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Woman Who Didn't Have a Healthy Baby Reflects on the "Healthy Baby" Trope 

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Guest post submitted by Heather Armstrong. Originally posted at Babyslime.

Context: Heather’s second birth was a cesarean surgery for a baby boy who died of a “totally unrelated, random and extremely rare abnormality that is 100% fatal.” Her three part story is beautifully written and very sadPart One | Part Two | Part Three


 “All that matters is a healthy baby.” 

 Thank goodness someone said that, otherwise I might have been consumed with the worry that I did not perform my birth correctly. Mothers who know that, in the end, their baby is the only real part of birth, don’t need to feel sad if things didn’t go as planned, right?

No one said that to me when I experienced a horrific “birth” experience because I didn’t have a healthy baby. I became the example, I was the living proof of “what if”. You should be grateful you’re not her; your baby could be her baby. I had notes on Jericho’s birth story that read, “I’m so glad my baby is okay/healthy/alive”. If your baby is any healthier than mine was, then you should be grateful. Experience and hopes be damned.

Telling someone they should be grateful they have a healthy baby is like telling a rape victim she should be grateful she’s still alive; she could have been killed. While that may be true, her experiences and her trauma have been swept under a rug. Does she not matter at all because she wasn’t the worst case scenario? So long as she’s alive, she needn’t grieve her losses? 

 Most women have some expectations about birth, some more than others. A growing number of women care about natural birth and about not having a cesarean. The World Health Organization aims to have a cesarean rate of 10-15% maximum, but it currently stands at almost triple that number. In some places even higher. Where I live more than 1 in every 3 women will be given a cesarean, even though the rate of complication in a normal vaginal birth is so low that the small percentage of them in a VBAC is enough to scare off most care providers from “allowing” one.

Knowing this, it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of hospital-birthing women are given unnecessary interventions that may cause discomfort, pain or serious risk to themselves or their baby. Some women don’t mind, even knowing the risks involved, and that’s their prerogative - those that do generally do whatever they can to avoid these things, but sometimes they happen anyway. Through lies, manipulation, fear or threats even the strongest may feel weak.

Women who have felt violated by birth tend to throw around terms like “birthrape”: the act of being violated against their will, sometimes violently and with excruciating pain. Sometimes the results of which last days, weeks or months that may affect their next pregnancies, or their sex lives, or their relationships. In many of these cases the interventions weren’t needed, or were only required because earlier interventions caused a situation that needed to be remedied very quickly. When I have talked to women who had surgeries and violent interventions that did save a life it is only of minimal reassurance. Generally the public response is worse: thank god you got them - with no mention of how the mother must feel. Even if they did save a life, a woman needs time to grieve her losses. She needs respect, comfort, friendship, love and understanding. 

It’s easy for you to say she should put on a happy face and go on with her life because the baby is “all that matters”, but it is a degrading and insulting thing to say to a new mother.

It can take weeks, months or even years for the scope of what happened to hit. The night I had my cesarean I was so disconnected from the experience that I actually said, “It was for a good reason” to the people around me. It took a few days for it to sink in, and probably would have taken much longer had Jericho survived past the first day. 

It seems the women who have begun to accept and grieve for what has happened tend to be the more vocal advocates for a change in birth. Those that accomplish a natural, home or even simply a vaginal birth the next time around become one of those women that just won’t shut up about it. It seems the vast majority of those screaming about how amazing birth really is are the ones that have had an empowering one. 
I have yet to meet a woman who had a successful unassisted birth, empowering home birth or a triumphant VBAC that didn’t feel like climbing a mountain and telling everyone about it. 

There is insurmountable criticism toward those who are vocal advocates. Why do they care, anyway? Why can’t they keep their noses out of someone else’s birth experience? 

Because they are changed by it and understand what the big deal is. It’s like your best friend who found Jesus. She wants you to know his love; she wants to find others who know the power of faith because it has changed her outlook on life. Women who are vocal advocates want others to feel that powerful, that amazing, and to know the secret: birth is incredible. It doesn’t have to be a painful, long and embarrassing experience.

That said, I do not preach what I practice: I do not advertise unassisted birth for everyone. It is a serious emotional commitment. It is not about taking a crash course in midwifery, or dumping your caregiver and setting up a corner of your house - it is about trust, care, knowledge, foresight and keeping a cool head in a time of surging emotions. It is about knowing what can go wrong, the likelihood of complicated situations and then how to handle them. It’s about preventative “prenatal care”, diet, a deep understanding of your body and its processes and communication with the baby. It’s also about knowing when and what requires more care than you can give; knowing the difference between a normal bleed and an unresponsive hemorrhage (and also knowing that you will have time to call 911 and get care if it is a hemorrhage), what an intact placenta looks like, how to handle sticky shoulders and what the risk factors are for a prolapsed cord.

Women who go into unassisted birth without emotionally preparing themselves and learning their fears risk a situation that results in them running to a hospital over fear, ending up with a birth of a healthy child who has healthy Apgars and no signs of distress or upset, but a lost experience and the knowledge they could have just stayed home. This is why I do not advocate birthing alone for every pregnant woman, but I do think that in an ideal world all women would not only have truly informed consent, but to have the option to birth at home with a respectful attendant where they are comfortable, and to feel unafraid because they know that in most situations it’s safer there. In my ideal world the hospital would be reserved for life-saving emergencies, or a truly informed choice and that women would not feel more comfortable there only because years of negativity and myth have made them think that birth is dangerous and frightening.

In my ideal world, when someone suggests birthing at home or unassisted the first response will not always be, “But how will you cut the cord?”

I am sad for your birth not because I pity or judge you but because I wish for you to feel that which others have. I am sad when you walk away from your birth feeling like your baby was the only good thing about it and you are telling yourself they are all that mattered. I am sad when you walk away saying, “That was awful”. I am sad if you cannot bend over, if it hurts to cough or you can’t have sex with your partner for months because of what was done to you. 

I wish for you to feel the way I did when my husband and I pulled Xan out of the water together. I wish for you to feel so much joy that you can feel its energy bursting from you. I wish for you to feel incredible, triumphant, so brilliantly happy that you can’t wait for someone to ask you how it went so you can feel it all over again as you retell your experience. I wish for your labour to have been comfortable and safe, where you were free to move around your house or take a walk outside, eat and drink what you wanted and not have to worry about time limits or how the people tried to tell you that your body wasn’t doing things “right”. I wish for you to count your birth as one of the best moments of your life, not just because you met your new child but also because they were so beautifully and peacefully brought into this world that you spent the rest of your days with a new respect for yourself.

Birth is amazing, and I wish for you to feel that way too.

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Reader Comments (30)

Thank you for this post. Absolutely wonderful. While my first birth was no where near as traumatic as yours, it ended in an unwanted cesarean thanks to the intervention cascade that was pushed upon us. I, too said positive things about it, trying to make myself feel better. It didn't work. I went on to improve my situation slowly with each birth until our last one was the best possible.

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterToni

Yes. This needs to be said. *SO* much matters in pregnancy and birth and the years after birth - not just a healthy baby. In fact, in many cases a healthy baby doesn't even matter that much.

My (much) younger brother was not a "healthy baby" - his birth really did require a c-section and he needed two decades of frequent surgery and therapy to survive and be mobile. He is not any more or less of a blessing or heartache to our family and community than me, my other "healthy" siblings, our neighbor with Down Syndrome, our cousin with autism.

In many ways, his "health" doesn't really matter - what matters is the way the hospital staff drugged my mom to "calm her down" (that sucked) and the way the operating room nurses let my dad hold my mom's hand during the c-section and let him accompany my brother to the NICU and into surgery (that was kind.)

Whenever I hear a pregnant friend or well-meaning acquaintance say "nothing matters as long as he/she has 10 fingers and 10 toes," I cringe - my brother doesn't have 10 fingers or 10 toes and honestly, that was among the least of my family's concerns surrounding his birth. Of course, most people hope for a simple, "normal" pregnancy, birth, and baby - but when it comes right down to it, the things that matter are things like having a community, being treated with respect rather than condescension, and all the other things that make up the experience of being *human*.

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternev

Oh Heather, thank you so much for writing this.

We need to keep encouraging people to reflect on the fact that "a healthy baby is all that matters" is actually a euphemism for "at least your baby survived."

What we do in our culture to babies at birth is not healthy.

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGuggie Daly

Sharing this one Solace...

So many of us who have been traumatized by the way we were treated when in labor or giving birth struggle with the attitudes that want to silence our emotions and responses to our experiences.

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjenne

Thank you so much for sharing this!

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAugusta

Thank-you for writing this! It is a must read.

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Thank you for putting words to the emotions that I have been feelings since my son was born 14 months ago. I feel like I can finally let go of the despair and hatred I have for my very first birth and the hospital staff that made me feel like I was broken.
I managed to have a vaginal delivery but it was the most traumatic experience I have EVER had and I have NEVER felt comfortable with hospitals, OBs or even my GYN who had nothing to do with that birth.
I'm so tired of hearing "at least it was a vaginal deliver" or "but your baby is healthy". I do NOT deserve to be insulted by these inconsiderate people that do not REALIZE how life-altering a bad birth experience can be.
Again, thank you. This has helped me SO MUCH.

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMommaCrafty

This was a brilliant, moving piece. I'm sharing it with all the mothers I know.

I really identify with the part where you list what you wish for other mothers. When I'm telling my birth stories I'm not trying to brag, I'm trying to let people know there is this other way of giving birth- and it can be amazing!

This is really poignant. Yes, I can't stop telling every one around me how beautiful birth is. I know, I've been down both roads - healthy babies included. I am so sad when women tell me they are afraid to have more children because of their first and only birth experience that went so horribly, Now they fear to make the choice, repeat c-section or the "risks" of vbac, those risks magnified and distorted by a fearful medical system. Yes, I want to give women a glimpse into another reality. I must do that!

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJen
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