The Unexpected Thing Childbirth Taught Me

childbirth childbirth
courtesy Shannon Kelley

It’s not that I’m a control freak. (Really.) But when I cleared the first trimester of my pregnancy and realized that with this milestone came the increasing likelihood that I would actually be having a baby — and therefore would be giving birth in the not-distant future — I went straight Type A.

When you’ve never done it before, the prospect of giving birth is extraordinarily exciting, thoroughly mysterious, and completely terrifying. The anticipation feels like the stomach-churning butterflies of a blind date plus the stress of giving the biggest presentation of your career multiplied by the impending physical challenge of running a marathon… except no one can tell you when the blind date/presentation/marathon is going to happen.

Or how it will all go down.

Will it be like on TV, with your water breaking in a very public, shoe-destroying fashion, and culminate with you speaking in tongues (okay screaming) while your partner passes out and steals all the attention? Will Pitocin or an epidural or forceps or an episiotomy be involved? Will it be as painful as you fear? Most importantly: will you poop on the delivery table?

All you can know for sure is that the finish line will involve delivering a baby human into the world via either your poor unsuspecting vagina or via gnarly abdominal surgery for which you likely will be awake. With everything else pretty much up in the air and out of our control, it’s little wonder that finalizing some kind of birth plan is, for some, as important a part of prego prep as readying the nursery.

What a woman wants, fears, expects, and obsesses about when it comes to giving birth is as individual as the woman herself. Maybe you’re of the Ina May/Ricki Lake camp and feel “natural” is best and that the Birthing Industrial Complex and its cascade of interventions is pitted against moms by design. Or maybe your biggest fear is that you’ll arrive at the hospital too late to get the good drugs. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, your concerns are legit, and it’s worth sharing them in advance with your partner, doctor, and whomever else might be invited to the party.

As for me, after extensive research (Type A, I told you), I crafted a meticulous birth plan that emphasized my all-natural, woman-as-warrior-goddess cred. My plan included mellow lighting, wireless monitors so that I could pace the halls, access to the birthing balls and tubs my hospital offered, and a livestream of JazzFest direct from New Orleans. All of these details were curated specifically to facilitate my bigger, most dearly-held wish: an unmedicated, intervention-free, extremely groovy birth. If all went according to plan, it would be sort of like a really intense yoga class.

I planned to hire a doula so that I’d have someone to advocate for me and my plan. I knew that there was no chance that my husband would have his wits about him enough to act as a cool-headed mediator between myself and the white coats while I was grunting through contractions and the fluids were flying.

But as it turned out, none of my research or planning or fantasizing or worrying mattered.

Under a full moon on a Friday night at the beginning of my 34th week, I had a bad feeling. My baby, whom I’d dubbed Squirmish McWorm, was hardly moving and my instinct said something was wrong. I hated the idea of heading to the hospital like some hysterical character in a bad movie, but my gut insisted. And thank god: after being checked in and hooked up to several monitors, I watched in increasing alarm as my baby’s heart rate slipped away once, then slipped away again. Barely an hour after donning the paper gown, I headed in for an emergency C-section.

It was exactly what I didn’t want in every way but one: it saved my baby’s life.

(Much later, I’d learn the cause was a condition called insufficient placenta, likely a result of my–ahem–advanced age. It’s not common, but it’s as serious as it gets; if it isn’t caught, babies can be stillborn.)

Looking back, do I think my birth plan was a waste of time? Not at all. Whenever I was in the throes of a prego panic, the idea that I could take notes, plan, and exert some semblance of order over the future chaos was profoundly calming. Surely that’s worth something.

And not having the birth experience I planned taught me something, too. Being a parent, after all, is sort of like earning a PhD in “You are not in control,” and having my birth go off the rails was my intro course. Kids have minds of their own; they operate at their own speed and offer constant surprises. This is humbling, beautiful, and guaranteed to keep you perpetually off balance.

And that, you can plan on.

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Shannon Kelley lives in Santa Barbara with her son and husband. Her work has appeared in Elle, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, among others; her book Undecided was an Amazon bestseller (Women, Business). Tweet her @Shannon_BKelley.