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One of the exercises I do with the couples going through childbirth education with me is to set expectations for themselves and everyone else on their birth team.
As I say the word expectation, you might feel a reaction like some of my students do, they feel a strong sense of negative association with the word expectation, especially when it comes to birth.
After so many women have expressed this sentiment as we worked through this part of their birth preparation, I thought it might be time to explore the concept of expectations from some different perspectives so you can decide if defining expectations is a useful tool for your birth.
Where Does Our Reaction to Expectations Come From?
Whether you feel positive or negative about expectations is primarily a factor of your past exposure to expectations and the bias, or view, you have developed in response to their positive or negative feedback.
To begin this conversation about expectations in birth, I first want to talk about expectations more generally and explore why we can have such an uncomfortable feeling around them. We could probably start at some point in our childhood, maybe it was our parents or a teacher from whom we felt the weight of expectations for the first time. Expectations to help with household chores or watch your younger siblings when you wanted to play with your friends, expectations to stay in your seat in class and pay attention or get homework done when you wanted to be at recess.
The early introduction to expectations we have as children are part of the disruption to our play, and the realization that life also comes with responsibilities, it's not all play all the time, and the point when we learn that, how it is introduced can affect our viewpoint of expectations.
Then these expectations continue to build as we grow and take on bigger responsibility - learning to drive, getting a job, being in a relationship. These all come with various sets of expectations, some of which are explained and transparent from the beginning and some of which we have to learn as we go. When you start learning to drive, you take a class first and learn the rules of the road, how to maneuver through an intersection with stop signs, when it's ok to turn right on a red light, when you need to yield and when you have the right-of-way. These expectations are pretty clear, and they keep driving as safe as it can be and, for the most part, we all agree to these expectations so nearly every time we drive, we can get from our home to the grocery store without too much cause for concern or even having to think about it too much.
The Dread of Expectations
So that's how we fit into outside expectations, but what about our own, because we each set our own expectations as we experience life, expectations of other people, of ourselves, and of the world at large. Even babies will develop a set of expectations based on their experiences, if they are always picked up and held when they cry, they will expect that when they cry, their parent reacts. Many of these begin as instincts at birth, but as babies start to make connections about how their small world works, these expectations begin to be set.
But what happens when the baby cries and no one comes? Now the baby experiences what we all dread about expectations, disappointment, and now he has to question his expectations of the world, why didn't the expected outcome happen this time?
Chances are, like probably everyone, you've had your expectations disappointed at some time in your life, probably more than once, and depending on the level of disappointment, how much of a disruption it was to your life, you can begin to develop a negative association with expectations, because someone failed you, or you failed yourself not meeting your own expectation, and you don't want to feel that disappointment again.
When I ask the moms I work with why they react to this word, they nearly all say, I don't want to be disappointed if my expectations for birth aren't met, and I completely understand the concern they are expressing here. But the problem is not in having expectations, in fact, I do believe we need them for many reasons, and in regard to birth, your expectations are what is going to help you create a common goal for your birth team and it helps them to know their role and stay focused on the vision you have set for your birth.
The problem with expectations is either having the wrong expectations, unrealistic or unhealthy expectations, or failing to communicate your expectations to those who are intended to meet them.
How to Set Healthy Expectations for Birth
Before you can begin to set your expectations, you have to spend time exploring other aspects of birth first, understanding what you want to experience, how you want to be in your birth, what you are hoping to achieve. Doing this work first will help you form your overall vision for your birth, and from there the expectations you need from your birth team should become clear.
So if your birth vision includes having an undisturbed birth with just you and your birth partner laboring alone, one of your expectations for your birth team might include staying in another room unless you call for them. If you open this dialogue with them before your birth, you are much less likely to be disappointed if they express concern about letting you labor more than 1 or 2 hours without checking your baby's heart tones. If this is the case, you need to know that before you are in labor so you can have a discussion about how to balance the two sets of expectations. Or if neither side is open to resetting their expectations, then this may let you know that you might need to consider a different birth team or birth environment altogether.
Working on your birth vision can help you understand if your expectations make sense for your goals, so that you can ensure your expectations are not unrealistic. If we go back to the example of envisioning a undisturbed birth with you and your birth partner laboring alone, but you also feel strongly that you want your baby's heart tones checked every hour, then you are out of alignment in your expectations and that will lead to disappointment somewhere in the process, unless you or your birth partner will be the one listening to the heart tone, then you are back in alignment.
So expectations are an important part of creating a healthy birth environment, creating the approach to your birth and ensuring everyone knows what you need to reach your birth vision and how they play a role in your birth.
What I don't recommend when I say expectations is to set up expectations about things that are not in your known control, for example setting the expectation that you will have your baby at home or even that you will have your baby in the water, those are expectations that could lead to disappointment in the end this isn't how it unfolds. It happens that women think they will birth in the birth tub, and they labor in there, but sometime, by the time it's actually time to birth the baby, it no longer feels like the right place to be. You want to be free to change up those aspects of your birth without feeling like you're going against the plan or against an expectation you held.
In some cases the mere act of setting up an expectation leads to the failure to meet them, instead of being relaxed and letting go of the outcome of birth and just being on the journey, you become fixed on the idea that you must birth this way or that way, you must birth in the water, even though all you want to do is lay down. This is where you restrict your own birth to meet rigid expectations and risk disrupting the flow of your birth. Instead, this expectation could be phrased to give you the freedom to birth in whatever positions feel right to you in the moment, and your expectation for your team is to be there to support your positioning needs, to hear those needs and respond in the way you have discussed ahead of time according to your communication plan.
If you tell them that their job is to make sure you get your water birth and you really want to get out of the water, what does that mean for your support team, what are they supposed to do? Your expectation is to have a water birth and now you don't want it, but you told them their job is to make sure it happens. Can you hear how this increases the stress in the room? The last thing you want is extra stress in your birth room! But, now your birth team has to decide, do they try to help you meet your expectation and disrupt the flow of your birth assuming it is still what you want? Or do they help you find a new position to support the flow of your birth but risk your disappointment in meeting your initial expectation?
So when it comes to expectations, have them, they are so helpful in helping everyone understand how to support you. But use them in a way that supports your birth and your birth team rather than restricts and confuses everyone if things change. When you start by defining and clarifying your birth vision and understanding what you want to achieve and feel and become in your birth, because this is one of the most fundamental aspects to preparing for birth, if you don’t know what you are doing all of the preparation work for, if you don’t know the why behind our birth choices, than it will be harder to stick with your birth approach, or your birth plan, in the moment when it might feel hard, or when someone says something that makes you question your choices.
But when you start with your ultimate reason and your vision of what your birth can feel like, then you can set healthy and flexible expectations that helps give purpose and defines roles for everyone on your birth team in regard to how they can best support you, and it will help you identify and define what you need from yourself as well for your birth. Knowing what you need from yourself is just as important as preparing everyone else on your birth team and can help you get clarity on what you need to do to prepare yourself to be ready for your birth.
Time to Set Your Expectations!
Expectations help you and your birth team keep your birth vision in sight and ensure you have everything and everyone you need to keep your birth in the flow and moving in the rhythm that’s right for your birth. So, now grab a pen and paper and start outlining your birth vision and then see how the expectations come to life. If you need help, you can always find me on the socials.
Let me know what you think of expectations! Do you like them, hate them, feel better about them now? Do you have another way you like to refer to them? I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Let me know on Facebook or instagram @ naturalbirthcompass or email me info @ naturalbirthcompass.com.
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