Did you ever have a Magic 8 Ball? I did. I loved that thing. I loved being able to ask a question, any question, and have the almighty oracle predict my fate. Inside the little window floated a single die, with twenty possible answers to life’s biggest questions. Some of which included: “Signs point to yes” and “My sources say no.” When the Magic 8 Ball was certain, yes or no, then that was it. But sometimes there would be the confounding response of “Cannot predict now.” That always meant another hard shake of the ball and the search for a more straight forward answer. No matter how many times it took to get one!
I think too many of us are looking for straight forward answers to one of the biggest questions of all time. We want so badly to be able to predict what is by it’s very nature unpredictable — birth.
Today, I want to speak directly to those of us who work with pregnant and birthing couples.
Could you stop setting them up? Stop making predictions? Please, I’m begging you!
I recently had a reunion with some of my families. More than once I heard the report that someone on their birth team tried to make a prediction during their birth experience. I groaned and asked, “Why do they do that?”
One new Momma said, “so then, the nurse said to me “You’re really cooking! I bet we’ll have a baby before lunch!”
A second Momma said “the doctor came in and told me to get ready for a really long night, because he didn’t think I was going to have the baby until the next afternoon!”
Guess what really happened with these two women?
The first Momma’s labor came to a complete standstill about thirty minutes after her nurse had predicted a late morning baby. She started watching the clock and when the lunch hour came and went unceremoniously, no baby to be found even considering entering her birth canal, she became despondent and discouraged. She started to freak out that something was wrong with her body — with her baby. Given the strong connection between the mind and the body of a birthing woman, it’s no wonder all of this extra anxiety shut her body down for hours! It took an incredibly long time (and a new nurse at shift change!) before this woman’s labor started moving again. She ended up giving birth close to midnight — twelve hours longer than had been “predicted.”
The second Momma and her partner settled in for their “really long night.” But soon after she started second guessing her ability to handle the contractions that felt like they were right on top of one another. Instead of recognizing that her labor had kicked in big time and she was almost fully dilated, she thought that she was “just wimping out.” She was feeling very disappointed in herself and her ability to cope with what she’d been told by her provider was supposed to be early labor. Imagine the surprise when her husband had to run out of the room to grab someone to come catch the baby! It had only been about ninety minutes since she was last checked. So much for their marathon labor!
Birth is unpredictable. It can slow down, and appear as though it’s stopped altogether. It can speed up in the blink of an eye. The issue is not the unpredictable nature of birth, it’s our intense desire to make it predictable that’s the problem! There are way too many unique variables in every labor experience to make it impossible to predict consistently what will actually occur.
But we all still do it! Why?
Pregnant Mommas and their partners hear the due date and create an expectation that this is the day the baby will arrive, instead of recognizing their due month as closer to the reality of when the baby will actually be born.
As a Childbirth Educator, I’m guilty of it as well. I teach, as most do, textbook averages for birth. But do I explain that as a first time Momma, it’s completely within the range of normal to have a birth go super fast? Do I adequately prepare them for an ultra marathon labor experience? We all need to be more on top of this, so our students understand it is possible to have active labor begin almost immediately! And it’s also possible to be in early labor for three days before any changes in their cervix occur. As Childbirth Educators we need to provide our students with realistic expectations of the unpredictable nature of the birth process itself.
But once they’re at the hospital, too many nurses and providers think they’re doing a service for these women when they try to predict what will happen next. I know that this is not born of ignorance. These are professionals who have been at this job for a long time — decades in some cases — and they’ve seen an awful lot. The laboring woman in front of them is presenting as many have before her. The mind just wants to go there. “Here’s a pattern that I’ve seen before. So I’m going to predict what will happen next.” And in a lot of other areas of life, this might not be a bad policy. But not when we’re talking about birth.
This unpredictability of birth (and our refusal to embrace it) is what trips all of us up when it doesn’t have to. In fact, I would argue that we’re missing out on the most important aspect of birth while we’re busy trying to predict what will happen next.
As expectant couples, you go into birth with a rock solid Birth Plan that you wrote a month before your first contraction. But due to circumstances you could never have predicted, your birth has gone rogue. If you’re still clinging to the plan of your ideal birth (as opposed to participating in your real birth) you’re setting yourself up for disappointment instead of moving through your birth as it unfolds. When you’re able to adopt this attitude of flexibility, you’ll be surprised at what you’re really capable of! “Wow, this is not at all what I expected, but look at us and how we’re handling this completely unpredictable experience together!” It matters how you respond to your birth in real time, as it really happens. Not based on what you had predicted (hoped, wished, or expected) would happen.
As Childbirth Educators and Doulas, we are hurting ourselves and our couples when we try to make predictions about how we think our couples will move through their births. Let’s not prejudge how the people we work with will cope with their labors. Let’s give them all the benefit of the doubt in that they will have births that are, by nature, unpredictable. Let’s try our best to prepare them better for that reality.
As for the L&D nurses and providers who encounter these women in labor and try to make predictions about what will happen next, please understand how much that undermines a woman’s confidence in her ability to know her own body. For the woman before you, it doesn’t matter one little bit how many times you may have witnessed what she’s currently experiencing. She doesn’t need predictions from you about how much shorter or longer her birth might be. She just needs your support and your listening ear – right now. Even the least experienced laboring woman will be able to provide you with clues about what is actually happening in her body. And this is so much more valuable than what you think might be happening in her body.
I completely understand why we do this whole thing of planning and discussing averages and making predictions – all of us are wanting to avoid vulnerability. But vulnerability and birth are inseparable. They have to be. Birth without vulnerability lacks the key ingredient that’s necessary for deep and lasting transformation to occur.
All of us who work in this field should be experiencing that transformation on a regular basis. That’s why most of us got into this whole thing in the first place — the beauty, the mystery, the surprise, the unpredictable nature of birth stirs something in our soul. After each encounter, we should leave that new family feeling grateful we were once again able to witness their transformation — and be transformed ourselves at the same time. This is how we can continue to best serve our families, when we recognize the sacredness of our own work with them and strive to preserve that sacredness for our families no matter how unpredictable their birth ends up being.
There is magic in birth — it’s just not of the “8 Ball” variety.
Experienced parents: Did you try and make predictions about your pregnancy, birth or parenting? Did any of them come true? Did anyone on your birth team try to make a prediction about your birth? How did his make you feel?