Do Women Have Unrealistic Expectations of Birth?

Validating and supporting women whose experiences are devalued and dismissed in favour of protecting the system.

Do Women Have Unrealistic Expectations of Birth?

Birth is the bridge between pregnancy and motherhood, mothers spend many months imagining it, in fact sometimes many years. It is a common misperception that birth is purely a physical act, but it isn’t just a physical one at all, it’s an emotional and spiritual bridge too. The undeniable reality of birth is that sometimes things go awry. Sadly, when women reach out to tell their stories and speak about trauma or grief, they are told one of two things. That they should focus on their healthy baby, and / or that they had unrealistic expectations of birth.

Quite lamentably it’s impossible for anyone, except the woman herself, to know what her expectations of birth were. Her expectations probably weren’t all roses and unicorns, she probably knew full well that birth would be hard work, and that there was a chance things might not be how she imagined. What woman wouldn’t know that? Perhaps one who lived on a deserted island since birth, but not any woman who has a television or computer.

Women expect to feel good after their birth, they don’t expect birth to be like some kind of happy parade complete with a mariachi band. Women prepare to knuckle down and work hard to bring their babies earthside, they expect that the people they hire to attend their birth, the support people they invite to their birth, and the venue at which they give birth, will all work in harmony to support them during labour. That isn’t an unreasonable expectation, furthermore it’s the main sales pitch of care providers and venues!

Woman sees new baby after hospital birth
Mother meets baby in highly medicalised setting.
Credit: Inferis | CC BY-SA 2.0

Why do we dismiss women’s trauma or grief by telling them that they had unrealistic expectations for birth? Perhaps the truth is that other people have unrealistic expectations of mothers. Why would anyone struggle to understand the fundamental truth that how women meet their babies matters?

Why wouldn’t it matter? Women are human beings after all, and no one loves a baby as much as its own mother, which is why women want to remember that first meeting with joy. It’s true that women will have a lifetime of happy memories from mothering, but that first moment is pretty big. It’s importance shouldn’t be brushed aside as a nuance of the overactive imagination of pregnant / labouring women. Feelings she only feels because her expectations of birth were suposedly naive.

The other major stumbling block for people encountering traumatised women is The Healthy Baby Lie. “At Least You Got A Healthy Baby” they say. As if they don’t for one moment stop to consider the health of the MOTHER.  As if they can’t comprehend that women are WHOLE BEINGS, not just vessels from which babies are extracted. Having a pulse is a sign of LIFE, but it is not a sign of health. Health is far more difficult to assess, so we need to look at is from a holistic perspective. Generally speaking, if someone says they are traumatised, their mental and emotional health has taken a hit. Describing them as healthy is misleading at best, and outright negligent and lazy at worst. When a woman is depressed, or deeply traumatised, she is unable to care for a healthy baby. When people tell a new mother to be glad for her healthy baby several things happen.

  1. Women come to resent their babies because their presence means they are now unable to express dissatisfaction, trauma, or pain, unable to seek comfort. The baby is like a gag order.
  2. Women hates themselves for being unable to ignore physical or emotional pain and focus on the baby, so they become depressed and isolated.
  3. We ignore the fact that many women are mistreated during labour and leave them unable to seek support or healing.

What is the purpose of telling women not to feel how they feel about their births? Why not simply accept that sometimes women feel really crappy about it? Sometimes bad things happen to women during birth, and sometimes those things are accidental, but sometimes, they are deliberately violent or coercive acts. Why are people so hell bent on denying all of that?

Acknowledging a woman’s trauma or grief will not in any way alter the life of anyone but the woman herself. People stand to lose nothing by simply listening and validating the reality of women’s birth stories, and yet women themselves stand to gain so much! For a woman to simply know that someone cares, that although they may not understand her feelings, they believe her, and they are sorry she feels like this.

For a society which prides itself on caring for the vulnerable, we still have an awfully long way to go when it comes to mothers. Well meaning people accidentally cause traumatised women to feel isolated and inadequate in their attempts to offer comfort. The effect of their words – regardless of their intention –  is to dismiss, silence, and deny the pain of vulnerable women.

Expectations of hand heart on pregnant belly.
Women have no illusions about the task of giving birth. License: Creative Commons CC0.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in the first year after  birth, so as a society we need to close ranks around new mothers, and educate the wider community on the importance of validating, rather than dismissing the feelings of new mothers.

Women are not stupid and it’s time we stopped treating them like they are by trying to rebrand their grief as “unrealistic expectations”  because we are uncomfortable talking about birth trauma. Women know that birth is like a mountain to be climbed, they never imagine it will be easy, but they do expect the view from the top to be something spectacular. That isn’t unrealistic. Unrealistic is expecting women to ignore or push down their trauma and grief, expecting them to have no feelings about the way they meet their babies, and demanding that they are never critical of the people who attend their births. That’s the true definition of unrealistic.

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