What to do when your birth plan takes an unexpected twist

It's often dad who needs to make quick decisions when your birth plan goes out the window. Keep these things in mind to make sure you're both ready. 

delivery room

I’ve had three children by two different partners — both intelligent, strong-willed women who leave very little to chance.

Me, not so much. I like to think of myself as an ‘improvisor’. But, to be honest, I’m just not an organised person. I’m behind on my taxes, I have a stack of unused gift cards and unfilled calendars, and if it wasn’t for Facebook’s annual reminders, I’d probably forget my own birthday.

My ‘creative’ approach to planning means that I can be good at dealing with unexpected turns of events. And while that’s sometimes true, there were a few times during that first birth where I properly screwed up — not because I was disorganised, but because, just like my partner at the time,  I hadn’t prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Where she was over-prepared, I was under-prepared. And based on my later experiences, I’d say the correct path is a healthy balance of the two.

1. Recognise that some things are beyond your control

For our first baby, my wife and I researched and formulated a plan. We attended classes and read books. We canvassed opinions and experiences, and decided on a natural birth in the birthing suite, rather than a medicalised birth.

We chose an obstetrician who would work well with midwives and with our own GP. And the room was lush, with a large wooden bed for birthing and an en suite spa bath for water birthing. If there was such a thing as a vertical wind tunnel for airborne births, I’m pretty sure they’d have that too.

My wife also wanted a completely drug-free and natural delivery, with the exception of a nice bottle of red and a joint — but as that wasn’t an option (not even in the private system), she’d settled for nitrous oxide. Any other drugs were right out, and she was dead against a caesarean.

That first birth was planned in minute detail, right down to the track listing. We packed changes of clothes (not just for the day but the length of the inpatient stay), feeding bras, comfy pyjamas, snacks, and a lot of water.

My wife also brought along her favourite album at the time: Machine Gun Fellatio’s Paging Mr Strike. Aside from physical and emotional support, my main job was to keep tabs on the CD player, to ensure we skipped over a track called ‘(Let Me Be) Your Dirty F*cking Whore’, as we’d decided it wasn’t appropriate for the delivery room.

In short, we knew exactly how the birth would go: my wife and I would casually stroll to hospital, there’d be a little pushing, and the baby would slide out and say, “Hello Mother, hello Father. I’m going to put myself to bed for 12 hours. See you in the morning”.

Easy, right?

2. Keep your plan flexible

Predictably, nothing did go according to plan. The baby was upside down and back to front, and my wife wasn’t sufficiently dilated.

We were told the obstetrician was busy, but would arrive just in time — presumably to catch our daughter as she was shot out of my wife like a ball from a tennis machine.

Eventually, the heart rate started slowing and we were informed that the birth was going to be an emergency C-section.

In retrospect, I tried so hard to give my wife the birth she wanted that I didn’t take the time to talk with her about the birth she didn’t want.

Rather than a plan, we should have talked about birth preferences, which would have made it easier for me to properly support her when our birth plan went to Hell.

Before the birth, talk with your partner about all the options, and under what circumstances she’d consider the ones she’d prefer not to do.

Your main job is to be a comfort and a support, but it’s hard to do that when the unexpected happens. Your partner might not want to or be able to talk, so you might not know if you’re still on the same page.

Of course, your partner’s preferences might change in the delivery room. My second partner and I took along a bunch of snacks that she thought she’d want to keep her strength up. But as I meekly proffered a jelly snake to her between vomits, I realised they could wait until she was in recovery.

3. Know how to advocate for your partner

After 10 hours of labour, my wife was in a lot of pain and the nitrous oxide wasn’t cutting it. An anaesthetist turned up with the same accent, look, and the general degree of empathy as a hungover Jeremy Clarkson, and mansplained our ‘options’: pethidine, morphine and epidurals.

My wife wasn’t really in a position to respond, so he turned his attention to me, describing the process for a spinal tap, something my wife had expressly told me that she didn’t want. I made that clear.

The anaesthetist grew more insistent. I grew bolshie. He doubled down. I doubled down. He flashed his degrees and superior medical knowledge. And I crumbled.

He told me why I had to convince my wife to have an invasive medical procedure, and that it was in her “best interests”.

To be clear, the problem here wasn’t the spinal tap. It was the lack of agency given to my wife. I wasn’t supporting her by acting for her, because that contributed to her powerlessness.

I needed to advocate for her instead, communicating clearly and simply with the anaesthetist about how she wanted to take care of herself, including under what circumstances we would deviate from the plan (see ‘birth preferences’ above).

When things go wrong and a medical professional proposes something you hadn’t accounted for, remember to ask these three questions:

● Is my partner in danger?
● If she’s not in danger, is the baby in danger?
● If neither of them is in danger, can you explain to me why this procedure is necessary?

The three of us eventually compromised with pethidine, but my wife was already so disempowered that she had a dysphoric reaction to the drugs and started to panic.

To top it all off, the bed was completely surrounded by doctors, anaesthetists and midwives, which meant I was unable to hold my wife’s hand or get to the CD player.

Too late, I heard a familiar song come over the CD player: “Bend me over and bang me good and hard from behind…”

Everybody froze. The anaesthetist turned to stare at me, asking what we were listening to. My wife sobered up from the pethidine long enough to look mortified and whisper, “You had one job”.

You can save both of you from considerable embarrassment by making a mix tape or a Spotify playlist. Seriously.

4. Remember, it’s not about you

If I learned one other key thing from that experience, it’s that being a birth partner is a support role. You’re there because things might go wrong, and she’ll need your friendly, hopeful face and your sweaty hand to squeeze. And that’s all.

As much as the two of you are a unit and a family outside of the birth suite, in the birth suite, it’s all about her.

Which isn’t to say you don’t have an important role and a place, but when they do include you, it’s likely to be a little patronising.

For example, when my first daughter was finally born — a little squashed and purple from being stuck in my wife’s cervix — the obstetrician asked me if I’d like to cut the cord.

I jumped at the chance. It had been a long and emotional day. I’d seen a whole new side of my wife — literally, as I’d been in the operating room for the Caesarean and accidentally caught a glimpse of her insides.

But more importantly, I’d seen her pain and distress, and witness her incredible strength. And throughout it all, I’d felt helpless and impotent.

She’d done all the pushing. I’d held her hands and told her she was doing well. Sure, there were things I could have done better (and would do better, in subsequent births).

I’d had a fight with an anaesthetist and forgotten to press ‘skip’ on a CD. But we’d come out of it with a happy and healthy daughter. My wife was grateful for the support and was glad that she wasn’t alone.

And now it was my turn. Now I would cut the cord.

As it turned out, they’d already cut the cord off the baby. And they’d already cut it off the placenta. It was just cord — a little piece of cord in a Perspex box — and I had to walk over to cut it with a pair of metal scissors with all the pomp and symbolism of a ribbon-cutting ceremony in a regional supermarket.

And that was okay.

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