3 steps to process birth plan grief—recommended by a motherhood coach

As I walked into the operating room, my hospital gown barely closed at the back because of my large belly, I began to cry. By the time I had sat down on the operating table and the gentle nurse was asking for my name and date of birth I was sobbing so much I couldn’t speak. The anesthetist had to provide my details.

The nurse took my hand and asked what was wrong—I was about to meet my baby! Between gasps I managed to say “it wasn’t supposed to be like this. What if I say no?” The nurse looked at me kindly and, as she found the vein for my drip, told me I didn’t have a choice.

For 34 weeks I had meticulously thought through the details of how I wanted my birth to be. My husband dutifully wrote everything down so they could be referred to during labor as a way for me to maintain control.

But at 34 weeks my son had other ideas. A scan showed he was breech. I was told to come back in a week. I did everything I could to flip him—somersaults in a pool, acupuncture with burning mugwort, long uncomfortable walks. At 35 weeks he was still breech and we were told we needed an External Cephalic Version (ECV) to spin him. Even though this uncomfortable procedure only has a 50% success rate, I agreed because I was still clinging to my birth plan. When this failed, we were told I needed to have an elective c-section. I was not prepared for the loss I would feel when I was told that.

By all markers of success, I had a wonderful birth, and for many women a c-section is their choice and they have a joyous experience. It just wasn’t the birth I had planned.

How to process birth plan grief

So much of becoming a mother involves giving up control. Control of your body as the tiny human grows inside you, control of your sleep, control of your ability to shower or go to the bathroom. Your choices and needs are trumped by the helpless human you are now caring for.

While this is completely how it should be, it can leave mums feeling like they’ve lost themselves. This can be made worse if your choices weren’t met during birth when you are at your most vulnerable.

I am a motherhood coach and founder of Me After Mum, a coaching service that empowers women to find their balance and navigate the transitions of motherhood. After working with countless mothers, and after my own experience of birth plan grief, I have developed three steps to help others process their own birth plan grief.

1. Recognize and honor your feelings

We live in a society which praises constant positivity. If you’ve ever felt sad about an experience in your life you’ve probably been met with super helpful comments from others like “It could be worse!” “cheer up!” or “time heals all wounds.”

To avoid these or simply to end the annoying conversation we say “I’m fine” even if pretending is exhausting.

Unacknowledged pain doesn’t go away. We cannot move on from feelings that aren’t recognized. Understand that you are not broken and that your grief is valid.

Some clients I have worked with choose to write a letter to themselves as a way of finding a connection to what they’ve lost.

2. Speak to yourself in your friend’s voice

After my birth experience I thought that if only I’d tried a little harder or done things differently I would have been able to have the birth I wanted. I felt guilt and shame. As mothers we’re regularly told to be kind to ourselves, which seems more simple than it is. Sleep deprived, hungry and emotional, it’s easy to let negative thoughts take hold.

When clients tell me similar stories I ask them to imagine their kindest friend or family member. Someone who is warm and loving. Picture them clearly in your mind. What would they say to you? It’s much easier to be kind to ourselves using someone else’s voice.

3. Talk to someone

The old saying a problem shared is a problem halved is so true. Talking to someone about your birth experience can be incredibly cathartic. But it’s important to pick who you speak to thoughtfully. While friends and family want to be supportive they might not have the knowledge or understanding to help in the best way. There are a number of professional options available including coaching or counseling.

At Me After Mum I offer a 90 minute Birth Reflection session which gives my clients the space to tell their story in a way that feels important to them. It provides them with agency and control of their own narrative.

Birth plan grief is a valid emotional response that deserves to be recognized. It comes from our unrealized hopes and dreams for our birth plans and the loss of control when we are at our most vulnerable. We can’t ignore grief. All we can do is try our best to process our experience and recognize that endings are as important as beginnings.