Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The onion layers of our birthing selves

I've been thinking about how difficult it actually is to have a satisfying let alone positively glowing birth in this day and age. And I'm struck by a few reasons why this might be. In truth, it's blindingly obvious!

If you think about it, it's sort of criminal that we spend hundreds of hours learning mathematics, english, and sciences, study at colleges for a year or two, even go to university to study subjects which we may never even use in our later careers, for as long as four years....... but when it comes to birth we expect  to do this marathon-scale event with just a few months of preparation! D'uh?! The Tv provides us programmes like 'One Born Every Minute' but this potentially can be a pretty frightening introduction to the world of birth for women who've never seen how much gentler it can be. We can have heard so many stories about how it all went wrong that we can start to distrust the whole business altogether and think of ourselves as machines prone to breaking down. It is hardly surprising that women are afraid. We are not a culture that spends much time on birth preparation - most women read a couple of books and attend a handful of classes. In some cases, those classes we attend focus exclusively on pain management, with the emphasis being on discussing the pros and cons of a limited range of gadgets, drugs and procedures.

Instead of feeling mentored, coached and loved by a community of wise women who we might have known our whole life, birth in our modern age has now become a rather less intimate and altogether less private event for us women. Most of us give birth surrounded by strangers or at best, relative strangers, where in days of old, we would be supported by the village birth team made up of our elders - our grannies and mothers, aunts and older sisters who would know all the ways to help, to soothe, to turn us this way or that, who would know and love us, as only they could. This loving support counts now as much as it ever did but nowadays it is partners, one or two midwives, and doulas who are taking on this role that used to be fulfilled by perhaps a wider circle of village wise women.

But before we even enter into our birthing time, it is actually pretty astounding how little time was really given over during our education to properly understanding the workings of our own body, given that at least tens if not hundreds of hours are devoted to mastering multiplication, learning the periodic table, or analysing the works of Shakespeare. The type of, or even lack of, sex education we received pre-and post-menstruation will shape how we feel about our body for a long time after. If we have grown up in an environment where menstruating and sex are talked about in a confusing or misleading way, it can be hard for us to feel positive or joyful about the natural processes that happen to us, or the feelings that go alongside them, and feel alone or alarmed by them. Certain religious ideas about women's bodies can lead us to feel ashamed of our bodies, of our bleeding times, of our developing sexuality. Some religious practices can be downright degrading for some unfortunate young women. Sexual, physical or mental abuse can muddy the waters greatly about how relaxed we feel about being naked, about sex, about relationships, about boundaries.

Such fears do not simply disappear when we are about to give birth - yet for many women it can feel like there are little or no avenues to discuss taboo subjects - even with close friends if the taboo is so great - cutting us off from the emotional support, counselling, or opportunities to talk that we may desperately need - especially so in dealings with midwives, health professionals or health visitors, who, as kind as they may be, are not always the best people to talk to about such things. There are many layers and levels of fears which we women bury even unto ourselves, things which sit deep down in our subconscious, that we may have been carrying around all our lives - from our own birth onwards. It is perfectly possible that a woman's own birth and the feelings buried from that time, can resurface when she births her own baby. If our own mother was very afraid, this subtle or overt emotion can become transferred to us on a level deeper than we can easily measure.

As women we can also have an ambiguous relationship about our body shape or size, without even necessarily having been through anorexia, bulimia, bullying, self harm or other medical or mental issues, as some women have. Our partner may undermine how confident we feel in our own skin, perhaps preventing us from feeling really free and liberated, especially in front of strangers. Previous illnessess can also seriously impact on a woman's ability to birth from a seat of her own power.

We may be harbouring secret fears about our relationship with our partners. We may be afraid of how we will parent. Of how our partner will parent. Or how it will affect our relationships with each other, or with our friends and wider family members. We may be worried how we will now cope with our second/third/fourth/or even our fourteenth child! Being pregnant can throw up past events, uncomfortable emotions and traumas which only surface at this vulnerable time, when we are tender and hormonal.We may be worrying about how the birth will unfold, we may be terrified and wish to avoid things that happened before. There can be a phenomenal amount of pressure and anxiety being experienced at a time which ought to be full of excitement.

And just at the time when we most need it, we women are often not supported enough in the lead up to birth to when it comes to our emotional and mental wellbeing. We're seen as being a bit flakey, too hormonal to be taken seriously. And because we necessarily get fuzzy brains to help us get into birthy mama zone, we and others can easily confuse this with not being in our right minds. When we see our midwives the emphasis seems much focussed on making sure we have the correct blood sugar levels, blood pressure, vitamin levels, etc etc, which are important for sure, but by focussing on such a narrow and specific set of nutritional and biochemic aspects we ignore, and so do our midwives, the state of our mind. In truth, our intuition and powers of perception peak at this time in our lives and are a precious gift, and a lesson for us. As women these feelings and thoughts tend to be treated as separate from our bodies, as if they don't matter as much as our blood sugar levels or other 'measurable' data. But the truth is, our feelings at the time of birth are where we are really at, and our bodies are not isolated from that. Nor are our unborn babies. As part of the mummy-baby dyad, they feel the emotions we feel, in direct and indirect ways. If we are tense, they become tense. If we are scared of birth, they sense it. If we are scared about them coming out, they stay in! If we are feeling like we've already faced all our hurdles before we've even stepped into the birth space, we are more likely to have a fast, problem-free run. Lots of talking, and the odd cry at this time get things off our chests - but we don't always have the means to do that. It's so important though!

There are so many subtle layers and barriers and hurdles that we face at the time of our birthing, and unless we really devote a lot of time and energy to understanding ourselves, and get a lot of emotional support, time to process and talk out our fears and feelings, in a safe space, with people who understand, who we trust, who can listen without judgment, then those obstacles to birth become real genuine sticking points that will require interventions that can feel invasive and take us away from the joy and empowerment that should accompany the safe arrival of a beautiful baby.

There's a famous story in Ina May Gaskin's Spiritual Midwifery where a woman was coming to a point in her birth where her carers could sense she was holding something back. The labour had slowed, and so mama was asked to offer up any fears that might be holding things up. She explained that she had been worrying secretly about the wording in the wedding vows her and her man had recently taken. She was nervous that the vows weren't tight enough. So an impromptu exchange of vows was undertaken there and then, and soon after the baby was born!!! It is a shame that "the power of our thoughts" is not deemed important enough to write down on any NHS literature on the arsenal of birthing tools available to us mamas. I wonder why?

Counselling for us women after we have had our babies is also a long process. It can take months, years and decades for us to feel ok after our birth(s). If we know that we may not have another opportunity to birth again, we may feel a sense of sadness, regret, guilt and shame that we didn't 'achieve' the 'perfect' birth.

And this is where our culture doesn't help. Birth can feel to some like a competition in which there are winners and losers. And this is very dangerous.

We are all journeying on a path and have different levels of support, information, knowledge, and life circumstances at different times in our lives. A woman having her first baby will be very different from a woman having her tenth baby. The exact same woman will change from having her first to her tenth. She'll know different things, she'll feel different things, she'll have a different bank of life experiences to draw on. She may be in a more loving, or less loving relationship, having an accidental baby, having a desperately wanted baby. She may be living in paradise or less than ideal conditions. Carrying a baby during times of emotional upheaval, grief, or stress.

And no matter how much I may bang on about how to help make birth more glorious, here's the truth of it:

Birth is not the only chance a woman has to 'shine'. It's not her one and only 'glory moment'.

Motherhood is a long path.

It is full of twists and turns, learning opportunities, out and out failures and triumphs.

The best we can do is lovingly support each other through our births. Help to identify fears. Examine them safely and talk them out. Try to educate ourselves and each other to be as happy as we can be, to give ourselves the best opportunities to thrive at the time of our birthings and beyond.

As women we need to pull together, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, learn from our mistakes and hold our heads up high, however we birth.

We need to really inform ourselves by looking beyond the standard NHS literature if we want to maximise our options

And when we can reach out to each other, and fill in those gaps left behind by the disappearance of that ancient web of wise women who used to be our whole universe on our doorstep, we can really do anything, overcome anything, and heal our lives and those of others around us. Those wise women are all of us. We may not live on each others doorstep but we can help each other from afar.

We are each others medicine, balm, and comforters.

Our men too, have a most important and beautiful role in making our families what they are.

And however we birth, those gorgeous bundles of love that come into our world and change everything forever make it all worth it, change our relationships for the better, heal us and teach us more than any thing else we'll ever read or watch. Our babies change us from being a couple to being a family, from being a family to being a bigger family, from being women to being mothers, and they change our world forever.

What a privilidge, pleasure and joy to bring new life into this world, however we do it!


  1. Thank you for this post!

  2. Thank you dear women! much love to you x x x

  3. Yes yes yes yes YES! Splendid. Thank you. Jay xxxx

  4. Glad it resonated with you Jay! :-) xxx

  5. WOW. Well said.

    PS- I am a homeschooling mama (of 4 girls) and a doula in training too :D

  6. Oh wow - we are like doppleganger mamas from different dimensions! Hehehe x

  7. Lovely thorough debrief! Thanks !
    Another of my blogs looks at some of this stuff specifically in relation to breech birth http://thegiftofthebreech.blogspot.co.uk/

    We are rebuilding and remembering our heritage as birthing women, pulling the threads through so that our daughters and their daughters need not work so hard to try to be strong, assertive and bold at just the moment when we need to allow our vulnerability, the openness of our bodies, the trust in our caregivers, the power to flow through us :) x

  8. Yes, it's a collective global debrief of sorts! In truth we all more complex and unique than this here blogpost has touched on. Love your comment about our need to be vulnerable, open, trusting and letting the power through flow us - I am going by the name " go with the flow doula" as it happens! xx