Lots of women want to give birth in a way that is natural, drug free and empowering, but often, this aspiration ends in intervention, and rather than the transformative rite of passage they were hoping for, many women begin their new lives as mothers feeling, at best, bruised and a little disappointed; at worst, violated and traumatised. Why is this? What is preventing women’s dreams, visions and hopes for their birth experience from becoming a reality?
Could it be that –
Women’s Bodies are not Fit for Purpose: Through some evolutionary error, women have a design fault that makes it nigh on impossible to give birth without help. Maybe the baby’s head is too big, perhaps her pelvis is too small; whatever the reason, there’s a mismatch here and women would be better off opting for an elective section than getting themselves all fired up and unrealistic about a candle lit water birth.
Or maybe –
Obstetricians are Evil Scissor-Happy Misogynists: Labour Wards are populated with doctors who see natural birthers as a sort of Lefty joke that they have to play along with until the clock ticks round and they can get the silly headstrong gal’s feet safely in the stirrups.
Or could it be that –
Women Are Not Prepared: Out of touch with women’s wisdom, daunted and scared by media portrayals of birth, lost in a maze of medical terminology, stats and options, women are going into birth lacking in confidence, fearful and unprepared. A bit of yoga here, some deep breathing there; a plastic pelvis, a shopping list for the hospital bag, and crossed fingers: none of these seem to really cut it in the white heat of the peak of a contraction.
Most of us have never seen another woman birth when we begin our own labours. Whatsmore, we are totally out of touch with our bodies and our human nature and our womanhood. We menstruate onto bleached factory made devices that we keep hidden away inside us and then flush away in disgust. We do not squat to shit, we do not wash our own dead. We do not expect to feel pain, even when we are dying. Some of us do not even prepare our own food.
We come to labour with bodies that have never truly done a hard days work in their lives, that have never had to push themselves to their absolute limits. Add into the mix the fact that we are filled with fear and not really sure who to trust, and it is perhaps not surprising that so many of us ‘fail’ – yes, let’s be brave and call it that – fail to achieve the birth we want so much.
Could we prepare differently? If we wish to reclaim birth, I think we need to. It’s no good to keep pointing the finger outwards, blaming the service, the doctors, the system. The best and most lasting change begins with ourselves. If we change the way we prepare for birth, we will begin our labours very different women, and the service, the doctors, the system will be forced to change the way they respond to us.
Here are some suggested ideas for alternative birth preparation. I bring to the table two births – one hospital induced forceps delivery, one home water birth, and experience as an Arts Therapist. I am not an ‘expert’ and I therefore offer these suggestions merely as a starting place:
1. Examine Your Familial and Cultural Expectations
Do some family story telling. If you haven’t already, find out how your mother, your grandmother, and other women in your family gave birth. What messages do you think you have been given about birth as you have been growing up? Do you remember any specific comments or words? Then think about images of birth you have seen in the media, in documentaries, soap operas etc, throughout your life. Take a large sheet of paper. In whatever way you wish, create a collection of images, words, pictures, newspaper cuttings, colours and shapes to reflect the many messages you have received about birth throughout your life. Take as long as you like to build up the picture. When you have finished, take a step back, and look. What sort of picture are you seeing? Does your forthcoming birth have to be like this? How – if at all – would you like your birth to reflect these familial and cultural messages? And how would you like it to be different? On a new piece of paper, you might like to create a new image of birth to call your own.
2. Change Your Wallpaper
Images of birth are powerful, so if you are pregnant, avoid viewing alarmist documentaries such as One Born Every Minute, or tuning into conversations about birth horror stories. Read positive birth stories, and watch film footage of women giving birth in calm, strong and empowered ways. I’ve put together a list of such resources here. Educate yourself about your rights and your options. Don’t let fear make you an ostrich. Be in charge. And don’t tolerate a house decorated with what I’ve termed ‘the wallpaper of fear‘; rather take ownership and deck the halls with positive imagery. What you see is what you get.
3. Examine Your Inhibitions
Create a long line on the floor from one side of the room to the other, using paper or scarves. Stand at one end of the line. This is your comfort zone, your safe place. The other end of the line is your absolute ‘discomfort zone’, the place you just really don’t want to go. Think of a scenario: e.g., being naked in front of others. Move along the line until you find a place that feels right. How far away from your ‘comfort zone’ has ‘being naked’ taken you? Try again with other situations: making a strange vocal sound, crying in front of others, losing it, wetting yourself, your waters breaking, doing a poo…explore your fears. Fully imagine them. Face them. Now think – what can I take to my ‘discomfort zone’ to make it more comfortable? Talk this exercise through with a partner or a friend.
4. Practice Releasing Your Body and Voice
Spend some time alone, at home or in a deserted outdoor place, and experiment with letting go of your voice. Stand with both feet firmly on the ground, let your body and jaw relax, open your mouth and let out a long aaaaaaaaa. Try again, louder. Experiment with sounds. How do you feel? Silly?! Good! That’s ok, that’s normal. Keep going. Try making some sounds you might like to make in labour. If you want, put on some music, and play it loud so you can’t even hear yourself. Then you can dance too, and you’ll really look silly! Let your body move. Imagine you are birthing. What shapes might your body like to make, what sounds your voice? Get used to listening to what your body and voice want to do and responding spontaneously, without thinking, rationalising, analysing or telling yourself no. Practice as often as you can. You will start to feel less silly, and notice a loosening in your body and voice over time.
5. Read Birth Stories…and Creation Stories
Positive birth stories are wonderful to read, and essential for any pregnant woman wishing to change her wallpaper. But have you come across many of the world’s Creation Stories, sometimes called Creation Myths? Every culture has a folklore, myth or story about how they believe the world came into being. Of course, all of these stories are rooted in some way in mankind’s understanding of the creation of life that they have learnt from watching women become mothers! As we prepare for motherhood, they are a rich source of information and wisdom. Read some, and if you wish, choose a favourite and explore it further using creative writing, art work, or simply discussing it with a friend. There’s a collection of online creation stories here, and a project which animates them here, and you can also find many short films by typing ‘creation myths’ into youtube.
6. Dream and Plan for your Perfect Birth
Pregnant women are often told – ‘Don’t make too strong a plan, as you don’t want to be too disappointed if if doesn’t all go the way you want it to.’ Hmmm. Do you think they say this to Roger Federer as he heads onto Centre Court? Or a politician with her heart set on the White House? Nope. It’s important to dream and plan, in every aspect of life, for how we would really like things to be. Of course, sometimes this means we are disappointed. But we are not two year olds. We can handle it. Make a Birth Plan for your care provider and list precisely how you wish your birth to be. And make your own personal plan, too, even if it is just in your mind, of exactly how you imagine and want your baby’s birth day to unfold. Let yourself turn this plan over and over in your mind and get excited about it.
7. Get Help
I’m not sure that birth was ever intended to be a one woman job, and admitting that you might need help doesn’t have to signify weakness. You just need a strong team behind you. Positive support in the run up to birth and during labour WILL increase your chances of birthing without intervention. And it might be that your partner or husband is ‘not enough’, in the sense that he will be potentially overwhelmed by events and busy worrying about and looking after you. A Doula is a good choice if you would like a professional helper during labour, read more about them here. Or you might like to choose a friend or relative to support you. Think carefully about your choice of person – choose someone who really believes you can do it.
8. Express Your Fears
As you use these methods to explore your thoughts, feeling and inhibitions around birth, allow yourself to express any fears that may arise, no matter how foolish, irrelevant or irrational they may seem. You might like to do this by talking them through with your partner, friend or doula. Or you might like to write them down in a special notebook, draw them, paint them, or even dance with them if you are trying out suggestion number 4! When we give names and words to our fears this can feel scary, as if they might get bigger and overwhelm us, but actually, the opposite always happens – they diminish. If a fear seems particularly upsetting or difficult, consider talking this through with a professional.
9. Meditate, Visualise, Create Mantras
If you haven’t tried meditation before, pregnancy is a great time to start. It’s really just a way of sitting still, breathing, and focusing inwards that anyone can easily do. Try this breathing meditation, but don’t get too fixed on instructions, do it your way. You might like to use the time to try to empty your mind and focus on your breath, or you might like to spend time connecting with your baby. You may also wish to create visualisations, either during meditation, at the end of sessions, or at a completely separate time. Be comfortable and let yourself focus on the birth you want, imagining it in every detail until the moment you meet your baby. You may also like to create mantras – phrases to repeat to yourself that make you feel empowered and ready for birth, for example, ‘I was made to birth this baby’, ‘I am strong’ ‘I am ready to be open’, ‘I believe in myself and I have nothing to fear’. Repeat them, pin them on the mirror, chant them in labour, whatever feels right!
10. Think Warrior!
Stay strong during pregnancy, and fit. Don’t always take the chair you will inevitably be offered. Prepare yourself for a physical ordeal, for a feat of endurance, for a test of stamina, for battle. Toughen up. Get your mind and your body ready for the fight. Believe you can do it. And know that afterwards, like all good warriors, you will be sat by your campfire – tired, bloody, spent – exhilarated and feeling at the peak of your powers.
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