You Can Have An Empowering Birth in Times of Uncertainty

We know by now that the current measures to protect against exposure to COVID-19 are having staggering impacts on birthing people, partners, doctors, doulas, midwives, and families all around the globe. In any situation, birth isn’t a predictable event, though, in light of this current global challenge, many experiences fall far outside the norm. From virtual doula support, limited partners or family in birth spaces, and the addition of protective equipment (PPE), childbirth is all the more intense an experience right now.

While I didn’t give birth in the time of COVID-19, I know what it feels like to have the vision of an ideal birth completely upended by circumstances outside of my control. And I know first hand the insight and healing that comes from getting through such an unexpected experience. From nearly the moment I found out I was pregnant I knew I wanted to have an unmedicated birth. When I mentioned to my OB around 16 weeks that I wanted to avoid an epidural he was supportive and encouraged me to transfer to the midwives in the same practice. They had a new birthing center at Lower Manhattan Hospital that could make for a more comfortable birth if I met all the right criteria. And up to 35 weeks I met all those criteria at each and every visit.

At that week’s appointment, though, the midwife in training stopped the routine exam with a quizzical look and said “I need to get another midwife’s help. I’ll be right back.” The other midwife came in to confirm that her findings were correct, my baby was breech.

Breech is a variation of normal, but unfortunately, the established practice in the US is to schedule a cesarean birth to avoid the risks associated with breech births. I didn’t want to settle for that so I researched alternatives. From acupuncture with moxa, chiropractors that offered webster technique, inversions against walls and in pools, I kept trying everything I could but she still wouldn’t budge. After a failed (and traumatic) external cephalic version (ECV) I reluctantly scheduled the cesarean, though I was determined to keep trying on my own to turn her.

One night immediately after an acupuncture session my baby was moving so much I was worried I wouldn’t get any sleep. I managed to dose off with hypnobirthing meditations and the next thing I knew, I woke up to a feeling like I’d peed in the bed. As I got up, my waters splashed onto the floor. I took a shower, discussed next steps with my partner, and slowly made my way to the hospital with our doula for the inevitable unplanned (and now unscheduled) cesarean.

As I lay there on the operating room table, I was excited to meet my baby but I can’t say that I really felt in that moment like I was “giving birth” to my child. Once she was out, I got a brief look at her, then they took her across the room for what seemed like an eternity. It was probably only around 7-8 minutes, but when you spend months waiting to meet and touch your baby, it was truly painful to only hear her cries. Those first few days in the hospital with her were also very hard because my milk never came in; she lost more weight than the pediatrician liked so we felt forced to feed her formula just so we could leave the hospital.

None of this was how I envisioned my child coming into the world. I knew that my birth experience was having a negative impact on my mental health and postpartum journey. It wasn’t until I went back to watch the video footage that my partner took in the OR that I started to heal from this drastic departure from my hopeful expectations.

Watching this footage helped me see that I DID give birth to my baby, even if it was through my belly. This video helped me process what I felt I had lost and allowed me to see all that was beautiful about the moment I did have. It was so powerful for me that I started to look into documenting births for others. I knew first hand how healing reviewing a birth story could be. Now I’m able to offer that gift to others.

In this time of COVID you may have (or already recently had) a birth that didn’t match up with your expectations. And that’s ok. It can still be empowering, after all, it is still your birth, a new beginning for your family. Even if you don’t have a photographer at your birth; reviewing, journaling, talking about your birth experience with others can help you process your own story, too.

In my work as birth photographer and doula, I offer non-judgemental care to those who need the support I wish I had. I firmly believe we need to share our joys and struggles around birth and motherhood more openly. This is what heals and what brings us to the whole truth of our experience.

Support with Birth Journaling:

  1. Write out the immediate details as early as you can. Keep notes in your phone or on paper near your bedside so you can write down any vivid moments and feelings as they come back to you.
  2. You can also speak it all out in a voice memo that you can transcribe later.
  3. Gather any momentos or pictures from your birthing day to take you back to those moments. These sensory cues can help you jog your memory.
  4. Think about the key characters in your story. Obviously a partner and/or family, though try to jot down everyone who touched your laboring and birthing moments. You may want to remember that special nurse’s name later down the line.

Here are some journaling prompts to support you further:

  • What did the beginning of your labor feel like? What are the feelings and things you remember during the various stages of your labor experience? Where were you during each phase?
  • Try to capture the feelings (both physical and mental), too. Joy? Relief? Fear? Exhaustion? They’re all part of your story.
  • Who was supporting you during certain challenging moments? What things do you remember people saying? How were people most supportive?
  • What are the first things you said or thought about when you met your baby?
  • How did your experience meet or differ from your expectations? What are the moments you least expected?
  • What do you wish for others to know about birth?

Gwen Schroeder is a birth storyteller and doula in Brooklyn, New York. She has launched a project to capture birth stories in the time of COVID-19. She invites you to share your story, too.

About Gwen

Gwen Schroeder is a NYC-based storyteller with fifteen years of experience in making Academy Award–winning feature films, critically hailed documentary television, and viral online video. After working as Post Production Manager for TED and Associate Producer for Frontline films, I founded CAPTURED to tell stories near and dear to my heart, and to work at a pace that’s best for my new family. I’m a mother and know just how quickly these days fly by, so I’m driven to help others capture these fleeting moments.

With a bachelor’s in TV, Film, and a master’s in Humanitarian Action, I recently completed a graduate certificate in environmental and occupational health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in research for my documentary film, City of Enchantment. In honor of my father, I’m also a marathon runner for Team Fox and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. I also worked as the Foundation’s first Creative Director.