Tibetan prayer flags decorated my couch for weeks. Each was created by a friend to encourage me through labor and to welcome my son home. Between preparing playlists for all stages of labor, reading childbirth books, and drinking daily raspberry tea, I had become obsessed with when and how I would give birth. How did I get here?

Ambition and desire plays a part in everyone’s life. Since I was a teenager I had envisioned the exact Ritu Kumar red and gold dress I wanted to wear for my grand Indian wedding. I dreamed about living in New York after college. I read books and essays fantasizing about working and traveling in distinct corners of the world, which I pursued with passion. And I took all my plans seriously, putting them into motion. But I had never given being pregnant or birthing any thought.

Then here I was pregnant, with everyone asking me how I wanted to give birth, and what I had imagined it would look like. I had always assumed birth happens, not that I had to plan it. I knew I would not necessarily have control over my body – so why fantasize?


But my doula, doctors, and hospital had all encouraged me to come up with a birth plan and I enjoyed the exercise. The plan included words describing how I wanted the birth to go, what medications I was open to, who would be involved and how, and procedural consent. Every woman I spoke to who created a birth plan had an entirely different labor, but I still felt at least asking the questions to myself would put me in a good place emotionally.

When the day came, I went from early labor to more intense labor, from bathtub to bouncy ball to wall clutching in 18 hours, I put all my tools into use until I felt I could no longer take the contractions and wanted an epidural. At 3:1:1 (1 minute contractions every 3 minutes for an hour) I felt ready to go to the hospital. “This is just pain. This is not suffering.” I repeated those phrases repeatedly in the dreaded cab ride to the hospital.

Hoping I was close to 6 or 7 cms dilated, the nurse solemnly told me I was not dilated at all, and the baby had hardly even fallen. I was experiencing prodromal labor – where a woman is in labor for hours, days, weeks, without her body dilating as one would in active labor. The writing was on the wall: within 14 hours I went from an epidural to Pitocin to induce labor to a c-section. I was thrilled to feel my lovely baby boy finally on me and relieved to eat and just be with my family.

The c-section was not in my birth plan, and it made me feel like a failure and less of a woman/ mother. But as I began nursing and getting to know my son, I realized motherhood was just beginning. I asked Leigh Kader, a doula whose birth education classes I attended this fall, about the point of doing a birth plan, as I grew in the coming weeks to slowly question why I had spent so much time in my pregnancy creating expectations. She responded: “If you don’t know your options, you don’t have any. But because of the unpredictability of birth, I prefer the term “preferences” to “plan” because plan feels rigid (and rigidity leads to disappointment) whereas preferences imply open mindedness. Writing your preferences down insures that you and your partner on the same page about what is important to you both during the labor and immediate postpartum.”

It definitely had helped in discussions with my husband and doula. “It’s a useful tool for thinking through what is most important during the birth and the immediate postpartum time. It can also be a great way to get to know your care provider and feel reassured that your birth team is all on the same page about your preferences.” another doula, Sarah Lewin, described. I still had a hard time wrapping my head around writing down choices for an event I couldn’t control.

People can clearly see the harm of holding onto the image of the perfect relationship, the ideal partner, or the dream apartment. So how does one envision birth without attachment, to hold preferences without expectations?

Maybe the focus should be about the process itself: the idea of birth plans as a movement for pregnant women to have their voices and choices heard in a process that has become overly medicalized and less personal. Roseanna Seminar, a midwife at Park Slope Midwives, pointed out that “items that people used to put in the birth plan are now automatic (skin to skin, no separation, delayed cord clamping etc).  We build a trust with women during the pregnancy. This helps when things don’t go as planned and we need to change it.” I definitely did appreciate looking forward to the choices I made about skin to skin and not being separated from my son.

As I reflect at my recovery, my healthy boy, and the loving manner in which my surgery occurred (my son was on my chest the entire time), I am thankful. The lessons I learned to let go and accept my body and myself for what it is will stay with me through my motherhood.





About Author

Ambika Samarthya-Howard is a documentary filmmaker and communications specialist. Her freelance projects focus on social issues, specifically gender, public health, and child rights. After receiving her MFA in Film at Columbia University, she went on to shoot and direct art and media projects in Japan, Bollywood, and West Africa. She completed the Dharma Teacher Training program at the Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist organization in Manhattan, and has taught meditation at Third Root Community Center in Brooklyn and WeWorks. She has worked with organizations such as BBC Media Action, UNICEF, and other agencies in creating social activism tools and trainings.

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