Birth Regret

Birth RegretBirth regret is poison. I drank a lot of that poison.

IF I had demanded the c-section, IF I hadn’t been cavalier about being able to push him out, IF the on call doctor had been more insistent, IF this, IF that, and back to the beginning. The loop was suffocating and unproductive.

Your IFs might be the opposite: IF I had said no to the c-section, IF I had refused the epidural, IF I hadn’t [insert any birth experience]. The specific IF doesn’t matter.

If you suffer from birth regret, I suggest a new mental recording:
“I am fatalist about the past, not about the future.”

Where Does Birth Regret Come From?

My theory: choice and birth plans.

Let me explain. Having birthing options, and therefore birthing choices, is good. Creating a birth plan can be a useful exercise. Unfortunately, if we believe we or someone else made the “wrong” choice during labor and delivery, and if we don’t abide by our birth plan, we can succumb to birth regret.

Furthermore, believing in a good way to give birth (usually vaginal) or a bad way (usually c-section) can create a lens through which we view the entire experience. Believing we missed out on an expected part of the experience can also fuel regret. I know a few moms who think their c-section was a “failure” or who believe they “didn’t really give birth.”

My birth regret was a bit more complicated. I bought into the good versus bad version of delivery after too many viewings of The Business of Being Born and three months of Bradley Classes. I wanted a vaginal birth with my second child because I thought a c-section was inferior. I believed this even though my babies measured big, even though I went way past my due date, even though my first had a shoulder dystocia and I a third degree tear. When the on call doctor recommended a c-section in the midst of my second long induction, I asked to try harder for a vaginal birth, which I got.

But I also got some nasty tearing (again) and prolapse, not to mention another scary shoulder dystocia for my child. Why didn’t anyone stop me? Why did I believe vaginal birth was a good idea in my situation? Why didn’t anyone mention prolapse? Suddenly, my version of good versus bad delivery flipped. I saw c-section as the good and vaginal as the bad.

Therefore, despite flipping the definitions, I still believed in the good versus bad dichotomy. This binary sparked regret. I blamed myself for choosing the wrong answer on an A vs. B multiple choice test.

That binary was foolish. Frankly, the only good versus bad dichotomy in childbirth is life versus death. And even then, regret won’t help heal if the worst happens.

Regret Versus Wisdom

Banishing regret is not the same as sticking your head in the sand. Being fatalist about the past does not mean thinking what happened was the best course of action. It simply means accepting that you can’t change it: Not, what will be will be, but, rather, what has been has been.

I learned from my past and with the help of a new doctor decided upon a c-section for my third child. This decision seems so obvious now, but I spent many sleepless nights agonizing over it, yet, not as many nights as I spent regretting the first two deliveries. Ultimately, I had to stop fixating on counterfactuals.

What Can Help Ease Regret

  1. Recognize Counterfactuals as Apparitions. Counterfactuals are by definition untrue. It could have gone better. However, it could have gone worse. This doesn’t mean thinking all the decisions I or others made were right, but it does mean letting them go. They happened and the alternative didn’t. Stoics call this being fatalist about the past, but not about the future.[1]
  2. Broaden the Counterfactual Scope: Sometimes I can’t stop ruminating on counterfactuals. My mind doesn’t like bending to my will. When this happens, I broaden my scope and create counterfactuals that have nothing to do with my specific experience. I pretend like the same labor had happened 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, 10,000 years ago. Ever imagine given birth in the Paleolithic period? My conclusion: I probably would have died. Seriously. In this counterfactual I don’t have a diastasis recti or prolapse. I have nothing. Sobering.
  3. Time and Help: Unsurprisingly, regaining function of my pelvic floor and narrowing my DRA ameliorated some of the regret. Seeing a physical therapist, exercising, becoming a certified trainer, eating right(ish) were choices I had control over. I couldn’t control how these choices affected my body, but simply making choices about the future reminded me that I am not powerless.

Remember, Psychology is Weird

Oddly, I never regretted my stretch marks and loose skin, even though I can do even less about them than other parts of my body. Humans are weird. We regret what we think we could have controlled more than what we know we couldn’t have, which is irrational because we can’t control either any more.[2]

Recognizing the quirks in human psychology has helped me put regret in perspective. Indulging in historical counterfactuals has plopped my regret into a wider context. And making choices about how to use my body has restored autonomy.

Regret still tempts me with its poison every once and a while, but I’m able to spit it out much more quickly than I used to. That’s not the same as discovering an antidote, but good enough for me.

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  1. If interested in Stoicism, I recommend William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life.  ↩
  2. Read more about the quirks of human psychology in Barry Shwartz’s The Paradox of Choice.  ↩

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