Many things can fuel feelings of discontent or disappointment after birth. Maybe you didn’t cope with the contractions as well as you anticipated; or maybe the birth progressed quickly, and it was intense; or perhaps, you needed medical interventions that you didn’t want to begin with. It could even be that nothing specific happened -- you just didn’t feel seen or heard. It turns out, feeling disappointed after birth is quite common and can persist even when baby is healthy and parents are overjoyed.
Yet birth disappointment is not often addressed or talked about. In general, our society doesn’t foster the support and space for parents to work through something as big as childbirth. So as a result, parents are often told to focus on the baby and, as long as baby is healthy, to move on from the birth. There is no time to address grief, anger, guilt or regret.
So what can parents do if they are disappointed about their birth experience? Here are 5 steps to take if you had a disappointing birth experience. Invest in yourself and make the time to heal both physically and emotionally -- it will benefit you and your family in the long run!
1. Talk to someone. One of the best things we can do to heal from a disappointing or upsetting experience is to move beyond our own thoughts and talk to someone. You don’t have to be alone in what you’re feeling. You might choose to talk to your partner, another family member, a trusted friend, your doula or doctor, or a therapist. Most of us have many conflicting feelings about birth. These conversations can help you recognize that you can hold many feelings at once, including joy and grief. You can be happy and grateful that you have a baby and still be sad or angry about your birth. Talk to someone who will affirm this and make room for all of your feelings.
2. Find your compassionate voice. Our stories are often littered with thoughts like, “If only I had…” or “I feel so guilty that…” We criticize the choices we made and we feel guilty about things that were not in our control. So narrate your birth story to yourself, revisit it and listen for your self-critical voice. Once you’ve found that self-critical voice, take a few minutes to think about how your best friend would react and say to those thoughts. Find your best-friend voice -- the self-compassionate voice -- and try to retell your story through that lens. It may take a few tries to find that loving voice. So keep going until you feel some forgiveness and release. Your birth story won’t be fixed, but your understanding of it will change over time.
3. Join a group. Sometimes working through our experience on our own is not enough. In birth processing groups, people are able to normalize and affirm each other’s experiences. Participants find commonalities in their stories or hear common themes of regret or sadness in very different experiences. They are able to express compassion for one another’s stories and bolster each others coping and understanding. Look for a birth processing group in your local area or try an online group. Postpartum Support International is a great resource for finding nearby support.
4. Tell your partner and others what you need. When your birth felt out of control or didn’t go the way you had imagined, the postpartum period can feel even more chaotic and lonely. However, we can take charge of our feelings in the weeks and months after birth by being intentional about our self-care plan. Take a few minutes to think about the top two to three things that make you feel most replenished and most like yourself. Then, work with your partner or other people in your support system to make those self-care priorities a reality. When you’re ready, you can tackle bigger self-care needs, such as going to physical therapy to repair your core and pelvic floor post-birth or seeing a therapist to process your birth. Communicating what you need and being intentional in making it happen is an empowering way to repair that sense of being out of control.
5. Addressing the medical personnel. Sometimes, the reason you are disappointed by your birth falls on the clinical care that you received. Maybe you didn’t feel autonomous or felt like you didn’t receive proper communication about certain procedures. If that’s the case, consider writing a letter to your practice or to the patient advocate of the hospital, or even ask for a meeting with your medical provider. While this may not be easy, it may help answer some questions about timelines or address what you may feel was an injustice. Hopefully, this will also create a line of communication between you and your provider wherein they hear you, validate your concerns and think about this the next time they come across a patient in a similar circumstance.
Here are a few resources for immediate support:
Postpartum Support International Warmline: 1-800-944-4773 or www.postpartum.net
English and Spanish warmline that provides support and will connect you with a local resource coordinator in your area.
The Motherhood Center NYC: 212-335-0034.
Perinatal psychiatrists and therapists as well as a day treatment program for PMADS or birth trauma.
Evelyn Gama Counseling: 914-570-4262.
Individual or group counseling related to perinatal mental health and birth processing.
Seleni: A NYC-based organization (with national contacts) dedicated to supporting the emotional health of individuals and families during the family building years.
Laura Vladimirova is a full-time NYC-based birth doula, Maternal Health Policy MSW student and lactation counselor. When she’s not attending births or supporting families postpartum, she’s fostering dogs and spending time with her family.
Evelyn Gama is a licensed therapist in NYC specializing in pregnancy and early childhood. Evelyn’s best adventures though are as a mom to her own two little ones on the UWS.
Photography by Laura Vladimirova.