Some of us have really clear ideas about how we’d like to give birth. Some of us are motivated by our fear of birth, seeking out anything to ease our minds. We might be hoping for a natural birth, a drug free birth, anything but a caesarean, or might hope that we can be in control and calm, or not ‘freak out’. Sometimes we are trying not to think about birth at all. Whether we are scared, determined or unsure, the way we choose to prepare for our birth experience can impact on how we come out the other side.
Comfort and high expectations-not always a healthy recipe for birth
When we are seeking birth preparation it’s quite common for us to look for the class that most resonates with us. Maybe it’s saying all that we are longing to hear, that makes us feel hopeful? Perhaps there’s an implication on the website or flyer that by taking the class we can achieve the things we want- ‘calm’, ‘positive’, ‘in control’, ‘blissful’, ‘empowering’, ‘pain free’ and so-on? Let’s face it, we tend to choose a class based on what we want to hear (whether or not it’s realistic or truthful for most), and what makes us feel most comfortable. Perhaps though when approaching such a major life transition as becoming a parent, that commonly turns our world a little (or a lot) upside down, being ‘comfortable’ and ‘idealistic’ is not always the healthiest approach or the best way for us to prepare?
Appealing ideas can be a formula for disappointment
As an experienced childbirth educator who taught the ‘positive, calm, empowering’ birth class for 6 years, I agree that the appeal is obvious- I too was drawn in by the promises implied. After some time though, I came to see that although these classes can increase our confidence and trust in the birth process, they can do so in an unrealistic way, and set up many of us to feel like we missed the mark, to feel let down, unprepared, overly confident and even like we failed in some way. These classes can be quite outcome focused, and this can be problematic in birth preparation. When I say ‘outcome’ I’m not even taking about such things as achieving a vaginal birth or drug free birth.
Outcomes in disguise
When there’s an idea that we can stay calm and in control no matter what turn our birth takes, or that we can have a positive or empowering birth because we choose to- these are outcomes that can’t always be achieved no matter what choices we make, what we know, or how well we prepare. Ideas like this though they might seem well intentioned and harmless, can actually set many of us up for disappointment and trauma. Many women who do these classes can only stay calm to a point, and then often find themselves with few coping skills left.
Because I care very deeply about the couples I work with, and could see the downsides of this approach, I could no longer go on teaching that kind of class. I got to the point where I felt like I was lying to couples in my class (and essentially I was), so I had to find an approach that while confidence building, did this is a realistic, helpful and meaningful way.
Optimism bias gives a false sense of confidence
In my work as a birth story healer I have a unique perspective that most childbirth educators don’t. Having worked with over 500 couples and two different childbirth preparation methods, as well as working with people after birth who have experienced let down, disappointment and trauma, I deeply understand how different approaches can both help and potentially harm us. Sometimes we want to believe that we will be the one who will get our ideal birth outcome, or the birth that is portrayed in the ‘positive, calm’ birth class. We can tend to overestimate the likelihood that we will be the one who does- this is know as ‘cognitive optimism bias’. 80% of us overestimate how well things will go for us, but not for others. In my experience from teaching that class and seeing the follow up birth evaluations, only 15-20% of women seem to really have the kind of birth these classes portray. Others might find the tools helpful-but these women would most likely find any coping tools helpful, and these women could be far better prepared overall, especially when things don’t go smoothly. I have come to see clearly that we need to be over prepared and realistic, not overly confident that we will achieve our perfect birth.
Power of the mind- Only part the picture
Many classes over emphasise the ‘mind over matter’ approach. It’s true that our mind can be a powerful tool in birth, but when this is over emphasised and it’s implied that achieving a certain outcome is greatly under our conscious control, many of us will be let down and unprepared when we don’t achieve what we hope for. When we are offered reassurances to just ‘trust our bodies’ and ‘trust birth’, or recite idealistic affirmations, when we fail to explore the many factors that influence our births, and fail to address fears and concerns head on, we may find ourselves wondering what we did wrong in hindsight, and feeling rather betrayed by such ideas. I’m aware that some women really love these kinds of classes. I thought they were the ‘bee’s knees’ myself before I knew about more holistic ways to prepare, and before I knew the potential downsides. In my experience the majority of women would be better served with a more realistic and open minded kind of class, that focuses on emotional and psychological preparation as much as the mental/intellectual and physical preparation and is not outcome focused.
Even classes that say they address fears, rarely do this in a deep and helpful way. In fact often they avoid talking about worries all together for fear it will ‘attract’ them. Ideas like this only serve to make women feel that they must have done something wrong, didn’t believe or trust enough when their birth doesn’t go to plan. The class I used to teach used ‘fear release’ exercises. From my experience, these can lull people into a false sense that they have dealt with their fears, which isn’t then apparent until things haven’t gone to plan. What is often missing here is a conscious awareness of how particular scenarios might be a problem for us, and understanding the meaning we might take from the unexpected. This approach can go far deeper and be far more effective.
Prepare to be uncomfortable and face worries head on
Think about it- if birth is the entry way into parenthood, it makes sense that it might come with some intensity, challenges, doubt, uncertainty, releasing control, and a fair amount of discomfort. Parenting can be a complex mix of delight, joy and immense love, as well as frustration, hard work, exhaustion, and being pushed to our absolute limits- why would we expect birth to be so different then? Instead of seeking the class that makes us feel comfortable and sounds the most appealing, consider whether the class that is keeping it real, inviting us to be more self aware, exploring our beliefs, approaching fears head on and learning how to cope with ‘not knowing’ might actually be what we need. A class that helps cultivate self compassion in a personal, mindful and deep way can help to take us to places that can be a little uncomfortable, yet is often where we need to go to be prepared for a range of possibilities, not just our ideal birth scenario- which doesn’t happen much of the time.
Sometimes a part of us is loving the appeal of the ‘positive, calm, empowering’ class, yet another part of us wonders if it’s too good to be true, or can worry about the pressure of trying to achieve a certain outcome or stay calm and focused.
If you’re looking for a mindful, intelligent and mature approach to birth and parenting preparation then I’m sure you’ll love Birthing From Within.
absolutely love this blog post.
Thank you Lara. Its a topic that’s really important to me.
Reblogged this on and commented:
This is so well written and completely true! Yes, I am passionate about empowering women to draw on their inner strength and birth in a way that research supports (such as keeping in upright positions as much as possible so that they can work with gravity, being aware that mindset and environment CAN have detrimental effects on the physiological processes of the birth hormones, etc).
But equally, all the affirmations and positive thinking in the world wouldn’t change the fact that I have a defective gene that greatly increases my risk of postpartum haemorrhage (something I didn’t know I had when I had my first two births).
My third birth was a planned home birth in water, and I had intended to have a physiological third stage, just as I had done with my first two births. The birth itself went beautifully but only 6 minutes after he was born, it was clear that there was an issue with blood loss. So we got out of the pool and I chose to have syntometrine, AND later, ergometrine, to stem the bleeding.
Even with these drugs, I still lost 2 litres of blood, and our planned first night with our new baby in our own bed turned into a transfer in an ambulance and a first night with me in hospital with the baby, and my partner at home alone! But because we had stayed open to whatever unfolds, we were able to deal with this change of plan without drama and upset, and accept that this was the way things were without blame or guilt (although we did jokingly comment that it was all my Grandma’s fault for giving me the dodgy gene in the first place!).
So I believe it’s wiser to prepare for birth by planning to do the best you can in each moment, and having the attitude of staying open-minded as each moment unfolds, staying present and not fixated on a vision of birth as you think it ‘should’ be.
I was aware that I had this condition and that it could cause issues. But many women might never find out what caused their need for intervention, and blame themselves for somehow ‘failing’ in their inability to birth ‘naturally. This can potentially lead to birth trauma, PTSD, postnatal depression, etc, none of which is in the best interests of the new family ❤