My Birth Shame: A Doula’s Confession

Shame and guilt appear to be accepted aspects of motherhood. There is very little a mother can do that doesn’t make her susceptible to being shamed into feeling like a ‘bad mother’. If you formula-feed, you are denying your child a healthy start.

If you breastfeed past the first year, you are a hippie attachment parent who can’t let their baby grow up. If you go back to work early, you are abandoning your child. If you stay home, you have no ambition (I have done ALL these things by the way). The list goes on…

Shaming also extends into the birthing world, and birth shame is personally something that I have carried with me for some time now. When I was pregnant with my first son I had planned the birth that many doulas dream of.

I had the midwifery team, the doula, my home birth supply list, and even a spot in my backyard picked out for planting my placenta. It was going to be a peaceful, primitive and undisturbed birth experience, complete with rainbows and unicorns. Well, it turns out (in case you didn’t know) that things don’t always go as planned, and I ended up in the hospital at 36.5 weeks facing an induction.

Induction is a bad word in the birthing community. It should be avoided like the plague! And I was a doula, so shouldn’t I know better? Shouldn’t I be ‘informed’ enough to know the risks? Against what I was taught I went ahead with the induction. After 12 hours of labor my son was born, and was immediately whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Instead of making memories of our first gazes, or taking pictures of his tiny feet, I was left in the birthing room without a baby. Were my choices the reason that my baby was in a cold incubator all alone? Was I the reason that we missed out on those first precious moments together? My shame convinced me that our mother-child bond was compromised by my failures.

All I could see was that I hadn’t been good enough, that I hadn’t tried enough, and that I hadn’t been smart enough. Maybe if I had refused Pitocin, the birthing process wouldn’t have been so hard for my son. All the things that I could have done differently swirled around in my head.

As a doula, I felt somewhat like an imposter for not having the intervention-free birth that I had envisioned. I would share my birth story with other moms and doulas, but I felt the need to justify all of my actions and to explain all the medical reasons that led to an induction so that I wouldn’t be judged.

Luckily, with time, the shame simply morphed into disappointment. I was soon pregnant with my second and I had convinced myself that I would do things entirely different this time around. But unfortunately many of the same problems that plagued my first pregnancy started creeping up again, and it looked like my rainbow-coloured home birth was just a fantasy.

After 37 weeks of a very emotional second pregnancy, I made the decision to be induced before my medically necessary ‘deadline date’ (cue audible gasps). I was exhausted and worn down by a difficult pregnancy. And I was sick of being treated like a ticking time bomb. I was done with the blood tests, the ultrasounds and the non-stress tests. I was just done.

I knew it was the ‘wrong’ choice to make, and I carried a lot of shame over it. I didn’t tell anyone about my choice (until now!) because I was afraid that I would be judged by other moms, and by other birth professionals. But after some self-reflection I have realized that it wasn’t the wrong choice to make, because it was the right choice for my family in that moment and it involved so much more than simply weighing the medical benefits and risks of an induction.

My fears, my hopes, my past experiences, my knowledge, my insecurities, and the information I was given were all factors in my choice to be induced. And people can judge my birth choices all they want, but I am no longer going to let their judgments cause me shame. I am proud of myself, and I am proud of my births.

Being a mom can be the source of so much guilt and feelings of failure. Let’s not make birth one more thing that we fail at as moms. Let’s support each other and the decisions that we make, even if they were ‘uninformed’, or based on fear or pain.

Let’s watch our words and our thoughts, because they can have a big effect on how a woman remembers her birth experience. Let’s not project what we feel is an ideal birth onto someone else…it may not be what they consider ideal at all. And let’s focus all of our ‘judgey’ energy on making the maternity care system better, and not on shaming the women within the system. (Written by Justine Geberdt)

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