no two births are alike

What to expect? The unexpected.

Labor requires that a woman yield, rather than take control. We know that billions of women have given birth before us, but we don’t know what our own experience will be.

>From An Easier Childbirth by Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

After experiencing one normal birth, Pamela Brigg wasn’t worried about how she’d fare having twins. She was healthy, and her doctor had said the pregnancy looked great. So she felt a bit overwhelmed when she found herself delivering her babies six weeks early in the bedroom of her remote canyon home, surrounded by paramedics and firefighters.

Brigg wasn’t the first to be surprised. Many women draw up birth plans and idealize their childbirth, only to have the actual event unfolds with its own power and suspense. “The challenge is how to prepare, feel in control, and not become wedded to expectations,” says Penny Simkin, a childbirth educator, doula and counselor in Seattle. “There is a certain category—the unknown—that we can’t prepare for. There is that element of luck.”

Brigg was dismayed when she realized her labor was progressing too fast, but she forced herself to be positive: “I thought, OK, I can do this. Women have done this for hundreds of thousands of years.” Even when one of the twins was born looking blue and was rushed to the hospital before she could hold him, Brigg wouldn’t feel sorry for herself. “I kept telling myself that there was so much help available,” she says. When the paramedics couldn’t get her gurney through the hallway of her home and, with the help of her husband, had to lift her out of a window to the waiting ambulance, Brigg was struck—and touched—by how hard everyone was working on her behalf.

Stories like Brigg’s remind us of the quirks of nature and the resiliency of the human spirit—both of which often surface during childbirth. A woman who goes into labor with an open mind is more likely to be pleased with the delivery and her role in the process. “When women’s expectations aren’t met, they usually aren’t satisfied,” says Maureen Corry, M.P.H., executive director of the Maternity Center Association (MCA), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving maternity care. “You have to be able to roll with the punches.”

The myth of the due date> Due dates are only one example of how high hopes can be pinned on an unlikely eventuality: Less than 5 percent of women give birth on the designated day. The duration of labor is another area where expectations, especially those of first-time moms, often collide with reality. Many anticipate labors of eight to 12 hours, but it’s not unusual for a first labor to last 24 hours or more, says Simkin, a co-author of Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn: The Complete Guide. Labor pain, too, can be surprising. “Very few women have a realistic idea of the pain involved in childbirth,” she says. “Most American women, unless they’ve had an unusual life, have had very little experience with pain.”

Childbirth is often a mosaic of conflicting emotions that can include confusion, disappointment and exhilaration. In an MCA survey of 1,500 new moms, women claimed to feel capable and alert during labor—while also feeling overwhelmed and frightened. “Forty-five percent said giving birth is a natural process that should not be interfered with unless medically necessary,” Corry says, “yet 100 percent of them had a medical intervention. It’s a disconnect between their basic view and what actually happens.”

Revising the birth plan> Because of this disconnect, MCA no longer promotes birth plans. Simkin, too, discourages relying on them too strictly. Realistic expectations, she says, reflect an understanding of the essential unpredictability of childbirth. “I often encounter women who say, ‘Well, labor started and my birth plan went right out the window,’” Simkin says. “I ask, ‘Did you include in your plan that your wishes and ideals could be modified during labor?’”

Brigg acknowledges modifying hers. “I said some prayers,” she remembers. “But in the end I felt proud.”

With all of the variables involved in childbirth, it’s unlikely that each of your wishes will be fulfilled, lining up like so many cherries on a slot machine. Indeed, some of your goals may conflict. Many women hope that their personal obstetrician will deliver the baby instead of a stranger on call, says Simkin. But a doctor who guarantees being present may be able to do so only if labor is induced. That raises the risk of having a C-section, which derails a goal of vaginal birth.

It’s best to prepare with overarching, not customized, plans, according to Simkin. “Choose a caregiver carefully, make an effort at good communication, be flexible, have good support—and satisfaction is achievable,” she says.

Think of it this way: Your child’s birth is an original story, one that no one has written and no one can copy. During pregnancy, draw an outline for your story. But let your baby and nature fill in the details.