When childbirth doesn’t go as planned

When childbirth doesn’t go as planned
It can be difficult to grieve your envisioned birth experience.

Even though every childbirth experience is unique, expectant mothers are often exposed to idealized birth scenarios. As a result, they develop an idea of how their delivery will go very early in their pregnancy. They also try to prepare themselves as much as possible and want to make sure everything goes perfectly.

However, despite all these efforts, childbirth doesn’t always go as planned. In fact, very few women have the childbirth they imagined. Quite often, this long-awaited moment is also synonymous with pain and a loss of control. In such cases, it can be difficult to grieve the envisioned experience.

Disappointment following childbirth

If your delivery doesn’t go as planned, you may experience a range of emotions. Naturally, you’ll likely feel sad and disappointed. You may also feel angry and frustrated and try to understand why things went wrong.

Some mothers may feel responsible for what happened and believe that they failed. They may feel that they weren’t up to the task and that they didn’t really experience the birth of their child. These women may prefer not to talk about the event again. They will also be bothered by other women’s childbirth stories and envy their experiences.

In addition, it’s common for women to feel guilty for having these feelings, because in their minds, a new mother should be overjoyed. Consequently, they may hide these emotions and be afraid to talk about them.

Support from loved ones and acknowledgement of the mother’s loss are very important in the grieving process. Unfortunately, friends and family aren’t always understanding. Some women may be criticized for not being happy that they gave birth to a healthy child. However, it’s possible to be happy that the baby is doing well while still being disappointed about the delivery.

Studies show that postpartum distress isn’t related to the pain or severity of the complications a woman has experienced. Rather, it’s the feeling of not receiving enough support during the delivery, the lack of communication with the medical team, and the sense of losing control that can lead to trauma. Mothers who experienced a difficult birth often report feeling a sudden sense of danger and being overwhelmed by the situation. In other words, their feelings and impressions during the event are more intense than the event itself.

Realistic expectations during pregnancy
Before you give birth, it’s important to recognize that the delivery you’ve envisioned is only an ideal. This leaves room for the unexpected. Developing a birth plan can be a good opportunity to reflect on the various scenarios that may occur during your delivery. At the same time, it’s important to remember that childbirth is unpredictable. Your birth plan should therefore be flexible and not be viewed as a checklist. It’s a way to plan for different alternatives and share them with the nursing staff so that they can take them into account during your delivery.

What to do

There are a number of things you can do to cope with the distress caused by a difficult childbirth:

  • Allow yourself to feel sad and disappointed about the delivery and acknowledge that you may have to go through a grieving process
  • Remind yourself that you’re not alone, as most women don’t have the childbirth they envisioned
  • Recognize that you’ve had a significant experience
  • Put your emotions into words
  • Recognize that it’s impossible to control every aspect of childbirth and that there’s no reason to feel guilty about a situation that was out of your hands
  • Look for meaning in your emotions instead of feeling guilty
  • Take pride in the positive decisions you made during the delivery
  • Discuss your delivery with your doctor, midwife, or doula to get a better perspective on what happened
  • Talk to your partner about your delivery; hearing their point of view may help put things into perspective
  • Talk to other mothers who experienced a difficult childbirth; support organizations such as AVAC-Info can also offer valuable resources
  • Write about how you’re feeling in a journal or express yourself through art (drawing, painting, music, etc.)
  • Practise self-care, whether that means taking care of your body or taking time for yourself, so that you can recover and come to terms with what happened

The healing process can take time. It’s important to be patient. While some women may feel better after a few days, others may need weeks or even months to recover.

In some cases, years can go by as the mother tries to forget about what she went through. Her emotions may only surface once her child is older and more independent, or if she becomes pregnant again.

When should you speak with an expert?

If negative memories of childbirth are keeping you from functioning normally, bonding with your child, or considering another pregnancy, it’s important to seek professional help.

Approximately 4–6 percent of women may experience post-traumatic stress disorder after a difficult delivery, and 20 percent will suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Speak to your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Recurring nightmares about giving birth
  • Sudden and disturbing recollections of childbirth
  • A tendency to avoid thinking about your delivery and shying away from situations that may remind you of it
  • A sense of constantly being wary, irritable, hypervigilant, extremely emotional, and hyperactive
  • Difficulty concentrating and sleeping
  • Withdrawal and a sense of numbness or of detachment from others and your surroundings
  • Difficulty caring for your baby or a tendency to avoid them


Things to keep in mind

  • Most women don’t have the birth experience they imagined.
  • It’s normal to feel disappointed, sad, frustrated, or angry after a difficult delivery.
  • If negative memories of childbirth are keeping you from functioning normally or bonding with your baby, speak to a professional.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Nicole Reeves, psychologist, CHUM Birthing Centre
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: September 2020


Photo: iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages


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