I want you to feel comfortable while you read this, so I'm just going to lay it all out right here in this opening paragraph. I am a birth coach. I have had 3 babies at home. But, I’m not a birth junkie, and I don’t have any strong opinions about how everyone has their baby. I’m just a little bit obsessed with what it means to have a ‘Good Birth’.
8 years ago I was terrified about giving birth. I always knew, theoretically, that I wanted to have children. I just couldn’t get my head around how the fuck they were going to come out of me. I couldn’t bear needles ( I didn’t get my ears pierced until I was in my late 20s for this reason). I was pretty clear that childbirth was going to be just awful in every way; painful beyond measure, exposing me in the most undignified way and with a disturbingly high likelihood of injuries and depression. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing to volunteer for.
Then I met someone. He was quite hot, I was getting older and having a baby seemed like quite a good idea (because we were going to be amazing at this parenting lark – we’d seen all the pitfalls, and we weren’t going to fall into those traps!). I was pregnant within a month. That first pregnancy ended after 7 weeks, and in the roller-coaster of miscarriage hormones, I quite forgot about the birth bit, and just wanted to be pregnant again. Luckily for us, soon I was, and this time it stuck. 40+10 later my first child was born. Not just born. He was born at home. And I felt like a fucking GODDESS. I wanted to stand on the roof of my house and roar ‘I MADE LIFE’. I was euphoric. For weeks. I could not fathom why no-one had told me that birth could leave you feeling this good! I wanted to do it again, and again, and again. And so we did. Thing #2 was born, with his hand over his little face, at home, in about 90 minutes. This time I lost blood, and I felt like death. With few family around to help us out, and my husband running his own business, I was alone with a 2 year old and a tongue-tied newborn within days. After 6 months I had no job to return to, and I still felt like shit. It was only when Thing #3 was born, beautifully, peacefully, at home, that I realised how sad I had been, and what an effect it had had on my bond with cross little Thing #2. I was able to really reflect on my different births, and what had influenced my reflections on them.
So it’s fair to say I’ve got a fairly good idea of both the highs & the lows of birth. The women I’ve coached over the years, and my birth coaching, doula-ing, midwifing colleagues, have taught me much; most importantly that a ‘Good Birth’ is not about avoiding inductions, or doing it drug free, or at home – but about having the insight & information to set the environment that’s right for you, however it happens on the day.
All well and good, you say, but how do we do it? Here are 3 skills you can easily learn that will really help you on your way to a ‘Good Birth’;
Self-awareness. With so much focus on the choices available to you in labour, it’s easy to forget that these choices are made available to you to increase your opportunity of having a ‘Good Birth’. Also, that they are choices because everyone is different. How, though, is it really possible to make a choice to have a ‘Good Birth’, if you don’t know what a good birth looks likes? If you’re not confident that a ‘Good Birth’ is realistically attainable.
The difficulty so many women face when preparing for labour & birth is that they do so in the context of the orthodoxy of birth as an experience of suffering. Mary Beard references a similar unconscious bias in her book Women & Power, when she describes the power of tropes to influence our scope of possibility. Professor Beard typed ‘cartoon professor uk’ into Google UK Images, and of the first 100 images that appeared only 1 was female, Professor Holly from Pokémon Farm (it’s ok, I don’t know who she is either). Professor Beard’s point is that when there’s no ‘template’ for what a powerful woman looks like, it’s hard for us mere mortals to imagine how it might look for us to be powerful – it certainly doesn’t look like us, because the vast majority of images look like men. Apply that to birth, and there’s a mix of positive and negative imagery held in Google images – but outside Google, in the real world cultural mainstream, is a wealth of negativity and unpleasant jokes about labour and birth that make it clear to us all it’s an unpleasant duty to be suffered by women. Think about it. Pretty much every mainstream film or tv depiction shows the standard sweating, hysterical woman + panicking man + car screeching to a halt + hospital doors banging combo. The NHS, as it should, does an excellent job of covering what happens when a birth requires intervention (anyone who’s made a cervix out of plasticine while watching a set of forceps being manhandled by the burliest father-to-be in the group of expectant parents, will never be able to bleach the image from their brain).
It leaves the task incumbent on us, to investigate what ‘Good Birth’ can possibly look like, and how we think it might apply to us. This is not to say we create a fixed plan for how our bodies & our babies will behave – that would be naïve. But we can consider how we, personally, would like to approach our births, and which aspects of it are most important to us as unique individuals.
Self-confidence. A first pregnancy, labour & baby brings all manner of new physical experiences, and until you’ve had a first-hand experience, how on earth can you know what your unique experience of them will be? (It’s sometimes helpful to know that mothers on a 2nd or 3rd pregnancies also have this sense of uncertainty, because no two births are the same). Really understanding the physical processes, though, and the external factors that influence them, allow you to develop a deeper, truer confidence in what your amazing body will be doing. This is as true for the first gentle waves of labour & the powerful surges of birth, the post-partum cramps & the let-down reflex of breastfeeding. Once you’ve got a grip on this, it’s far easier to feel those new sensations, make sense of them, acknowledge them and relax, to allow them get on with their important work. It used to be known as ‘pain with purpose’. Which is weirdly helpful, I think, because knowing you’re in aligned synergy with your body is a much more pleasant way to spend a labour than resisting the torture of an alien force.
And it’s not only the confidence in your body that’s important, but your confidence in your ability to make yourself heard, either directly or with the support of your partner. When you give yourself the permission to discuss, to pause, to consider alternatives and make your own unique risk/benefit assessment you are able to manage the process appropriately for you.
Learn how to accept help. One of the skills we learn as we progress up the greasy career pole, is how to control. How to control projects, people & ourselves. Mothering – from early pregnancy onwards – is often more about response than control. Many of us are so competent and capable that we are not in the habit of asking for help (Joanna Martin umbrellas these women – and I’m one – under the archetype ‘Superwomen’. It’s not necessarily the accolade you might think). Late-pregnancy and the first months of motherhood find many women struggling to adapt to a pace of life that is simultaneously slower & more responsive, but with less free time and a diminished ability to focus. Those first 3 months – the fourth trimester – can be a bewildering clash of the practical and the emotional. Hormones, milk, lochia (blood loss), sleep deprivation, mood swings, hunger & desperate thirst, added to learning a whole new vocabulary & navigating your new place in the world order – frankly in the midst of all this, who’s got time to wash, cook & clean the ruddy house? I recently watched a re-run of Michael Palin visiting a small village in the Himalaya’s, where post-partum women retired to closed accommodation, fed & watered by the village, until they were ready to return to ‘normal’ village life, and I wondered if we maybe miss a trick here. Returning home from hospital within 24 hours is well and good (and there are good practical reasons for it), but we may well have lost the art of the Confinement. ‘Mothering the mother’ is a sadly lost art. Practice, now, asking for help around the house. Practice not doing something, and putting your feet up. Practice not doing anything for an hour or so at a time. Mothering a baby is a full time job in itself – there is barely time for additional domestic work. And trust me, (nice) people like to be helpful. If anyone complains, send them this blog.