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“There is this paradoxical dance that you have to do, between taking responsibility for your own experience and recognizing that you don’t have control over it,” Colman says. “You have to have a mindful awareness of it all, while surrendering to forces greater than yourself.”
With so many books on pregnancy and childbirth available, some highly informed women may feel overly confident, even smug, about their ability to predict and control their childbirth experience. It’s only natural to want to lessen discomfort and control all factors by micromanaging the process. “You think that if you buy enough self-help books, read and understand them,” says Leslie Hartley Gise, M.D., a clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii, “everything will be fine.”
But as well as you do, there’s always someone else who does better. “Our society encourages competition in every aspect of life,” says Gayle Peterson, Ph.D., M.S.W., a prenatal counselor and the author of An Easier Childbirth: A Mother’s Guide for Birthing Normally (Shadow & Light Publications, 1993). “Women tend to hold themselves and each other up to a litmus test of the perfect childbirth, making their own birth experiences valid or invalid. We measure our worth according to whether we deliver naturally or with medical interventions, whether we have vaginal births or Cesareans, whether we bond immediately with the baby or half a day later, and whether we breastfeed or bottlefeed.”
Gise, who spent 16 years as a psychiatrist with the obstetrics/gynecology department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, agrees. “We are a people preoccupied — obsessed, even — with perfect health, with counteracting aging, with having the exact right eating habits and lifestyles to ward off disease,” she says. “So women think, ‘If I do everything in the pregnancy and delivery right, I’ll have a perfect child who’ll grow into a perfect person.’"
Risks of romanticizing childbirth
The problem with romanticizing childbirth this way — and thinking that it will be a perfect experience — is that it can set women up for disappointment, or worse. “Childbirth has the potential for being a magical experience, but it doesn’t always happen that way,” Gise says. “In both the normal after-delivery blues and more severe cases of postpartum depression, one of the factors can be the expectation of an idyllic childbirth.”
Sue O’Brien can attest to this. Her woes didn’t end when she had a Cesarean delivery. The anesthesia it required caused weeks of severe headaches, which in turn interfered with her capacity to reach out to her newborn: She didn’t feel bonded with Kate until her daughter was several weeks old. Reflecting back on that time, O’Brien believes that, even though it was irrational, she was actually angry with her baby daughter in the first weeks of her life for putting her through such an ordeal.
Other feelings women can experience during childbirth include those of being invaded, or even violated, and of losing control. This is very normal, according to Gise, and she recommends that new mothers openly acknowledge any negative feelings to someone they trust. However, if you’re still having difficulty accepting the baby six to eight weeks postpartum or are having obsessive fears about hurting him, it’s time to talk a professional.
While some negative reactions after childbirth are normal, they can be minimized with foresight. “Preparing for childbirth is not a question of more, but better,” Peterson says. “Your preparations should be oriented toward normal delivery, but you should also plan for help in case you need it.”