When Birth Doesn't Go As Planned

“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.

From The Beginning (Trying Again After Stillbirth)

You will build and tear down and rebuild a million times before you decide to have another child after stillbirth.  Most of this constant construction will go unnoticed – you are strong, resilient, brave.

You will be so many different women, so many different mothers… to yourself, to your family, to the world.

You will be like a child yourself; so unsure one moment, so free the next.  Dreams will turn ashen then kaleidoscopic then back again.

You will question your body – can it support you through the sacred duty of carrying another child to fullness, through bending again to bring that child into light?  You will ask darker questions of it too – can it nourish what it once neglected?

You will question your mind – can it endure the pain and risk of offering yourself so completely to another being that may drift from your reach while you sleep, while you labor, while you give?  Can it ever be whole again?

You will question God, life itself, your partner, your decisions.  You’ll be sure you did something to deserve what happened and will obsess about all of the reasons why.

You will snap and crack, you will be crushed by heaviness some days.

But one day, you will also see the future – and it will surprise you.  You will see your body, strong and womanly, like a prayer.  You will see your partner, free to dream their own dreams for your family.  And you will see another child, finally invited into the circle that is no longer cold and brittle along it’s edges.

You will drift and slip between these moments, sometimes fearing, sometimes dreaming, but always building.

YOU WILL LEARN AGAIN THAT YOUR BODY IS A GIFT THAT WAS GIVEN BUT IT IS ALSO A GIVER.  YOU WILL LOVE IT AND GIVE TO IT AND TELL IT THAT YOU WILL ALLOW IT TO GIVE AGAIN TOO.

And it will, in it’s own time.