Opened Up: I Am Not My Birth Story
Like so many women in my family therapy practice, my identity as a mother was intertwined with unmet expectations around my birth experience. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I had a plan for becoming a mother. The birth of my son, and that of me as a mother, was going to be a empowering, spiritual experience.
I read everything I could find about natural birth, and I practiced mindful birthing. I wanted to experience myself as grounded, present, and strong. I harnessed all the positivity and hopefulness that my birth would go as planned because the materials led me to think that if I believed it enough, it would happen. It didn’t.
I went from intentioned to disappointed and disempowered.
I began feeling contractions on a Thursday night shortly after my due date. My doctor wanted to induce on Monday, but I wanted to to power through before then and make the birth happen as I had imagined it. I had not invested in a doula because I was intimidated by the cost. I opted to have a hospital birth because it would be covered by insurance. Despite this, my birth was going to be an empowering, spiritual experience like those I had read about.
I recruited my sister, who was in training to be a birth worker, to be present at my birth. Monday’s looming induction deadline was compounded by the stress that my sister had already rescheduled her flight once, and if I did not get things moving, she would be unable to attend my birth. I spent all day Thursday curb-walking, trying to get things moving. My actions and my feelings, however, were in conflict. I was grieving the end of my pregnancy and wondering if I had gleaned all I could from the experience. Nevertheless, around midnight, it began to feel like my baby’s arrival was imminent. My sister agreed, things seemed to be progressing quickly.
I was in major pain and felt the urge to push. At the hospital, though, I was told I was only a few centimeters along and was sent home. I was mortified, thinking all the pain was in my head. Maybe I was not the strong, grounded person my friends thought I was. I returned to the hospital again later that morning, sure I had made progress in labor. Again, nothing. The attending doctor said she had seen my intervention-free birth plan and was going to do everything she could to support it, but because of the baby’s position in my body, I needed to prepare for anything. I accepted this as a challenge. All day Saturday it continued: Lots of pain, no gain.
I parsed every comment directed towards me for meaning about who I was and how I was doing. Then the dreaded words came: “failure to progress.” At that point in labor, my body was pushing involuntarily, as if it were the only thing it knew to do. I was told I was not dilated enough to begin active labor, and I would need to receive an epidural to sedate this urge. I was informed that this was now my best chance for a vaginal delivery, that maybe the epidural would help my body relax and open on its own.
I accepted intervention after intervention with grace, having promised myself previously that I’d trust the experts. Even though both my baby and I were healthy, ultimately they told me that the risks for hemorrhage were too high, and I would need assistance. But a c-section was the one thing I was not prepared for. I had not even entertained the thought. My husband looked terrified, so I took a breath, put on a brave face, and powered through.
I was opened up.
The operation went smoothly, and I had a healthy, beautiful boy by Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon, the grief hit me like a tidal wave.
Coming into motherhood is an experience—not a marker of your abilities.
Becoming a mother felt like welcoming a roommate I had never met but who had already moved a ton of crap into my settled apartment.
I became a mother in my early thirties—just as I was finally starting to feel a bit more at home with my sense of self. Before the birth of my son, I wondered how I would make space and negotiate the conflicting desires of this new part of me. Up until having him, every decision—from the purchase of prenatal vitamins to creating a birth plan—had been loaded with meaning for every part of me, and often these parts had competing needs. Who would I be? How would I be? Could I be both driven and present?
My friends and family offered their own well-meaning reflections to these questions. I had a reputation for being a full-throttle, high-octane gal, and that made me feel safe. It was a major part of my identity. When friends told me I would give birth and be high-kicking on the dance floor the next day, I felt comforted but also pressured to perform. It also frustrated me when people said there was no way I could continue to be so active once I had a kid. I felt unsupported to be myself.
I told my supervisor that I planned to return to my therapy practice two weeks after I gave birth. She gently encouraged me to give myself space around this decision. I was initially appalled by her statement. At the time, I was in the process of completing my requirements toward licensure, and the thought of slowing down felt like a death sentence. It felt like yet another comment suggesting that life on my terms was over. She did not intend her comment to negate my intentions but rather to give me permission to feel the desires and needs of motherhood as they emerged. As I look back, she saved my sanity. I had no idea how much I would enjoy this spaciousness she encouraged me to create.
In the days and weeks following my unexpected birthing experience, reflection descended into rumination. Every challenge in front of me was because I “failed to progress.” I had a hard time even calling what I had experienced as birth. The previous night, I had gone from an unstoppable urge to push to a numbing epidural in minutes. I felt such a disconnect between these two states. I felt a disconnect in my sense of self. After nine months steeped in American culture around birthing,my identity was completely intertwined with the experience. I was drawn to the “natural” birth movement because I appreciate the way it aims to normalize birth, accept the process of birth, and celebrate and empower women. I was not opposed to intervention or the use of medication for others—I truly believe that every woman should be able to make the choice that resonates with her. That said, I had declared the natural birth community to be my tribe, and the intervention-free birth had become the rite of passage. Despite my values, however, there was a somewhat competitive edge to this drive. Birth had become a performance, something to be conquered.
I grieved the lost opportunity to push. I grieved the birth I had envisioned. Every statement directed at me throughout the process had burned into my brain, some for better and some for worse. Before I knew it, I was in a shame spiral; I felt I had failed. Some told me I should just be happy that I had a healthy baby. My shame compounded. Others cried with me and made space for my grief, and I felt safe.
We don’t get to know how our choices may or may not have changed the outcomes. Had I rejected interventions, things might have taken a turn for the worse. I had to remind myself daily, all I know is I did the best I could with the information available to me. With all the unknowns of raising a child, we can be mindful about our decisions, but there is a thin line between reflection and rumination.
Motherhood, trauma, and the experience of disempowerment is a shared experience.
I have witnessed many clients in my therapy practice grappling with their identities around experiences in the early days of motherhood. Often the pain and terror is not located in the details of the events but in the experience of disempowerment.
For some mothers, the experience of disempowerment centers not on the birth experience but rather on issues of early caretaking, such as feeding their babies. There are some mothers who desire deeply to breastfeed and then feel that their bodies fail them by not cooperating. There are others who produce milk without difficulty and then feel pressured to continue breastfeeding, despite the extreme mental distress it provokes.
For some women, the experience of disempowerment begins with the transition back to work. Some are terrified about how their split focus will affect their professional identity. They are the employees who always go the extra mile and now do not have the extra mile to give. Without the ability to give 110%, who are they? Others have no desire to work, but they must, and they feel they are failing their babies when they go to work each day.
Trauma is anything that disrupts one’s sense of self and makes one lose access to the tried and true ways we move through the world and cope with adversity. Thus there is sometimes trauma in even the “smoothest” of transitions to motherhood.
Many of us find ourselves pushed into new experiences of self as we bump up against limitations we have not experienced before. Old strategies don’t always work, but that doesn’t equate to failure—and we must remember that.
We don’t always have the capacity to be the superlative versions of ourselves, and this can be terrifying. Just as I did not prepare for the c-section, I had not prepared for this.
I have been opened up.
I can’t be full-throttle every day in all the ways same ways I used to be. While this part of me is still present, a new part of me is also emerging that knows how to be slow. My limitations are teaching me acceptance. I am discovering I don’t have to be all the things I thought I had to be, and I can still have good things in my life. As I reflect on my baby’s birth now, I am more aware of the way I narrate it. I pushed through, even if it was not in the way I had envisioned it, and I was strong in knowing that I needed to lean on others. I guard myself against my unreasonable expectations that I can know the unknowable and control the uncontrollable.
Early motherhood is a vulnerable time for the sense of self. The language we use with ourselves and with one another matters immensely. The messages we receive and the experiences we have will inform how we think about ourselves and our abilities.
In motherhood, it can be hard to discern when to push through and when to change the course. It can be hard to know when to lean on the expertise of others and when to trust our gut. The opinions of others, pressure from external factors beyond our control, and our own rules for how we ought to be can make it hard to contact our innate wisdom about how to approach a challenge.
The most helpful things said to me along this journey conveyed the message that I can be all things, and I don’t have to be anything. These messages reduced the pressure in a way that helped me encounter my real needs and desires and better align my actions with my values. I was lucky to have circumstances such as a supportive and flexible work environment that allowed me the space for this transition. This is a luxury not afforded to many women in America with our current policies. We need to do better.
Women need spaciousness as we welcome this new part of our identity. We have never met her before, and we don’t know how we will feel until we do. We can prepare for anything by being mindful of the difference of intentions and expectations and by trusting ourselves that we will know how to react when the challenge is clear.
We need permission to be messy as we sort through our stuff and settle into this new life. We need permission to purge old ways of being, as much as we need permission to cling to the things we love. Most of all, we need reminders that we are loved and reminders that on this path to motherhood, there is no such thing as failure to progress.
Abigail Rodriguez supports individuals, couples, and families in various stages of life in her private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco. When not working, Abby loves to travel and explore the world through the eyes of her energetic toddler, with her husband by her side.