“Imagine your ideal childbirth experience,” said the instructor at my Preparing for Childbirth class. “Now, throw all those ideas out the window.”
The class went on to cover the stages of labor, support techniques, and common interventions. But ultimately, it seemed the class had been designed to convey a particular message: that “ideal” birth you were expecting? Stop expecting it.
It was basically the same message I’d been hearing from various friends and acquaintances throughout my pregnancy. “Childbirth is not what you think it’s going to be,” said my friend whose son was born via emergency c-section. She delivered this pronouncement with a pointed, meaningful look.
“I know, I know,” I said, not really knowing. “I know you can’t plan for it, that everything changes when you’re in labor—all that stuff, right?”
She looked a little annoyed, like she was talking to someone who was falsely confident. Like she was talking to someone who didn’t know.
Okay, so I was flippant. When you’re pregnant, un-asked for advice and wisdom comes at you from you all sides. From whether or not you should be riding a bike to what your “back fat” can tell you about the gender of your unborn child, people have things to say about pregnancy. One of the most common themes that comes up? That the childbirth experience is not going to be anything like you had imagined.
For me, it was a given that I’d have a “natural” childbirth. It was easy for me to think this, since the first eight months or so of my pregnancy were relatively uneventful. I’d heard much about the horrors of pregnancy, but for me, it just wasn’t happening. Sure, it had its annoyances—the crushing fatigue in the first trimester that had me sleeping on conference room floors at my corporate job, the constant heartburn near the end—but it was nothing like the four months of morning/noon/and night sickness a coworker had experienced, or the three months of bed rest endured by another friend.
I never would have consciously admitted it, but I think that, on some level, I imagined that my “easy” pregnancy would naturally lead into the childbirth experience I wanted (in the water, no interventions) and the baby I envisioned (agreeable, relatively unobtrusive).
Then I went in to see my midwife when I was about eight months along. She praised me for my healthy, active, relatively uncomplicated pregnancy thus far. We patted myself on the back for what a model patient I was. She asked me about my doula and the waterbirth consent form. And then in the course of her examination she determined that the baby was breech—which, even at my natural childbirth-friendly clinic, was a recipe for a c-section.
But I wasn’t due for another month—there was plenty of time for the baby to flip, right? The midwife looked doubtful. “You need to meet with the OB right away,” she said. “And you should prepare yourself for a c-section. I hope we can buy you a week.”
I complained to a friend about this turn of events. “Ultimately, you’re not in control of the childbirth experience,” she said. “You have to let go of your expectations for a certain kind of birth.” Absolutely, I responded, believing it on a surface level, while deeper down suspecting she’d spent a little too much time in yoga class and deciding that a different set of rules applied to me.
In other words, I was certain I could flip that baby. I visited an acupuncturist who made a valiant effort with moxibustion, a traditional Chinese medical practice that is often used to turn breech babies. I went to the YWCA and did handstands in the pool. I practiced inversions involving an ironing board propped on the side of the bed. In other words, I was willing to do almost anything—including abandoning my dignity, if necessary—to ensure the kind of childbirth experience I wanted.
Perhaps needless to say, my efforts didn’t pay off. One evening about a week later I went into labor, and then a few hours later my daughter, Lydia, was born via c-section.
Several well-meaning people told me afterward that ultimately I wouldn’t care about the c-section—that what really matters is having a healthy baby. I didn’t appreciate the sentiment at that time. Now, after months have passed, I think I can see their point. Focusing all your attention on the birth itself can take away from what comes afterward—sort of like obsessing about the wedding while ignoring the gravity of the commitment. And although I’m still disappointed that I didn’t have the birth I was expecting, I can confirm that what really matters did, in fact, came later.
Editor’s note: Shannon Keough lives in south Minneapolis with her husband, Nick, and daughter, Lydia. Every month she will focus on a new baby-related topic—from breastfeeding and colic to sleep training and starting solid foods, from the challenge of going back to work (or not), navigating relationships and finding some personal time post-baby. Join Shannon next month for another installment about the unique challenges and rewards of the baby life.