My doctor suggested I write a birth plan for the arrival of my daughter. In the end, I learned no birth goes as planned.

Heather Balogh
Credit: Will Rochfort

I am not an inherently organized person. I fix sticky notes to my steering wheel as task reminders; I dog-ear the pages of books when I read them; my filing system is saving all my emails; my office desk is covered in piles because I don't know where else to put the stuff; I perpetually have 5,000 photos saved on my phone because I don't want to deal with offloading them somewhere better. That is me and it works (although my husband likely disagrees).

But when we discovered we were pregnant with our first child, I became laser-focused on the details of my birth plan. The laissez-faire me disappeared and a Type A stranger replaced her, filling my mind with lists of pros and cons circling around every detail. As a first-time mother, I had absolutely zero idea what to expect or what was coming my way. All I knew was that my belly would grow bigger, I'd eat weird things, and I needed this quasi-golden ticket of a birth plan for the successful arrival of our daughter.

It took me two days of calling to lock in an obstetrician who delivered in both of the Denver hospitals I was considering: Saint Joseph Hospital and Rose Medical. I wanted a natural birth and the thought of a standard hospital gave me the heebie-jeebies. We spend a lot of time in the mountains and I'm far more comfortable falling asleep to the sounds of howling coyotes than the hum of fluorescent lights. As someone who prefers essential oils to ibuprofen, I was hell-bent on delivering our daughter without medical intervention and really liked the looks of Rose Medical's birthing center. But, my husband fell in love with St. Joe's.

During my pregnancy, my belly had been measuring weeks ahead of schedule and my obstetrician had already floated the idea of a cesarean in case I couldn't push the apparently giant baby out of my body. With all of these factors weighing on my mind, we made our choice: we'd deliver our daughter at St. Joe's.

From there, I spiraled down a proverbial rabbit hole as I nailed down every minutia of detail regarding my birth plan. I scoured through St. Joseph's website and pamphlets, learning about what I could and could not do. Their newly-remodeled birthing rooms were beautiful and large, boasting modern technology and luxurious amenities. I ticked through the list as if it were groceries: lavender essential oils, laboring in the birthing tub, a playlist filled with movie scores, and a birthing ball were all on my wish list. An epidural was not.

I'm a lifelong athlete and enjoy low-grade suffering that comes from Type-II fun. I've cycled across the country, paddled through the tundra north of Alaska's Arctic Circle, climbed canyon walls in Utah, and even dabbled in ultrarunning with a 55K race through Arizona's ankle-deep sand. With all of that in my hip pocket, I honestly never considered an epidural. Pain doesn't scare me and I had every faith that my body wouldn't fail me. After all, it accomplished everything I'd ever asked of it; why would child birth be any different?

My birth plan was my armor and I wore it like a shield. I felt organized, prepared, and confident that I could handle childbirth on my terms, bringing our daughter into this world safely and calmly.

And then it all went to hell.

The evening began like any other. After returning from the grocery store with my husband and mother-in-law, I cozied up to our kitchen island while my husband baked me my pregnancy kryptonite: molten chocolate lava cake. He had just pulled the cakes out of the oven when I felt a gigantic pop inside my body. I looked down to see gallons of water pouring onto the floor. "Um, darling?" I said. "I think my water just broke."

Our drive to St. Joe's stood in stark contrast to my vivid imagination as I wasn't yet experiencing contractions. Instead, we nervously chatted and held hands. "It's happening," my husband said to me. "We're about to become a family of three."

We checked into the hospital and posted up in one of the fancy birthing rooms I'd viewed dozens of times while researching on their website. Around midnight, my contractions began in earnest and I prepared myself for the long evening ahead. A nurse checked me and I was not dilated, so my husband curled up next to me and we tried to rest. Eventually, the contractions became painful and frequent, so I kicked him off the bed in an effort to cope. Still, I wasn't dilated so he fell asleep on the couch and I quietly writhed by myself. With zero dilation, the nurse wasn't ready to even look at my birth plan let alone turn on any of my music selections, so I merely curled up on my side and gritted my teeth when the waves of pain washed over me.

I took to watching the monitor, studying the little green light in an effort to time the contractions when they hit. In retrospect, I should have realized something was wrong when I counted contractions every two minutes that lasted for a minute yet I still had zero dilation. It hurt like hell but I told myself this was just another endurance event. Soon, I could climb in the laboring tub and turn on the essential oil diffuser.

Then, my plan changed. Just as a wave of pain crippled my body, the door to my room flew open and my nurse came running in, followed by a team of masked medical professionals. "Don't worry too much, sweetie," she told me as they bustled around my room, detaching me from various machinery. "We just need to wheel you down to the operating room. Your baby is in distress and we want you to be nearby just in case."

Faster than Olympic sprinters, the team raced down the hallway while pushing my bed, moving so quickly that they accidentally ran me into a fire extinguisher attached to the wall. I laughed because I was so confused and bewildered, not quite grasping what was happening. I hadn't even listened to my music yet so surely, our baby wasn't ready to arrive. The nurse said "just in case," right?

I blinked and realized I was now laying on a table with blindingly bright lights above my face. I heard one of the medical voices ask, "Does she have an epidural?" and I quickly realized what was happening. Our baby wasn't okay. They were going to cut me open.

Terrified that someone missed the memo, I shouted, "No! I don't have an epidural! Please, is our baby okay? Is she okay?" I repeatedly asked in higher and higher octaves until the kind-hearted surgeon leaned over my face, and speaking through his mask, said, "Everything will be okay, Heather. I'll take care of you." And then I was gone.

I awoke an hour later, groggy and confused in the recovery room. I don't remember any of it, but my husband tells me my eyes opened and I blurted out, "Is she okay? Is our baby okay?" Thankfully, she arrived unscathed and was placed on my chest. As soon as I felt her tiny head nestle into my neck, I burst into tears. I felt confused, disoriented, and so in love.

That first day is a blur as the general anesthesia from my emergency C-section wore off. Around noon, I asked my nurse to swap my pain meds for gigantic ibuprofen. I was fine with discomfort, but I wanted to remember the first day of our daughter's life.

Because that is the thing with our birth story: I won't ever know what happened. I walked into the hospital armed with lavender oils and a Thomas Newman playlist, confident that these small details would make a world of difference in aiding me with the labor experience I wanted. I walked out with a beautiful and healthy baby girl and absolutely zero recollection of the first nine hours of her life. My reliance on my birth plan—and my self-guided pressure to go drug-free—meant I missed her birth entirely. And I can't ever get that back.

Now, it's a full 18 months later and we have a joyous daughter who is truly the light of our lives. I've accepted what happened during labor because it brought Liliana to us. But I'll never forgive myself for becoming so attached to a silly piece of paper that ultimately didn't matter. I still wonder if a flexible birth plan (or no birth plan at all) would've made our labor experience easier to accept. I guess I'll never know that answer.

Because in reality, child birth is just the beginning. Thankfully, we have a lifetime with our daughter that more than makes up for those scary first moments of the unknown.