My Article for The Green Parent Magazine
“Believe me; if you are told that some experience is going to hurt, it will hurt. Most pain is in the mind, and when a woman absorbs the idea that the act of giving birth is excrutiatingly painful—when she gets this information from her mother, her sisters, her married friends, and her physician—that woman has been mentally prepared to feel great agony.”– Stephen King, The Breathing Method.
When my son was six-months old, I bumped into an old school friend in my local Tesco. She was heavily pregnant – approaching her due date, she told me. I took her hand, spurred on by an overwhelming need to propagate the message that Grantly Dick-Read had made it his life’s work to spread since the 1930s, and I said, “Women are only ever exposed to negative birth stories of trauma and injury, so I just have to let you know, so you hear it from at least one person before you go into labour, that I had an amazing birth, and it doesn’t have to be traumatic.” “Of course you did,” was her answer, her emphasis on you being in reference to me being, in her eyes, somewhat ‘crunchy’. “If you believe that my character impacted my birth,” I asked her, not letting her derisive comment – which was slightly confounding because it was as if by trying to give her encouragement I was offending her – distract me from my objective, “doesn’t that tell you that we do have an element of control over it? It was actually a back-to-back labour that lasted 24-hours so it wasn’t exactly easy, but it was still the most empowering and transformative experience of my life.” She almost shrugged, clearly so firm in her resolve to have a medicated, traumatic birth, and be okay with it. As we began to head off in our respective directions, I wondered if it was simply lack of information and awareness that there was another choice, or if her decision to go through what research has shown would likely be a more traumatic birth, was based on informed choice.
Grantly Dick-Read, who authored Childbirth Without Fear, wrote: “Woman: she knows that physically, physiologically and psychologically she is adapted primarily for the perfection of womanhood, which is, according to the law of nature, reproduction.” He postulated that birth is a biological process, the functioning of which goes best when the laboring woman is calm and unafraid. Yet when he was touring US hospitals in the 1950s, he was shocked to find that despite his own experience (in the UK) showing him that 90 percent of healthy women attended by a competent obstetrician or midwife gave birth without episiotomy or other trauma, two-thirds to three-fourths of US babies were being pulled from their mothers’ bodies with forceps, and episiotomies were mandatory because student doctors were taught that it was dangerous for a baby to be born without first cutting through the mother’s perineal muscles because the perineum was ‘too rigid’. When he asked US obstetricians if they had ever seen a birth happen without episiotomy or tear, their answer was a stupefying no, and he realised he was encountering a practice that was more akin to religion than science. ALL women, no matter how straight-forward their labours were progressing, would be cut. “It seemed there was no possibility,” he later wrote, “of an emergency arising that could not be dealt with immediately, but there was no provision for the absence of emergency or abnormality. I was told it did not happen.”
In the foreword of Childbirth Without Fear, Ina May Gaskin – herself a pioneer of the positive birth movement – points out that the ignorance of the physiology of birth in healthy women and the practice of deliberate injury to women (on the excuse that this avoided worse injury), are what characterise mainstream obstetrics.
The natural health / natural parenting / sustainability movement is growing rapidly as I write this in 2019, with people beginning to acknowledge our need to go back to basics, but, as most people reading this will attest, the mainstream way of doing things will still always gain more traction, and therefore procure more followers, thanks to superior funding and (sometimes unfounded) support and championing, meaning that, unfortunately, things haven’t changed that drastically since Dick-Read’s 1950s observations, with the exception of women who actively seek out other options, as if the idea of a physiological birth was born of some doctrine of esoterism.
I find myself part of a generation who believe that without a constant torrent of antipyretics and antibiotics we cannot possibly keep our children healthy, without artificial milk our babies will not be sufficiently fed, and without analgesics and opiates we cannot dream of birthing our own babies. This narrative is what has made us lose touch with our innate ability as women to birth and parent our children, expecting others to do for us exactly what we should be doing – and were created to do – ourselves.
An Alternative Option
Up until very recently, most women followed the modern archetypal model of birth – a medicalised, mechanical process where all control or autonomy was taken away from the birthing mother – simply because lack of access to information meant she didn’t realise that she had other options, and most people believed that no one knew better than doctors. But in the twenty-first century, where access to information sits beneath our fingertips, where science is continuously proven wrong and medical research repeatedly comes under scrutiny for its corruption, and alternative lifestyles are being favoured more and more for their authenticity and ability to remove us from the westernised way of behaving that has caused an epidemic of physical and mental illness for so many of us, we no longer have an excuse as pregnant women to indulge in this fallacy.
The schoolfriend in Tesco assumed my question was a rhetorical one, but it couldn’t have been more pertinent. Empirical though they may be, here are my observations: of the women I know who follow a similar lifestyle to my own, all except one (who was transferred to hospital in an ambulance during labour) achieved the home-births or midwife-led natural births they had prepared for. In contrast, of the women I know who either favour the conventional, allopathic route when it comes to healthcare, or who are ambivalent, the only ones who ended up having straight-forward, non-traumatic births are the two whom I would label as ‘very laid-back’.
Similarly, if you, like me, follow any fellow ‘crunchy mamas’ on Instagram (road-schooling pioneers, natural-living lovers, plant-powered pixies etc), you’ll have followed their births and seen that they all (the ones I follow, anyway) fulfilled their hopes of calm home births, which once again tells us that this can, in the majority of instances – and of course there are always anomalies – be a choice, and that preparation, environment and mindset are the principle contributing factors.
A healthy baby is not ALL that matters.Milli Hill – The Positive Birth Movement
For those of us hoping to give rise to the idea that a natural and calm birth is absolutely an option, we are often met with the answer, “A healthy baby is all that matters.” But as Milli Hill, founder of The Positive Birth Movement, so eloquently and succinctly put it when responding to the barrage of abuse the Duchess of Sussex came under for wanting a physiological birth, “A healthy baby is not ALL that matters… women matter too.” So concise yet life-changingly profound. Why are those of us who offer the idea that there is an alternative to a traumatic birth always met with the infuriating response that a healthy baby is all that matters? Of course it matters that the baby is delivered safely, do we even need to demean ourselves by having to justify that? But how a woman experiences the most monumental and transformative thing that will ever happen to her, also matters. At the height of movements such as #metoo, women are, at long last, befittingly being assured that they hold more power than ever before; that we are competent, sovereign beings with the aptitude to achieve anything we want to, whether that means finally being the generation who have the moxie to stand up to the perversion, exploitation, condescension and downright deprecation that men have subjected us to for generations and that had become commonplace and accepted, run international businesses or even rule countries. We can do all this, yet somehow when it comes to birth, we are still being fed the narrative that we are powerless, supine objects and are utterly at the mercy of a fate which tends to favour negative outcomes.
Despite the myriad problems that can arise from having a traumatic birth – for the mother and baby – in the age of convenience it has almost become more convenient in itself to succumb to the modern paradigm of medicalised birth, even if we are aware that another option exists, if it means we don’t have to think about it beforehand. We research which car seat is safest, which pram is the most comfortable, even which bottle teats our babies will prefer and which nipple cream contains the most natural ingredients, but taking the time to prepare for birth has become a superfluous and redundant exercise when the general summarisation is that ‘anything can happen so just go with it’, and this is exactly where the ‘art’ of giving birth comes into its own.
For those who have suffered traumatic births and are screaming at this page right now, I am of course aware, respectful and sympathetic of the fact that there are instances where things can go wrong and where medical intervention is required, but I don’t want to keep justifying the fact that a woman’s body is perfectly capable of birthing the baby it created by revisiting that fact, as the purpose of this article is to bring to light the fact that we do have a certain amount of control over our birth outcomes.
The irony is that women already have an instinctive ability to birth their babies and shouldn’t need to be ‘taught’ how to do it. It is a physiological function that baby girls are born with, just like our ability to breath, to digest food and to get rid of waste, but we now unfortunately have to unlearn what modern society has imprinted into our subconscious, and learn how to bring it back to basics, and the ‘art’ there simply involves preparation, practice and perseverance – just like perfecting any art requires.
Three Steps To A Positive Birth
After birthing two babies myself, one in a birthing centre and one at home, these three fundamental steps are what I have come to believe contribute to a positive birthing experience:
- Educating ourselves. Books such as Childbirth Without Fear and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth were life-changing for me. Having a firm understanding of physiological birth helps to remove fear and anxiety, encourages the mother to switch off the ‘thinking’ part of her brain – the neo-cortex – and allows her to develop much more of a relationship of trust with her birthing body. Understanding that birth has no design flaws, contrary to the perception of the doctors who Grantly Dick-Read met in the 1950s. Everything that happens – every feeling, every sensation, every bit of bodily fluid – happens because it is supposed to and produces the vital hormones that start, progress and complete the labour and provide the necessary physical and emotional cues for the next part of the journey, which is parenting and feeding the baby.
- Hypnobirthing. A good hypnobirthing instructor will not only give you the tools you need to create a positive birthing experience, she will also lead you through the history of the fear of childbirth, and subsequently (hopefully) alter any preconceived ideas you may have had about it, thereby reducing long-standing fears that lurk in your subconscious like a pervasive monster under the bed. I always had a strong resolve that my body was made to birth my babies, but our hypnobirthing course was the clincher for my husband who didn’t want to sit through hours of books about childbirth. Our instructor (and doula, Dani at Mamaserene Birth) changed his entire perspective and gave him the tools he needed to be the perfect birthing partner for me. Dani even joked that he was essentially my doula.
- Exercises. We wouldn’t run a marathon without first spending months and months on physical training. Birth stretches the body to its physical (and emotional) limits. Without daily exercises to prepare for such a task, how can we ask so much of our bodies and expect it to do exactly as we want? Resources such as Spinning Babies are vital. I also found daily yoga to be essential. Not only did it keep my body supple during pregnancy and for labour, but practicing the daily breathing came in really useful in labour.
- Partner. Whomever you choose as your birthing partner, make sure they are the right person for the job. If your life-partner is not good in stressful situations or tends to be a panicker, choose a different birthing partner, or consider hiring a doula. This is no reflection on your partner who may be great in any other situation (they may even feel relieved to have someone take the responsibility off them!), it is simply essential for you to have someone there who understands the physiology of birth, who is respectful of your choices and will follow them through, and who truly believes in your ability to birth your baby, and their integral part in that.
- The Setting. The environment of the place where you will birth your baby matters greatly. Whether you are at home or choose to birth in a hospital or birthing centre, keep lights dim, have your favourite, relaxing music playing, let midwives and other health-care professionals know your birth preferences and that you would like their voices to be gentle, that they should not use any negative language surrounding birth, and that nothing happens without your consent or understanding. If the people around you during labour are fully respectful of how you choose to give birth, you are more likely to achieve your desired birth. Above all, stay calm, and trust in your body.
- Equipment. The use of essential oils and a homeopathic birthing kit can be great tools for a physiological birth, along with a birthing ball, birthing rope and a heap of pillows and blankets. Nourishment is also important, so remember to eat and drink throughout labour.
We are mammals. In fact, we are the only species of mammal that comes out of our natural habitat to give birth, namely because we have evolved to believe that our bodies are not capable of birthing without intervention. We need to start reimagining ourselves as the mammals we really are, with that innate belief that our body WILL birth this baby. All other mammals simply go into labour, follow their animalistic instincts, and give birth. By believing it so, we create it so. With all the aforementioned preparations in place, the last piece of the birthing puzzle is believing above all else that this is what you were made to do, and this is what you will do.
Like any great challenge, birth requires the same amount of practice and preparation of any art and with it, we can really take the positive birth movement to the next level.
With thanks to Dani Diosi at Mamaserene for all her help, support and input.