As a young girl, the only time I ever saw women in labor was on television or in movies. The actresses writhed and howled on their backs, legs up in stirrups under the harsh florescent lighting of a cold, sterile hospital room.
The most bizarre thing I remember about some of these scenes was the laugh track which played over the images of a woman experiencing “the worst pain known to mankind.” Why was I being shown this most private and sacred experience in a way that was humiliating and undignified for the woman?
Why was her husband running out of the room in horror, or fainting, or darting around in a state of utter panic? Why is this the way I was taught to think about birth and how did it make me feel about my own desire to be a mother someday? These are important questions which need answering.
We're Conditioned To Fear Giving Birth
Since the medicalization of birth we have thankfully reduced child and maternal mortality rates significantly, and this point should not go unstated or undervalued. Despite my personal feelings about birthing in a hospital, I can’t deny my gratitude for the advances Western medicine has made in the ability to save lives during emergencies.
That being said, there are certain untold negative aspects of hospital birth and the representation of it in our visual culture that have intensified women’s fear and neurosis surrounding labor and the dangers involved.
How could we not fear birth, when we’re only ever shown images of women suffering while laboring?
How could we not fear birth, when we’re only ever shown images of women suffering while laboring? How could we not worry about what may happen to us when our doctors tend to view women bodies like cars in need of constant tinkering, surveillance, poking, and prodding to keep functioning?
We live in a culture that teaches us not to trust our bodies and certainly not to trust our ability to birth our babies. Let me make it clear that I’m not judging women for fearing labor or for wanting to birth in a hospital. Based on how we’re taught to think about birth there are few rational responses other than fear and suspicion.
Things have gotten so bad that we now have a diagnosable syndrome, tokophobia, related to phobic levels of fear surrounding birth, which is on the rise. This is why I would like to offer some reasons why fearing birth doesn’t have to be your default perspective in the hopes of dispelling that fear a little, empower more women to have positive birthing experiences, and reclaim our dignity on the journey to motherhood.
How Fear Affects Pain Response in the Brain
When we fear pain, we experience pain more intensely. Though two people may be experiencing the same level of pain they may not have the same perception of how much or how little that pain hurts. The perception of pain is influenced by a wide array of complex factors.
When we’re in a state of stress, limited emotional awareness, and fear, people experience a heightened and intensified conceptualization of pain. We’re also more likely to feel pain for longer when we’re in a state of stress or fear. Studies have also shown that this heightened response of pain can be mitigated by treating patients with empathy.
When we’re given tools to communicate our feelings and eliminate negative emotions surrounding the experience of pain, we gain control over our response and experience of that pain.
When we fear pain, we experience pain more intensely.
When our bodies have a fear response to anything it releases a chemical called adrenaline. Adrenaline produces a fight or flight response in us as a survival mechanism. When we bring this dynamic into the birth space, we invite panic, disorder, emotional distress, and more fear.
For most women, the pains of labor create a flight response, and instead of surrendering to our experience with confidence, women will try to mentally escape or resist what’s happening. This can lead to stalled labor, the cascade of interventions, and an overall negative, frightful experience.
Women who fear childbirth tend to avoid birth classes, which compounds the problem of how ignorance about labor and our bodies makes us fear the process more. It’s a shame this happens because studies have shown that learning about the mechanics of birth does indeed reduced overall fear and pain experienced during labor.
Fearing the unknown surrounding birth can also compound our stress and anxiety around the experience. We tend to imagine things to be worse than they are in reality. The more knowledge we have, the less we let our minds create exaggerated hypotheticals which control our emotions.
Experience Positive Birth Stories
For this reason, I would suggest all women expose themselves to positive birth stories and watch positive birth vlogs online to experience the other side of the coin. A podcast I thoroughly enjoyed listening to while I was pregnant is called The Happy Homebirth.
Learning about the mechanics of birth reduces overall fear and pain experienced during labor.
This podcast features uplifting and fear-dispelling stories of women’s journey to motherhood. Not every woman featured on this podcast got exactly the birth they wanted, but the majority were able to have positive experiences regardless because they went with the flow of things, trusted their bodies, and surrendered to the process without fear.
This truth is echoed by popular lifestyle blogger Lisa from Farmhouse on Boone. She writes, “Much of the pain of birth is directly dependent on the fear you go into it with. It is important to fill your head with positive stories. Birth is NORMAL, and when it is left to progress normally it just goes differently. I had my first daughter at the hospital. I did absolutely no research and no mental preparations. For my other five kids, I went in prepared. The difference is astounding.”
Methods for Experiencing Less Pain During Birth
There are options for women who have a fear response to birth and labor that, no matter what they do, they psychologically can’t overcome. The ways we prepare for birth can have dramatic effects on our overall experience. Women report great success with hypnobirthing, which is a method that uses breathing techniques and repetition of positive affirmations to condition the mind and body to remain calm and in control during labor.
Like stated above, when we manage our emotions and stress surrounding fear and pain we experience less of both. Furthermore, there’s the well-known Bradley Method, also known as “husband coached birth,” which is proven to aid women’s ability to experience less pain in natural birth. The Bradley Method has other benefits too, as “more than 86% of the women who used the Bradley Method nationwide achieved a spontaneous, unmedicated vaginal birth." Outcomes like these are not to be scoffed at. The proof is in the pudding – when women are taught about their physiology and given education about how to manage their emotions they have great success in birthing without huge complications.
The more we trust the process, the better chances we have at the process unfolding without complication.
People often say it’s rational to fear birth because of the child mortality rates before the medicalization of birth. On the surface, this seems like it makes sense, and people may assume that if we removed the medical system those mortality rates would shoot up again. But this neglects to acknowledge the success of modern and gentle methods of supporting women’s natural labor like hypnobirthing and the Bradley Method.
As we have grown in knowledge and wisdom about what women’s bodies, minds, and spirits really need to feel safe and empowered during birth, trauma-free outcomes of natural birth improve. Too often we look at the past and see mortality rates during birth as a given. It’s more likely though that women hundreds of years ago were not treated with the same care and support as they are in the natural birth community today. If options like water births, hypnobirthing, and the Bradley Method had been available to women in the past we would likely have had much lower numbers of child and maternal mortality.
The better we support and educate women about how miraculous and powerful their bodies are in birth, the better outcomes women will enjoy in their journey to motherhood. Certainly, there will always be exceptions to the rule and sometimes emergencies do happen, meaning even with the best preparation things can occasionally not go according to plan.
In light of this, we must aim to cultivate an easy-going disposition around birth and a willingness to not fear the uncertainty. We need to know that the caricatures of birth we see on TV and in movies are not what real births look like. Rather than panic, we must prepare for the life-changing experience that birth is. The more we trust the process, the better chances we have at the process unfolding without complication.
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