A Good Birth is not a Perfect Birth

I stumbled across A Good Birth quite by accident as I was browsing through a small bookstore. I picked it up, expecting that it would probably be the same old thing - a book taking a hard stance on one side of the "birth wars". Not so. The ideas and concepts put forward in the book were so different from anything I'd read before. I myself was struggling to overcome a traumatic birth experience and the concepts Anne Drapkin Lyerly, author of A Good Birth, presented were like soothing balm to my wounds. I could go on for pages singing the praise of this book. But instead, let's allow the author and book to speak for themselves. 

 To purchase this book or read more about the author, please visit http://www.annelyerly.com/book

To purchase this book or read more about the author, please visit http://www.annelyerly.com/book

I’ve been called a perfectionist.  Usually it’s not exactly a compliment – rather a means to mitigate my (too-frequent) angst about loose strings or missteps of a busy day.  “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” my husband Kim reminds me, and I exhale.  

But if there is one place I don’t need reminding (anymore) about the perils of perfectionism, its birth.  The degree to which our births stray from some notion of “perfect” or “ideal” is all too often a source of misery for new moms.  It was for me, in days following the birth of my first baby (now a strapping 13 year old, with four younger sibs).  

That misery-inducing disconnect is part of what inspired me to conduct the Good Birth Project, a major research study involving interviews with more than a hundred diverse women about their births – what made them good, what made them bad, what they came to value about them.  It was an effort to help women reclaim conversations about birth – to define “good” on their own terms rather than those of the birth wars.  What emerged were five considerations women identified as deeply at issue in birth:  agency, personal security, connectedness, respect, and knowledge.  I describe them in my book, A Good Birth:  Finding the Positive and Profound in your Childbirth Experience.  

One of the big lessons you’ll find there is that a good birth is not an “almost perfect” birth, not a perfect birth with an asterisk.  A good birth is something else entirely.  Births will always stray from an ideal, and that’s okay.  In fact that’s part of what makes a birth good.  As I write in my book,

"If life’s final passage has the potential to be as full of beauty and meaning as life’s first, I think the analogy also works in the opposite direction—that birth is also like death, in many ways, but pointedly because both inevitably involve loss. But it is not a bad kind of loss, necessarily. We lose our former self and in its place we become mothers; we lose the ideal baby we’d imagined, and in its place we get the baby we will love; we lose an idealized birth experience, and in its place we get something real, something full of beauty, something that is our very own.

I’ve been told that whenever the Amish make a quilt, they leave an imperfection, a flaw. Historians argue over its meaning and some even question its intentionality, but the quilt served as a powerful analogy for me as I thought through the lessons of the Good Birth Project. Just like the quilts, our births won’t be perfect, or meet an idealized notion of the good (neither will we, nor will our children), but therein lies our humanity, and that, I would argue, is where we find beauty and meaning. The imperfection (the disrespectful word, the moment of terror, the tussle with control) doesn’t mean that all will unravel (not the quilt, our births, ourselves), but rather that we are firmly in the world. The goal is not the ideal birth, not the perfect birth, but the Good Birth, after all. [excerpted from A Good Birth, Avery/Penguin Group (USA), 2013]"

So lets not let perfect be the enemy of the good anymore.  Go ahead, exhale.  

Anne Drapkin Lyerly is an obstetrician and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  A Good Birth is her first book.