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When Birth Doesn’t Go As Planned

childbirth, loss, pregnancy No Comments

Woman hold in her hand 4 different colored wax crayons

“I want you to pick your six favorite colors from these crayons, and draw the scene of your ideal birth.”

Oh, shit.  I am not visual or artistic.  This is going to be hard… she continues:

“You can use images, stick figures, symbols – don’t worry about it being a piece of art.”

The instructor smiles knowingly while everyone in the room glances around, slightly panicked.

I’m sitting in a room of 15 women. It’s our 5th week of doula training. We are here to learn how we can best support women during the biggest transition of their lives.

We take our time picking our six favorite crayons, latching onto the one piece of direction we have.  Having the perfect colors seems like the best chance of success at something so elusive.  By the time the crayons get to me, there aren’t many options left, but I’ve made peace with the fact that this isn’t going to come out very well.

Less than a minute after we begin, just when most of us are starting to feel a little direction, “now, take your three favorite colors of the six.  Set them aside.  And keep going”.  I had only liked 3 of my colors to start with.  I am left with brown: red: orange.

I keep going, unsettled, but something begins to well up.  I had seen water.  Now, I see rain; it belongs too. February is full of rain.

And then, what feels like seconds later, the instructor’s voice over the music – “now, take your paper and turn it sideways.  And keep going.”

It is not hard to maintain the vision that has been forming.  I know this is no piece of art but it has a little life of it’s own.  Startled, I realize that the images finding their way through my unskilled and intentionally limited hands represent my family.

And finally, “I want you to switch to your non-dominant hand.”  This is the final straw for many, and for me too.  I struggle to create fluid lines, already impaired by the sideways view.  Yet, I know what the final touches need to be.

It is all here, they are all here; my whole family, all of my babies, everyone I want to feel present with me at my birth, in this silly chicken scratch crayon drawing… and now I’m struggling to keep it together in a room of near strangers.

The instructor tells us we are done.  She asks about the experience, and specifically if there is anything that came out visually that surprised us.  A week or two before, we had written a description of our ideal birth.  This exercise clearly accesses a different part of us – many express that there is some person, some element, some feeling present on paper that we did not know should be there.  For me, it is Rowan.  I realize that he will have a voice in this next birth, a place we make for him.  I look at the childish drawing in front of me and I see so much fullness and completion, despite the missing parts.

The central goal of this exercise is to get us thinking about how our dreams and wishes for birth are important and valid and yet sometimes things change; sometimes things are taken away.  As we share and reflect on our drawings, it is evident that even with seemingly crippling limitation or loss, we can still create, we can still dream, we can still be present.  We can still go on.

We talk about how we can support women in creating these beautiful, empowering images of what they see for their bodies and their babies, and yet be able to hold these with open hands.  And, as I am experiencing, focusing less on the details and more on the feelings that really come down to support and presence anyways.

The last time I had a birth plan, it looked a lot different.  Far from an exploration or depiction of what I envisioned birth feeling like, it was a list; of all the interventions I wasn’t going to allow and the perfect sequence of events that would mean the perfect birth. That birth, my first, was long and difficult – a series of stalls and interventions that left me exhausted and overwhelmed, and horrified at the deviations from my plan.  In the end, I pushed him out, despite my doctor’s warning that “if you don’t get this baby out we’re going to have to pull him back up and cut him out” (reverse psychology?).  Even with this apparent victory, there was no peace or accomplishment in his birth – just exhaustion, manipulation, and in the months that followed, achy sadness.

I had been really set on my three favorite colors, and when they were taken, I did go on.  But I never found any peace or joy in what was left to me.  Even though I would have been lost without the amazing support of my husband and mother, these were not the focus of my experience.  Most of the things on my list didn’t go as planned, and I felt like a failure.

When I got pregnant with Rowan, I instinctively knew I wanted things to be different.  I had no formal birth “plan” this time – just a lot of dreams and conversations adding up to hope that my body could do this better, more easily.  Somehow, even with the lingering, primitive fears I carried from my first birth, this one was was different from the start.  I could feel the progress of my body immediately, knew that it was responsive and true.  I had the benefit of having been through this before, but in a way I had distrusted my body so completely the first time that I felt like I had to learn completely from scratch.  This time the words of my mother and my midwife and Ina May and all of the others were inside of me and they knew I could do this and so did I.

And then he was gone.

He was more than just my favorite colors.  I didn’t know if I could go on.

I sometimes struggle to talk about my birth with Rowan because it’s hard to explain how something so painful could be so peaceful.  This is how I know the point of the drawing exercise to be true – my people came around me in the most incredible way and they carried me up and into and through the most healing experience of my life.  Rowan gave me the gift of coming so peacefully that I cannot remember him any other way.  He was not angry or lost.  My body did not fight him.  He also gave me this gift – of believing in my body again.

Birth doesn’t always go like we plan.

I still think a lot about how I want my next birth to be.  It’s what I do, it’s how I am.  It’s what I help other women do.  But this exercise has shown me the power of focusing not so much on a sequence of details but instead on discovering the elements that will make me feel the most supported and strong.  I am inspired to help mothers create empowering images of birth that can be fluid and adaptable and lifegiving.

When birth doesn’t go as planned, we become afraid, or angry, or overwhelmed.  So much feels at stake, beyond the obvious “healthy mom and healthy baby”, and for good reason – our culture first cuts us off from our intuition and wisdom, the gifts we were given as women, and then, demands we have to live up to a standard of perfection in everything we do.  Dreams crystallize into something rigid and idealistic… and when things don’t go like they’re supposed to we have a lot to lose.

If we let go of our tight hold on all these plans and expectations and what they mean to us, we make room for birth to be what it needs to be, and room for us to find who we are as well.

You should try it.  Draw your birth (or your marriage, or your graduation).  Take away your favorite things, limit yourself, change the perspective.  See what new direction meanders through your fingers; what really lies beneath your desire.  See who is there with you, and how they make you feel.  See how you have the strength to go on.


*This exercise was part of the Labor Doula Certification offered by Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland, OR, taught by instructor Raeben Nolan.  The thoughts shared here are my own personal reflections.

It’s Never Too Late to Go Back and Grieve

loss, miscarriage, motherhood, stillbirth 3 Comments

overhead view of polaroid photos

I don’t know what it is with me and losing babies when I’m traveling.

Before Aiden, we had a miscarriage at 11 weeks.  We hadn’t told very many people.  I miscarried painfully in Providence, RI on an anniversary trip with my husband.  I bled and cramped in our B&B bed for 3 days, and eventually, on an afternoon outing that I finally mustered the energy for, I passed the baby in the bathroom of a Jamaican restaurant, with the proprietor cursing at me from the other side of the door.  She had told me I couldn’t use the bathroom as I wasn’t a paying customer, and I was desperate but had no idea of how to tell her the truth of what was happening.  She refused to let me in, and I literally side-stepped under the reach of a giant Jamaican “bouncer” who she had called out of the back, and locked myself in the bathroom.  Afterwards, they chased us out, and she screamed at us down the street for a block or two in a thick Jamaican accent.  We hobble-ran our asses down the street as fast as my body would let me.

We both had to sort of pretend that never happened.

I never really let myself grieve the loss of that baby.  I was horribly devastated at first, but we didn’t really talk about it much.  My doctor gave me the go ahead to try again immediately, explaining that I would “super ovulate” and be more likely than ever to get pregnant right after the loss.  It never occurred to me that anything might be wrong, actually wrong.  It was my first loss, and easily chalked up to statistics.  I didn’t feel any distinct sense of hopelessness.

I did super-ovulate and I was pregnant 2 weeks later (with my firstborn, Aiden).  Life went on.

I have to say that except for that awful little blip, the whole thing felt like one pregnancy.  One baby.

At the time.

Now, I think of that baby.  I wish I would have lingered there a little longer.  There was another one before Aiden.  It’s all mixed up together now, all of these memories, just like any memories, and I don’t remember any of it as more than a foggy, distant sensation.  Was I relieved when I got pregnant with Aiden?  Did I still feel sad?  How long until I felt like everything would be fine this time?

And everything was fine that time.  That one time.

I do vaguely remember feeling some sense of relief when the 11 week mark passed with Aiden.  I don’t remember what it felt like up until then.  I waited, mostly, to tell people I was pregnant until the end of the first trimester.  I’ve written about this here, but after the range of experiences I’ve had during pregnancy, I am now a huge advocate for telling whoever you want, whenever you want (and for some this may mean not telling at all, for awhile).  I did this in this last pregnancy and it was life changing.

It seems evident to me that human souls are often full of things that we haven’t ever unpacked.  Memories or trauma from childhood, regret about choices we’ve made, fear of the unknown, the list goes on.  And, more than ever, I believe that we are given opportunities all throughout our lives to go back and figure that shit out.  We may ignore most of these opportunities, but they are always arising.

What did it cost me to move on so quickly, to not allow myself to linger or to grieve?

When we lost Rowan at fullterm, I did go back and unpack.  A bit, anyways.  Suddenly there was not just Aiden but this whole new category of what it meant (and didn’t mean) to be a mother.  Aside from all of the pain and horror of it, there was this new sense of connection to the fragility of life as a whole, and a distinct mingling of my experience with that of others.  In an interesting way, it was also a mingling of this particular experience of loss and pain to other experiences of loss and pain in my own life.  Some were muted in comparison (most) but they all suddenly felt like they had a single, visible thread connecting them.

I felt sad for that first baby.  I felt sad for the 26 year old whose doctor gave an awkward, unfeeling hug to and was told to carry on.  I felt sad for the friends and family who never got to hold the dream of that child with us.  Never got to say goodbye with us.

I still didn’t talk about it, though.  In some ways it was because Rowan was center stage and there was a lot to process.  In other ways I still didn’t fully understand the significance of that first loss.  It was easy to pack it back up and go on ignoring it.

Years later, I would experience another loss at around the same gestational age and it would rock my world.  The first loss had felt, at the time, like the token “statistic”.  Losing Rowan, tragic as it was, felt like a cosmic error but entirely accidental and unprovoked.  This last one, late and unexpected and fully against my intuition, was like a horrible, meditated violation in the night and turned the gentle connecting thread of all these experiences into a heavy tug-of-war rope that I was on the wrong side of.

Now something was wrong.

Now I really had to go back and unpack.

I’m still unpacking, and it feels like every day I am finding another little tidbit, another note stained by cough syrup or sticking obliviously to a pad that has lost it’s backing.  Moving forward with hope and optimism while working on healing old wounds is insanely hard and exhausting work, and it is not usually pretty.

Here are some of the things that I have learned in my own journey of grieving the past.

Let Grief Run it’s Own Course

Sometimes all it takes to go back and process something is a long hike or conversation with a friend, or a single good cry.  Other times, grief is a season – something that you sink into and choose to be present with for however long it takes.  This may depend on what you are processing, your personality, and how unresolved the experience is.  It may also depend on how comfortable you are with sitting in grief.  Be ok with whatever grief is going to ask of you – you may feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit what you are dealing with especially if the experience is in the past.

Letting yourself go back and grieve is usually counter-intuitive because everything in and around us tells us to do the opposite – our culture, our self-defense mechanisms, even our schedules.  We want to move on, we feel like we NEED to move on.  Our people and our lives need us to move on.

The truth is that what we really need is not to move on at all – but to allow ourselves to grieve and to learn to co-exist with this new part of our being that isn’t going anywhere.

Find ways to be present with your grief.  Don’t rush it, but also don’t feel bad when you find yourself easily drawn to other things again.  Trust it.  Your grief knows what you need and knows how to help you through this time.

Don’t Isolate Yourself

We want to feel safe before we can be vulnerable but the scary reality is that we have to be vulnerable first to find safety.  Sadly, sometimes we don’t have a lot of safe people in our lives, but I can tell you that if you do not reach out, you will not get support.  An important part of grieving any kind of loss is avoiding isolation.  While we all need different things during hard times, we do all need support.  We do all need those who love us to show up for us, and a lot of the time they may not know how to do that.

When you are going back to grieve something from the past it’s even harder to reach out – the pain isn’t fresh and understandable to the people around you.  All the more reason you are going to have to choose vulnerability and let people know what you need – they will have absolutely no idea if you don’t let them know.ihadamiscarriage

I am confident that you have more people that want to show up for you than you know.  You may be surprised who does or doesn’t show up – but give them the chance.  Tell them what you need.

I love the work of Dr Jessica Zucker, who started a line of pregnancy loss cards to help people find and offer words of comfort for a subject that is often misunderstood.  The cards are poetic, yet angry and honest.  This isn’t just applicable to pregnancy loss – people often don’t know how to support their loved ones and tools like this can help to open the conversation.

Help Others Grieve

One of the meaningful outcomes of experiencing pain of any kind is the empathy and insight it allows towards others suffering similar (or even radically different) pain.  I am not even remotely suggesting that “it’s all worth it, think of the people you’ll be able to help”, but instead that true comfort can be found in making yourself emotionally available for others in pain.  Not only that, but it can be an extremely therapeutic outlet for processing your own grief.  Reliving experiences from your past and allowing yourself to truly feel the weight and impact of them can be both enhanced and yet made more bearable by the outward posture of sitting with someone else in their pain.  This has been my experience again and again.

Side note: being present for others may not be possible for you at all times, and you may have to protect your heart when you are extra tender.  If you are finding that making yourself available to others who are grieving is continually exhausting instead of life-giving, or if you are doing it just because you think you should, it might be time to take a break and tend your own heart for awhile.  You’ll know when you are ready to reach out again.


Community and connection are among our most basic needs… and we can easily become isolated and unsure of what we can reasonably expect from our friends and family.  When that happens, I believe that we lose confidence in what we have to offer as well.  

Pain and suffering of any kind can be an incredibly connecting experience, and we are all capable and deserving of that connection.

We also deserve the space and freedom to go back and grieve the unattended moments in our pasts – the ones where we lacked the desire, ability or awareness to be fully present and fully affected.

For all that it takes from us, for all that gives to us, for all that it makes way for – here is to grief and it’s rightful place in our lives.