Credit: Jason Lander & Persephone
When I first conceived of this blog post I envisioned an introduction to my birth story – a tidy, compact way to present my own birthing experience as a prism through which to see a different side of birth: one that posits labour and birth not as something to be feared but as something to be embraced. My primary motivation was to help other first time mums prepare themselves for the experience of giving birth by showing them that birth can be beautiful, empowering, transformative and something to draw on as a source of strength.
But then I unwittingly initiated a dialogue about birth settings on social media and the responses took me by surprise. I realised what I’d known all along: birth is far from tidy or compact! It doesn’t flow in linear fashion and it won’t be reduced to a set of helpful hints that can be followed step by step to achieve the desired result. Birth is messy and instinctive and primal and unique. Every woman’s experience is different and every baby comes in its own way. Despite my good intentions, my nice neat blog post would undoubtedly have had the unintended consequence of oversimplifying the process and perhaps even of marginalising women whose experiences differed from my own.
As that was most definitely not my intention, I’ve made some adjustments and reframed my ideas in a way which I hope is helpful and not hurtful. I’ll probably have made some mistakes but I hope these can be a starting point for further discussion. After all, sharing our stories and reflections about what worked for us and what could have been different is all part of our collective learning, and I hope we’ll keep talking about it and keep supporting each other to give birth in whatever way works best for us and our babies.
My own experience of birth was positive. I say that with hindsight of course – at the time it was difficult, painful and long – oh so long! But I feel like I got much more out of my birthing experience than just my newborn son, as precious and awe-inspiring as he is. The journey I went through in those three days empowered me to a degree that nothing else has. Seven months on I still draw daily on the reserves of confidence and self-belief it bestowed upon me. I now feel able to embrace life with a calm knowing that I can do anything I put my mind/heart/soul to. As a result, I believe that birth has the potential to be a rare but priceless opportunity for a woman to really meet herself and to realise the innate strength that resides within her. And for that reason I’d like to share with you some of the ideas that have emerged from my own birth story.
Birth can be beautiful, empowering and transformative
I’ve written a full, no-holes-barred account of my birth story which you can read in all its glory here. But for those of you who just want the highlights: My labour was long, 45 hours to be precise, and it made me look inwards on myself in a way I’d never before experienced. It also brought me into communion with three of the most important people in my life: my partner Nathan, my wonderful friend-doula Ruth and my precious son Zephyr. I had Zephyr at home, with the curtains drawn, and in as quiet, gentle and supportive an environment as we could together muster. Yes, it was intense, yes, it was painful, and yes, at times I wanted it to ‘just stop’! But it was also powerful and strong and mind-blowingly awesome! I was fortunate enough to have the natural, engaged home birth I had hoped for, and although the experience was at times unbearable and utterly exhausting and by the end of it I felt completely drained, I also felt extraordinarily grounded, calm and clear.
So, drawing on my experiences and knowing the incredible power a positive birth can have, I am sharing below some of the things I feel helped me to have the experience I did.
1) Having a doula
Having my friend and doula, Ruth, at Zephyr’s birth was the best decision I made. I know Zephyr would not have had the amazing natural birth he did without Ruth’s gentle, holding presence and unwavering, wise woman strength. A doula is a birthing assistant who supports you, emotionally and physically before, during and after the birth. She is there solely for you (unlike midwives who usually have other women to attend to) and, as an experienced birth attendant with a clear understanding of the kind of birth you’d like to have, she can advocate on your behalf. In my experience advocacy is her key role – she can liaise with the medical staff, take care of the logical, rational side and make sure that the environment is right for you, whilst you focus in on the important, and frankly all-consuming, task of labouring. By holding space in this way, a doula can help create the conditions you need for doing what your body is made to do: birth your baby.
2) Having a regular meditative practice before the birth
Whether you manage this every day of your pregnancy or only in the few days leading up to the birth, it’s a good idea to take time to get into a quiet, meditative space in the run-up to going into labour. Meditation, yoga, a form of visualisation (drawing on hypnobirthing techniques for example) or some other grounding practice, will all do. Giving birth is the most intense thing I have ever experienced and I needed to go inside myself to be in the right space for it. Quieting my mind and connecting with my body through my breath was invaluable preparation.
3) Trusting my body and giving it the time it needed
Women’s bodies are designed to be able to birth a baby. But labouring is intense and can be overwhelming especially if you’ve not done it before. As I learned for myself, it can also be painful and long, but it is doable. If you’re keen to birth your baby naturally, it’s worth holding off on opting for an induction or accepting offers of pain relief for as long as possible as these things do impact on your state of being. They can also prevent you from benefiting from the hormonal processes required to give birth naturally, in particular the ‘love’ hormone ‘oxytocin’ which creates uterine contractions and is best produced when you’re feeling safe and loved. Moreover, it’s worth knowing the effects of the various pain relief drugs on offer – so many women I have spoken to said they would not have taken such-and-such a drug had they known how ‘out-of-it’ they were going to feel.
Try not to be led by fear of what could happen if you let nature take its course. When you get to 9 months, especially if you pass your due date, you’ll most likely feel ready to have the baby and it can be tempting to head straight for the hospital, to try to speed things up with an induction and/or to accept some kind of pain relief. My experience of talking to other new mums suggests that once you step on the ‘rollercoaster of intervention’, it can be very hard to step off again. For most women, labour takes time and rushing it only makes the whole experience more difficult.
Giving your body the time it needs and trusting that your baby will come when the time is right is one of the major challenges facing a birthing mother. Remember that you can do this and that you know your body better than anyone else can. It’s easy to feel that medical professionals are better placed to judge what’s best for you than you yourself are, especially if it’s your first pregnancy. Of course the training doctors, midwives and other healthcare professionals have received is an invaluable resource to draw on. However, medical professionals are trained to recognise problems, abnormalities and risk factors and can therefore be more predisposed to identifying such things. In addition, concerns about the repercussions of any potential failure to identify a problem, can make them even more keen to err on the side of caution and take the ‘safe’ option, even if it deprives a woman and her baby of the natural birth they were ultimately capable of.
So, by all means make use of the information and expertise your local practitioners can offer you. Educate and inform yourself as to the options available to you should you need them, but also trust your body and your baby and give them the time they need to birth.
4) Doing the relevant research
There’s a hell of a lot of information out there. You need to be discerning about the information you seek out and let in. Factual accounts of the nuts and bolts of labour and birth are helpful but only go so far. By all means get to grips with the different stages of labour and the various options for monitoring, intervention and pain relief but don’t make these the sole focus of your research. Giving birth is visceral so it’s worth getting a sense of what it actually feels like. You can do this by watching births on youtube and by reading other women’s stories of their birth experiences. But make sure you steer clear of negative accounts, the kind that make giving birth sound like a horrendous experience to be feared and gotten through as quickly as possible. And if a new mum tries to tell you about her awful experience, acknowledge her need to share but politely inform her that you’d rather not hear the details at this stage. I found watching natural and home births on youtube really helped me and Tell Me a Good Birth Story opened my eyes to a range of positive experiences.
Read books that chime with your sense of the kind of birth you’d like to have and attend a birth preparation workshop with your partner, preferably with a birth practitioner, whether midwife or doula, who strongly supports natural births. The workshop I participated in made me realise that some things that are safe for many labouring women are not recommended by NHS midwives whose need to ensure they are not held responsible if things go wrong means they stick within certain lowest common denominator parameters. This climate can easily make intervention seem a better option than birthing your baby naturally. Above all, don’t overwhelm yourself and remember that once the birthing process has commenced, all that really matters is…
Newborn baby Zephyr
5) Going with the flow
Once you’re there, this is the most important thing. We can all have our birth plans, our visions and our ideals, but at the end of the day birth is not something you can control. We can set in place some of the conditions to help facilitate the birth we’d like to have but what matters is how we experience the birthing process, not the form it takes or the setting it’s in. Whether you give birth at home, in hospital with pain relief, via C-section or some combination of the above, the more willing you are to go with the flow and allow nature to take its course, the more likely you are to have a positive experience. It won’t guarantee it of course but it might help.
The ideas I’ve offered are just that: ideas. Borne of one woman’s experience of one birth. Others will have had different experiences and will no doubt have alternative visions of what enables a positive, natural birthing experience. We all have our own stories to tell and our own wisdom about what works… what’s yours?