When I was pregnant with my first child, I’m very certain that at least once I probably said something like, “All I want is a healthy baby.” It’s possible that I said it when someone asked me about my birth plan. Maybe I said it when someone asked if I was hoping for a girl or a boy. I don’t know when I said it, but I’m sure I said it because at that time, I believed it. I thought that as long as we both came home physically healthy, nothing else would matter.
The phrase turned into a barb to my heart after I endured a hellacious traumatic birth. When my son came into the world, I learned that you can have both a healthy baby and a broken heart at the very same time.
When they heard about my birth experience, a lot of people tried to downplay the devastation I experienced by saying, “Well, you’ve got a healthy baby, and that’s all that matters now.”
They were wrong.
Yes, my traumatic experience could have been worse. I am deeply grateful that neither my son nor I experience any lifelong physical impairments from his traumatic entrance. If one of us had been gravely injured or worse, I would have even more trauma to work through. But the pain I experienced is still real, even though I didn’t experience the worst-case scenario. When it comes to pregnancy and birth, a lot more matters than “a healthy baby.”
A birthing person deserves to feel supported, too. It is a helpless and terrifying feeling to be in labor and know that nobody is listening to you. No matter how educated you are on the process, when something unexpected happens, you need to feel that your medical professionals are tuned into your needs and wishes. When you feel ignored and discarded, that fear and pain can last well beyond the birth.
My traumatic birth left me feeling raw, exposed, violated and devastated.
My son was not a panacea, making up for all the terror and sadness that flooded my heart when everything went sideways.
A healthy baby couldn’t erase the horrible things I overheard in the OR when the team thought I was asleep.
That sweet little baby boy couldn’t change the fact that the surgeon sliced my uterus from top to bottom for no medically discernible reason, leaving me unable to ever go into labor or give birth the way I’d hoped.
Our baby ended up being fine, but I didn’t know that when I was left alone, lying in the operating room feeling my tears change from warm to ice cold as they rolled down my face and into my hair. I’ll never forget the way my husband ran at full speed out of the room and down the hallway to find out why our baby was being rushed to the NICU.
We had a healthy baby, but he isn’t all that mattered. I mattered, too, and when I was laboring and delivering, almost nobody cared about me.
It took me five years to confront the surgeon who hurt me. He didn’t even remember me, but he changed how I feel about my body and birth forever.
It isn’t just birth trauma that negates the whole idea that “nothing matters except a healthy baby.”
Sometimes, babies aren’t healthy. Babies who are born very sick matter, too. So do their parents.
I spoke to Amanda Pitts, a mom of five from Nashville, Tennessee, about her experience receiving a life-threatening diagnosis for her baby at birth. Amanda tells me that when she first laid eyes on her daughter Callie, she knew.
“I took one look at my precious baby, and I knew she had Down Syndrome,’” Amanda recalls. “I didn’t mention it to my husband until four hours later. He didn’t believe me. He said, ‘We’re too young to have a baby with Down Syndrome.’ I knew we weren’t.”
Doctors went on to confirm Amanda’s suspicion. Just as Amanda and her husband Robert were starting to get used to the idea that their baby’s life would look a little different than they imagined, another curveball came their way.
Callie’s doctor informed Amanda and Robert that Baby Callie had a ventricular septal defect, also known as VSD. Their tiny baby had hole in her heart. About half of all children born with Down Syndrome have one. Callie’s was significant.
Amanda was overcome with both love and fear.
She was only twenty-two years old. During her pregnancy, there was no indication that Callie would be born with Down Syndrome—or a heart defect that would threaten her life and make her first seven years complicated and sometimes scary.
Callie finally underwent successful open-heart surgery in 2018, repairing the hole in her heart for good. Amanda is grateful for Callie’s newly-minted healthy heart, but she will never forget how it felt to send her seven-year-old child into massive surgery. For those hours when Callie’s heart was being repaired, Amanda felt like hers had stopped.
Even though she has gone on to have four sons with healthy hearts and is expecting another any day now, Amanda never completely relaxes until she gets to see her baby and a doctor confirms outside the womb that his heart is in working order.
“When I was pregnant with Callie, my biggest hope was that she would be healthy. She wasn’t. She was born with a heart defect, ended up in the NICU for serious apnea issues, and has faced multiple health-related challenges in her short life,” Amanda explains.
“I still pray for my babies to be born in perfect health,” she admits.
“I know the fear of having a child born with a life-threatening heart problem, and I never want to experience that again. But if I had known Callie would be born with a hole in her heart and some additional challenges because of Down Syndrome, I would have wanted her just as much. I would never have wished her away or traded her for a baby whose heart was perfect. When I hear people say ‘all that matters is a healthy baby,’ I cringe a little. My baby still mattered, even though she was born sick.”
“Getting a serious diagnosis is one of the scariest things a parent can go through. At the same time, I’m so lucky that life didn’t hand me a ‘healthy baby’ because I get to raise and love my daughter who has already taught me more than I can ever hope to teach her in a million lifetimes,” Amanda explains.
Health is a worthwhile hope for any expectant parent to have for their own baby.
It’s totally okay to say that you are just hoping for a healthy baby. It can be a simple go-to phrase, especially when you’re trying to politely tell someone that you’re not hoping for one sex over another.
But we all need to be careful not to tell someone who has experienced birth trauma that they should be totally fine and emotionally unscathed as long as their baby ends up healthy when the dust settles.
We also should be careful to acknowledge that the phrase can be hurtful for a parent carrying a baby with known health conditions. They shouldn’t have to politely smile when someone assumes that “all they want is a healthy baby.” The truth is, they love and want the baby they have very, very much, healthy or not.
It’s not that we shouldn’t wish health and blessings and good things on every baby, regardless of the circumstances. It’s just that we should all keep in mind that a healthy baby is not all that matters– and stay aware of the ways that our words can affect people.