Perhaps you’ve seen the empathy video circulating the web; the one where the sad fox is in a hole and some well-intentioned mammal comes along, pokes her head down the hole and asks if the sad one wants a sandwich? Great video. One of the things the video emphasizes is the unfeeling way we have of saying “At least…” to those who are hurting.
How bad does it have to be for a recently-delivered mother to express her sadness, disappointment, hurt, or anger without someone saying, in essence, “It could be worse.”
Of course it could be worse. It could always be worse. Must we dwell on that?
And must we dwell on how healthy the baby is any time the mother’s hurt emerges? Must we point this out to her, as if to say, “Stop thinking of yourself, new mother. Who cares about what you wanted? What does it matter how it made you feel? Your baby is fine. Get over it.” As if women were merely happy incubation chambers for infants.
I would argue that the worst person to say this to is a woman who sacrificed herself, her own desires and bodily autonomy to birth a baby through surgery or other traumatic means even though she wanted a natural birth. This is not to say that natural births are not sacrificial; birth is always sacrificial. But when things go so far from how you envisioned, especially when you are not even able to be a part of your baby’s birth, it is a special kind of sacrifice. Some women are particularly hurt by it. No one knows better than this woman “At least I have a healthy baby.”
That is why she did it. Because her body or her baby or her doctor assured her that it was the safest way to a healthy baby. She absolutely wanted a healthy baby above all else. Cesareans are not done for the safety of the mother. To get one, the mother puts herself and any future babies she may have at risk for the chance that it will ensure the safety of this one. Whether or not she believes her baby could have been safely born naturally or not, someone told her no, and she laid on the table for her baby.
There is no reason to tell her “At least you have a healthy baby.” The only reason her birth experience hasn’t totally f’d her up is because every molecule of her body tells her: “At least I have a healthy baby.” She knows it. She feels it. It helps her be OK with what happened. It helped her lay on the table and it will help her realize that her birth experience was powerful in its own way. Someday.
She loves her baby as much as any squatting birth goddess with an epic hormone rush. She doesn’t need you to tell her that what matters is that her baby is safe. That was what she wanted above all else. What she needs is to feel a connection with you, to feel loved and honored in spite of feeling so low.
This “at least” talk just feels wildly insensitive.
Most people don’t realize that when they say it. Often because they wouldn’t want a natural birth themselves, or because they never thought about the birth experience itself as being important. Maybe they are just grasping at [bendy] straws to make you feel better. Some are just insensitive or they don’t always think before they talk. And that makes all of us.
So I want to present an analogy. Broken birth dreams are sometimes compared to your wedding being a complete disaster…but at least you still got married. I never thought this really did it justice, especially in the case of surgical birth. My friend Holly Stiles has come up with something I think is much more fitting. She writes:
You planned the perfect three-day skiing trip in Colorado. You bought a great pair of skis, rented an expensive all-inclusive condo on the slopes with a hot tub, had reservations at all the newest eateries. You even hired a skiing coach to give you a few lessons to refresh your skills. At some point during your trip, accompanied by your amazing ski instructor (who might have taken her eyes off you for one second, but you can’t be sure– I digress), you hit a tree. You broke your collar bone, your jaw, both knees, and the concussion required you to medically be put under for three days. When you get home you have long months of recovery, a lot of bills, and memories of your experience: The memory of drinking your food from a straw, the memory of your instructor’s face of disappointment on impact, and the memory of staying in a private room in the hospital instead of the private condo. “Yeah, but you still got to go to Aspen, didn’t you?”