Recently I overheard a new mum telling a friend that she felt she had "failed" in her birth plan because she'd had an epidural.
Failed? Since when did childbirth come with a plan? It certainly doesn't come with a reliable one! To feel guilty about birth – something most of us have little control over – is sad. How a woman gives birth to her baby is not a measure of her maternal performance; just as parenting does not come with a manual, births and plans are highly incompatible.
I have given birth three times. As any midwife will tell you, every labour is different and this was certainly true for me. For my first labour I had a vague plan to manage the pain without assistance. I naively felt I was pretty good with pain … little did I know my pain threshold would have a new barometer!
I was induced a week after my due date and while the pain was immediate and intense, progress was slow. My labour lasted over 30 excruciating hours and resulted in a traumatic delivery, involving an epidural, ventouse, stirrups, and an almighty third degree tear. I took over six months to heal and had to undergo postnatal surgery to repair tissue damage. Emotionally, I also felt wounded. It wasn't the experience I had imagined or hoped for.
Despite all that, just 17 months later I was back in the labour ward. My "plan" was to accept an epidural straight up as, contrary to radical claims, the pain of labour had not faded in my memory! But what the epidural took away in pain, it replaced with something more sinister; my blood pressure plummeted and I suffered gripping nausea and uncontrollable shaking. When it came time to push I fainted, and the arrival of my second daughter passed by in a haze. My obstetrician used the ventouse to deliver my baby, and when she was born I had never felt sicker in my life. I decided there and then that if I were to have another baby, there would be no epidural.
For my third experience I craved a natural labour, free of intervention. I wanted to be lucid for the delivery and longed for immediate skin contact. This time would be different, I told myself. And it was. I refused pain relief, and aside from a few primal noises at the very end, the birth was quiet and calm, exactly as I had hoped. My third daughter was born without extraction and I was deeply present for her arrival. I felt her warm body on my chest and I was ecstatic.
But although my delivery went to "plan", 14 days later I was back in the labour ward with serious postnatal complications. I suffered a secondary post-partum hemorrhage, which required multiple blood transfusions and surgery to control the bleed. I narrowly escaped a hysterectomy.
Feeling guilty or like a "failure" if your birth doesn't go to plan is as unwarranted as it is unhelpful, and there is no such thing as a 'right' or 'wrong' birth experience. What matters is a healthy, happy mother and a healthy, happy baby – both during the birth and in every stage of life afterwards.
But sadly, mums are continuously the target of unsolicited advice, judgment and criticism. I remember, during my first trip to the shops as a first-time mum, when a passerby stopped to admire my newborn baby. But her admiration quickly turned to a series of rude questions. "Did you delivery vaginally?" she enquired. Stunned, I murmured I had. "Good," she said. "Much better for the baby."
And we wonder why mothers struggle with the toxicity of guilt? The opinions and interference from professionals, family, friends, and even strangers on the street can overwhelm mums with guilt and confusion.
So to the mum who feels like she let herself down by accepting an epidural: you are not a failure for accepting pain relief during childbirth. This does not make your experience inferior. Similarly, you are not a failure if you have caesarean over a vaginal delivery. And you are not a failure if you struggle to breastfeed and put your baby on formula. These things do not make you any more or less of a mum, and they do not mean you child will be any less happy. And they certainly don't mean your child is any less loved.
It doesn't matter how a child is delivered, or fed, or educated or anything, as long as they are loved and cared for.
As I approach my fourth (and final!) labour, I have only one plan: to deliver a healthy baby. How he or she is delivered is largely is out of my control. And by not placing any pressure or expectation on myself, I am free to enjoy the incredible miracle that is childbirth.
Michaela Fox is a freelance writer, blogger and mother of three. She muses on the ups and downs of motherhood on her blog Not Another Slippery Dip, and believes in 'good-enough' parenting. She needs to upgrade her car to a people mover when she welcomes her fourth baby in December! You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.