Between expectation and reality lies potential disappointment

Expectation

What are your expectations for your birth? I have been teaching for 16+ years. That equals thousands of couples, and not one of them has had the birth that they expected. Don’t misunderstand me, they haven’t been disappointed necessarily, they just didn’t have a birth that went “according to plan.” I’m concerned about the gap that exists between expectations and reality – especially when it comes to giving birth.

When I first started teaching, I was a cheerleader of the almighty Birth Plan. I wanted women to declare what kind of birth they were wanting to have and then go out and achieve that exact birth. But at our class reunions, each one of the women who were anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months postpartum would give the same answer to my question, “How was your birth?”

“Well, it wasn’t what I expected, that’s for sure!”

After hearing this a few hundred times, I had learned to not write a birth plan for myself when it was my turn. It made sense to me to go in with zero expectations and no real written birth plan so that I wouldn’t end up disappointed in a birth that went “rogue.” Don’t get me wrong, I definitely had my own idea of what I wanted to occur. My ideal labor would have been one that had no medication and no interventions – one where I would grunt my baby out and go home a couple of days later. That is definitely not what happened for me. But somehow, because I’d not written up a lengthy birth plan and went in with pretty broad expectations of all the possibilities, I wasn’t disappointed. I found that I wasn’t wedded to any particular outcome and this allowed me to remain flexible and ready to make decisions on the fly. 

Easier said than done. I’m concerned that some might misinterpret that I’m suggesting women forego the birth plan altogether and just be happy with “whatever they get.” But nothing could be farther from the truth! I want women, all women, to have a positive birth experience. I want them to be able to tell their birth stories with a sense of pride and satisfaction in their voices. I want them to feel confident and secure in their new parenting abilities – and this begins at birth.

But what also begins at birth is the roller coaster ride of parenting. Talk about something not going according to a set of expectations! You might have expectations about how breastfeeding will go, or how much your baby will sleep at night, or what their temperament might be. Guess what? You can have all the expectations you want about this stuff –  and “Que sera, sera!” translation: “Whatever will be, will be!” The same is true for your birth. 

I had a reunion this past weekend and 5 couples were able to make it. None of them had a birth that went according to their plan or set of expectations. Two of the Mommas had been wanting a medication free labor, and close to the end, changed their minds and got an epidural. One Momma had been fully hoping for an epidural but as a 3rd timer, her birth went unexpectedly fast and she ended up going medication free. And there was still one other Momma who had been hoping for a vaginal birth with little or no interventions, but ended up with an unexpected Cesarean after many hours of pushing.

Despite none of them having their “ideal” birth, as each one told their birth story, they were smiling. Their eyes were shining as they spoke of this most important day of their lives. They weren’t dwelling on what didn’t go right, but instead celebrating what did go right. Their expectations of birth were broad going in, they focused on those things that were under their control and made the best decisions they could in the moment as birth unfolded. As I held each one of their babies in turn and listened to them speak, I followed up with a couple more questions.“Was it what you expected?” And to the woman, they all said, “No. Not at all.” But then I followed up with, “Was it a good experience for you?” And each of them replied, “Oh, yes.” Some of them are already considering baby #2!

Having an idea of what kind of birth you’re wanting to have is very important because it will help you to find the right provider and the right place to give birth. It will help you understand the level of participation that is required of you. It will encourage you to avoid interventions unless they’re medically necessary. But more importantly, it will allow you to engage your provider in open, honest dialogue about the birth of your baby. It’s through this dialogue that you gain the most benefit. Dialoguing with all the members of your birth team, as opposed just handing them a written birth plan, creates connection between you. It’s also an opportunity for them to know what your hopes and fears are around giving birth. It gives them insight into any specific or particular concerns you might have and provides them with ideas of how they can best support you.

Once you have built that mutual trust with your birth support team, you’ll really start to feel like a team. All working together as birth unfolds so that you can make the very best decisions possible for yourself, your baby and your labor.

Birth happens – and then you’ll tell your story. Little or no expectations of having the “perfect birth” will free you up to recognize what’s happening in your birth right now and allow you to adapt better as it unfolds in real time.

You can still have a positive, empowering birth experience even if, sometimes especially if, your birth is not tied to a specific set of expectations. When you realize that birth is too big for an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper, you’ll find yourself relying more on your birth team, digging deeper than you thought you could, and embracing the vulnerability that is birth.

Your birth can be so much more than a rigid set of expectations about what is and what isn’t a good birth. Open yourself up to all the possibilities that birth holds for you. 

What if you wrote out your Birth Hopes, Birth Wishes or Birth Desires instead of a Birth Plan? How does switching that word up make a difference? If you’ve given birth before, how did your reality match up with your expectations? How big was the gap?

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4 thoughts on “Between expectation and reality lies potential disappointment

  1. Ah yes, the gap; it can be very mighty wide! I think you are right that having an idea of what you would like to happen is a good idea, and that a plan is useful for some. I have birthed 3 children in Japan and the benefit of birthing here is that you pretty much know in advance what to expect, because the options are limited. There is no pain relief if you go for a vaginal delivery. Yep, that’s right; no entonox, no pethidine and limited availability of the epidural. I gave birth at one of very few hospitals that do actually have the epidural, but if you want it you have to have a planned birth, which I didn’t want. So I knew before and during my labour I just had to get on with it and birth my children without any pain relief. In that sense, I was lucky because I didn’t go in with the expectation of getting relief and end up with none. The pain on my first was manageable, but on my 2nd and 3rd I birthed less than 2 hours after the first painful contraction. The gap for me there was that the pain didn’t come in waves; it just came, eased off a little and bam, came again. Back to back without let up until the pushing part, which I always do with a smile, much to the curiousity of the Ob/gyn, because I know I don’t have long left to wish my little one “happy birthday”. 🙂 I’m about to do it all again within in the next 10 days. I am optimistic with it being my 4th the gap won’t be too big!

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    • Elle: I was swamped with my 31 Days Project and trying to get a blog posted every day, that I didn’t have time to reply to folks in a timely manner! Now I’m wondering if you’ve already had #4?! Congratulations, by the way – 4 is lovely, don’t let anyone tell you any different. I hope your birth is (was?) smooth and easy. Those fast ones are great – when they’re over! Something a little bit in between slow and tedious and fast and furious would be my personal ideal. Can’t say I’ve ever had the “perfect” birth – but they’ve all been wonderful in their own way. Best of luck to you in this latest adventure!

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  2. Yes, the gap! And because language is SOOOO important, says the writer, I think Birth Hopes or Birth Wishes would go far in helping women and their partners not feel they’d failed when they do not fit/fulfill their pre-birth PLAN. Man, 1000 reasons you do what you do! xoxo

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