Mention that you are looking forward to birth and you are quite likely to encounter negative comments, criticism, discouraging stories or jokes. Many people react with strong emotions to the desire for a positive birth experience or a positive attitude towards birth, but why is this negative view of birth the norm in our society? And why are the responses so vehement?
Unfortunately, many men and women have experienced a frightening or complicated birth first or secondhand. Their experiences and anecdotes are taken as proof that birth doesn’t work and a safe and uncomplicated birth is unlikely. Each story becomes part of our cultural script about birth; teaching us to be worried and scared, teaching us to believe giving birth is an unpleasant but necessarily evil to be endured on the path to having a baby.
People who are frightened of birth are more likely to have frightening experiences of birth. Fear or anxiety can interfere with the progress of labour, and this can result in a need for medical assistance and a more complicated and risky birth.
Our emotions colour our perceptions. So a frightened person perceives and experiences a dangerous and risky event, while the health professionals present may see it as “normal” or “everyday” and not requiring any special care or additional emotional support. As long as there are mothers and fathers who are frightened of birth, and who are inadequately supported and cared for during labour and birth, there will be discouraging and negative stories to tell. Negative and frightening birth stories continue, in part, because as a society we have so much fear and so little confidence and belief in our bodies and the ability to give birth.
It is not surprising that the majority views birth as unimportant and unpleasant at best, and like a horror movie at worst. When people say “all that matters is a healthy baby”, they may still be coming to terms with a stressful, traumatic or disappointing birth experience of their own or someone close to them. In this context, hearing that a woman’s feelings and experience matter may be quite challenging and hard to accept. Within our negative birth culture, it could seem naive or even self-centred to care about anything other than making it through.
A woman’s yearning for a positive birth is too often equated with wishes for music, candles, dolphins and other things intended to make women appear frivolous, ludicrous and out of touch with reality. The word “experience” is trivialised too – an experience is understood to be something extra and unnecessary that women want for their own benefit and at the cost of their baby’s wellbeing. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
This surface level interpretation distracts and prevents people from understanding what women mean by a positive birth and what women need to emerge from birth feeling healthy and whole.
From bringing together the Birth Journeys book and reflecting on the experiences of many women, I learnt that a positive birth isn’t about achieving a perfect or ideal birth. It is not about being inflexible and stubbornly sticking to a birth plan no matter what happens. It is not about having a particular type of birth or only one kind of birth either. It is not only for women who choose to have their baby at home or in a birth centre. A positive birth doesn’t mean having a natural birth, a drug-free birth or a pain-free birth either! Each of these is possible and may be the perfect path for you and your baby’s birth. Each of these may be incredibly empowering and transformative, but these are not the key to a positive birth.
While each woman will have her own unique birth wishes based on her self-knowledge, her understanding of the birth process and her circumstances; a woman who wants a positive birth has one deeper underlying wish. She is not at all crazy, hippy or selfish although she may be called all of these.
A positive birth comes down to the mother’s feelings during the birth of her baby, and her feelings are strongly linked to the way she is cared for and supported.
So what kind of care does she need and want? Respect. Dignity. Compassion. Love.
Above all else, she needs to be treated with humanity.
A woman who feels loved, respected and well supported is most likely to have a straightforward and uncomplicated birth with a healthy baby (because of the interaction of hormones that drive labour when a woman feels safe and secure). She is likely to avoid unnecessary medical assistance that may complicate her labour and introduce new risks. She will also be better equipped to cope with an unexpected outcome or complicated birth because of the wonderful care and support she has received and will continue to receive after birth. Her wellbeing is protected and may even be enhanced by a positive birth. Women are likely to emerge from a positive birth as healthy, whole and empowered mothers – what a wonderful foundation to a lifetime of motherhood.
If we had a supportive culture of birth, built on respectful and loving care for all women giving birth, whether they experience labour or have a caesarean birth, then there would be no need for this discussion. We might not need to work so hard for a positive birth and we would not run up against so much resistance. Clearly, we have quite some way to go before this is achieved.
As you prepare for your positive birth, be strong in the knowledge that there is no selfishness in placing a high priority on your feelings and wellbeing in pregnancy and birth. It is sensible, not selfish for you to desire, seek and insist on a positive birth experience!