came out blue, and then all of a sudden pinked up and started to cry—and I did, too. It was mind-blowing to witness this miracle of life take place.
Fast forward several years, and it was my turn to have a C-section. Of course, I was overjoyed at the birth of our first baby, but part of me felt like a failure for having gone through thirty hours of labor and ending up with a C-section for “failure to descend,” as it is medically referred to. Over the years as a labor and delivery nurse, and now as a mom, I have heard a lot of language around birth that contributes to a feeling of guilt, of inadequacy. Medical terms such as “failure to progress” and “failure to descend” have “failure” built right into them.
You probably have well-meaning friends or have read books saying, “You were made for this,” implying that our bodies naturally know what to do. But while it is true that our bodies are designed to facilitate life, nature sometimes takes its own course.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always reflected in the way we think and talk about birth. Our conversations about and approach to birth are best when they’re grounded in encouragement and empathy, knowing that while there are practices that are typically better and safer, they might not be best or safest for that particular mom and baby.
When we talk about birth, we need to give ourselves and each other grace—and let go of our guilt.
Learning to let go of control
In many ways, birth is the first lesson in learning how to let go as a parent.
Each birth, just like each child, is different. From a woman’s pelvis size to the size of the baby, from cord position to other uncontrollable things that can happen inside the womb, there are numerous variables that can change in mere seconds during labor. Close to 30% of low-risk pregnancies in the U.S. experience unexpected complications. Thanks to modern medicine, we have been able to save many lives, but I think it has also given us a false sense of control. In reality, birth has remained the same for thousands of years: unpredictable.
It can be hard for us to accept this, especially if so much of our life experience prior to pregnancy has taught us otherwise. Until I had a difficult time getting pregnant—and learned quite fast that I couldn’t will a child into being—I had been able to control most of my plans and success with hard work and dedication. Then, the births of my children became additional lessons in surrender. I had wanted the birth that I had coached so many women through as a nurse, and yet, my baby and my body were designed differently.
It hurt, at first, that it didn’t go as I’d hoped. But this third time around, I’ve learned to let go. When I had my third C-section, I felt brave, totally surrendered, and happy. And I’ve seen how this surrender has helped me in parenting because there are always things we can’t control: our children’s temperaments; their strengths and weaknesses; likes and dislikes; and, ultimately, the decisions they make as free individuals.
Researcher-storyteller Brené Brown defines guilt as “holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” Knowing what we can and cannot control can help mitigate these feelings: we need not feel guilty for what was out of our hands.
Fighting the urge to compare
It’s a message that can be difficult to internalize, however, especially when we’re tempted to hold our experiences up to those of others. You can probably guess a big culprit: social media.
I recently asked two moms of millennial children if “mom guilt” was on their minds while raising their kids. While they said they sometimes wondered, “Am I doing enough?” they were mainly trying to stay afloat and concentrate on the children before them and not what others were thinking.
Both were very grateful not to be parenting in the age of “compare and despair” that social media can often fuel. While many mothers do find (and offer) support in their roles on social media, it’s all too easy to be discouraged by comparing our toddler’s loud tantrum to the photo of our friend’s docile-looking two-year-old, or our exhausted under-eye circles to another mom’s made-up selfie.
Birth stories also make up a large part of the mom world online, and we may be tempted to compare ours to other women’s. C-section or vaginal births, epidural or unmedicated, hospital or home, long or short labors: each of these variables can feel loaded with undue significance when we measure our experiences against someone else’s.
But, as I saw firsthand as a nurse, birth is neither a physical performance nor a competition. I used to tell my patients that they don’t win a gold medal at the end: they’re given the gift of life in their arms.
Fortunately, the specifics of a delivery don’t have to determine whether a mom considers it a “good” birth.
“[Obstetrician and professor] Dr. [Anne Drapkin] Lyerly identified five qualities that led women to feel that they had ‘good births,’ regardless of how their babies came into the world,” writes Jessica Grose for The New York Times:
agency (capacity to make their own choices, even if things didn’t go according to plan), personal security (a sense of safety during birth), connectedness (with medical providers, family members and with their babies), respect (an acknowledgment that birth is a transformative life event) and knowledge (understanding their bodies, and also understanding that birth was a process they couldn’t fully control).
Focusing on these elements (rather than a highly specific birth plan) during pregnancy can set us up for healthy expectations and happier outcomes. And confronting the ways we may have idealized birth is one way to make peace with a past delivery that didn’t go the way we hoped, explains reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks.
“Your birth may not have matched your perfect vision, but what in life actually does?” writes Sacks. “Especially in parenting, perfection will remain out of reach, so this is an opportunity to stop comparing yourself to the goddess mothers on social media or in your imagination, and to practice accepting yourself as a ‘good enough mother.’”
Trusting our instincts while giving each other grace
A lot of the conversation surrounding birth can be very passionate. This passion comes from a place of protection and gut instincts: we all want to protect ourselves and our babies, so we feel strongly about what we believe is best.
The first step in understanding ourselves and each other is knowing where we are coming from. My background in labor and delivery has undoubtedly influenced my own births. When I was trying for VBACs (vaginal births after caesarean) with my second and third children, I really wasn’t comfortable having the baby in me past 42 weeks because of the risks and experiences I had seen. So when my pregnancies continued past my due dates, I elected to schedule C-sections rather than continue to wait for labor.
The second step, of course, is to try to understand where other moms are coming from. Some moms may act upon all the research and books they have read, pulling from what they believe to be best for themselves. Others have had bad experiences in the past that they wish not to repeat; others may just want to see where labor takes them. Still other moms may be most familiar and comfortable with what their own mothers did.
Finally, it's important to remember that not only is every baby unique, but so is every mom's experience of birth. In medicine, pain is what the patient says it is, because everyone’s pain receptors are different. Similarly, we can’t ever know how hard or easy a particular experience is for someone else. After my scheduled C-sections, I received some well-meaning comments from others about how great it must have been, presumably because it was planned and I didn't go through labor. I felt so misunderstood, as my recoveries have been the hardest weeks of my life. Asking open-ended questions like, “How did your delivery go?” or “How are you feeling?” and truly listening are better foundations for empathy and connection than assumptions and comparison.
Ultimately, you know what is best for yourself and your baby, so have confidence in your decisions for your own health and happiness. Motherhood is easier and more joyful when we support one another; let’s give each other the grace and space to be ourselves.