People, for the most part, like to talk about the birth of their children. Some will wax long and poetic about how it “changed their lives” and “what a magical moment it was” and on and on. I tend to be in that group. Then there are others who like to do what I like to call “war story-ing”. You run into them at baby showers a lot. A group of two to three women all trying to one-up each other on whose birth was the scariest, most painful, the absolute worst. Words like “stem to stern” and times like “20 hours” start popped up in conversation. Meanwhile, the mom to be is sitting there, cupcake balanced on a pastel paper plate, hooked on every word and picturing what might await her in a few weeks. Sometimes these war story tellers have had a genuinely traumatic experiences that they need to process in a safe and supportive space and sometimes they are just trying to “win” the made up game. Either way though those stories have made an impression on that mom-to-be.
So what do you do if you’re this expecting mother? What do you do about all these “scary stories” and “negative messaging”? There is one school of thought that says ignore or block out all negative messages about a birth experience. “A mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory” said Arthur Golden. This can be really good advice. But the question then is how much do you ignore? When does “blocking out negative messaging” become “ignoring red flags”? And if you are willfully blocking out evidence based information about birth are you really prepared for labor? Let’s look at the ideas behind the extremes and try to find a happy medium here.
Block out EVERYTHING scary about birth
So you’ve decided to have an unmedicated birth. You saw The Business of being Born, you saw your cousins video of their homebirth. This feels right and good. This is what you want and you trust your body to be able to do what it is meant to do. This is great, you should feel confident about this and you should feel excited. You tell your friends and family about your birth plan. Most are supportive but a few give you some side eye and your aunt even calls you crazy and starts “war story-ing” about her 4th degree episiotomy. You ignore her. You’re not 100% sure what “4th degree means” but you’re not having an episiotomy so you don’t have to worry about it. Depending on your care provider you might have more or less tests. You didn’t spend much time learning about what these test mean because you’re having a natural unmedicated birth. You’re body can do this, so it doesn’t matter what the test say. Nothing that they tell you is going to knock you off course. You write up your birth plan detailing things like lighting, music, labor and pushing positions. You give it to your care provider on your way out the door of one of your appointments. You really want to take a birth class, but the time and financial commitment you do not want. “Oh well”, you say, “that's why the good lord invented google”. At one of your next appointments your care provider talks to you about some of your test results. You don’t really understand what they’re saying. All of the words are a bit overwhelming and anxiety provoking. You’re so confused you don’t even know what questions to ask. You leave to appointment feeling slightly heartbroken but mostly just confused and scared. You think about calling someone or asking doctor google but you push that to the back of your mind. You can do this, this is what your body was meant to do. You have no idea what to expect from labor, but you have total faith that you can do this.
So what’s wrong with this story? Well let’s start with what’s right. This person actually does have a little bit of information. They have a rough idea about what labor and birth look like. On top of this they have a strong belief that they are totally capable of giving birth. That confidence will take a person a long way...but it won’t take you all the way. It’s great that she doesn’t hold onto the fear and stress of her aunts experience, but she also doesn’t explore or examine it. As a result she doesn’t know what led to that birth trauma or even the full extent of what that trauma was. She writes a birth plan, which is good, but she doesn’t bother to talk about it with her care provider. On top of that the birth plan doesn’t cover things like episiotomy, cord clamping, or if she wants to eat and drink during labor. This woman wants to take a birth class (good) but doesn’t make it a priority. A good class would have given her information about the test she was taking which would have enabled her be an active participant in the conversation with her care provider. She could have listened to the information and made an informed decision instead of avoiding making any decision because she didn’t have the knowledge and was too afraid to seek it out. As it stands this woman is walking into labor without a clear plan, with a care provider she doesn’t trust enough to ask questions, and having very little information about what birth is physically like. Do you think this person is prepared for labor? Do you think that confidence will last when transition hits?
Block out NOTHING scary about birth
This story starts off the same. You’ve seen Business of being Born, you’ve seen the video of your cousins homebirth. You want an unmedicated natural birth. But this time when your aunt tells you about her 4th degree episiotomy you ask “what’s that” she tells you. A 4th degree episiotomy sounds less than great to you. “Why did that happen” you ask. She tells you about shoulder dystocia. To you, that sounds terrifying. You go home and do some serious googling. The internet spits back a bunch of different stories, statistics, and theories. Some of this is verified and peer reviewed, some of it isn’t but you’re already down the rabbit hole. You decide to not look at infant mortality photos but instead stumbleupon youtube clips of the shows I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant and ER True Stories: Pregnancy addition. You and your husband agree that the reenactment is totally corny, but secretly both of you wish that you hadn’t watched it. “Is that what birth is like”, you think, “I thought this was supposed to come naturally and easy!” You’d like to have that magical experience, but what about the risks? What about the pain? You’re just 25 weeks along but you’re already afraid of d-day. You have no idea what to expect from labor but you don’t think you can do it.
Yikes. In a matter of days this person has gone from being excited about birth to dreading labor. What happened? Well, this time she did try to learn a little more about her aunts experience and she learned some new scary vocabulary words. But then she dives head first into the internet without having a full context to what those vocabulary words actually mean. To make matters worse she reads indiscriminately instead of searching out good evidence based information. Then she goes looking for MORE scary birth stories, because let’s be honest here, sometimes we can’t leave well enough alone. The good news is all this happened in a matter of days, maybe just hours. There is plenty of time to find good information, to rebuild confidence, for her and her husband to build a support network and seek out positive birth stories. The bad news is, if she doesn’t kick her fear out of the driver's seat it's going to be a long 15 weeks.
There is something called the fear/pain cycle. Fear leads to tension, tension leads to pain, pain leads to fear, repeat. The idea is if you are afraid going into labor you will be tense, which will make the contractions more painful, which will lead to more fear. I think the same idea can be applied when you are preparing for labor as well. If you are letting your fear make the decisions for you during your pregnancy this will just lead to rash decisions and ignorance, which ultimately will lead to more fear. How do you kick fear out of the driver’s seat? The best way to do this is with knowledge and education. When you know what is ahead of you and you feel prepared for what might happen it’s easier to have TRUE confidence instead of just forced vibrato. When you know the right questions to ask, you can build a relationship of trust with your care provider or know when it’s time to switch care providers. When you are getting your informations from trusted sources you then don’t have to doubt or question your choices. Plus, when you have information about the whole picture (including the risks) it’s actually easier to block out the scary negative information. You know the risks. You know what to do if they happen. You have a plan and you’re at peace with what may or may not happen because YOU can make the choice because YOU are prepared. So yeah, tune out the naysayers but don’t tune out the information. Sure, research your choices, but don’t believe that everything you see or read about will happen to you or is even true. When you approach your labor form a place of ballenc you are ultimately standing in a place of strength.
I spend a lot of my time talking about how birth can be amazing, about how birth doesn’t have to be scary and I believe that. Birth can be so many things. Scary, exciting, joyful, painful, wonderful, and heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s all of these things at once plus more. However, for those of us out there that have experienced trauma the thought of giving birth can also seem bone chillingly impossible. There are women who have given birth and experienced horrible things that have left their minds, bodies, and soles changed. There are people who have experienced sexual assault and abuse and are now being asked to “relax through the pain”, give over control of their bodies to an authority figure, or who are having to watch their partner prepare for labor while they are having to dissociate from the whole process. There are couples who have faced infertility and miscarriage who find themselves holding their breath and closing their eyes through the whole pregnancy, waiting for the other shoe to fall. How do these people prepare for labor? How do they find the courage to walk into their delivery with confidence and pride? I don’t know. After I experienced my own form of birth trauma I did my best to ignore my second pregnancy. My plan was to pretend I wasn’t pregnant or giving birth till I was holding a baby. I can’t tell you what worked for me, but I can tell you what I WISH I did. So here is my list of the 5 things I would do to emotionally prepare for birth if I could do it over. (note: this article is mainly going to be focussing on birth trauma and infertility. If you are looking for resources specifically dealing with sexual assault feel free to reach out and I can recommend a few things)
Acknowledge your trauma as traumatic
Like with most things in this life, the first step is acknowledging what is right in front of us. There are many reasons why a person might not want to think of their birth, miscarriages, or infertility as traumatic. The two that I hear the most are some variation on “I’m so ungrateful. I’m pregnant/my child is healthy/I’m recovering great!” or “What happened to me wasn’t so bad. Look at whats-her-face, she had it much worse than me.” Both of these statements have a tendency to end with the question “why can’t I get over this?” We have gotten into the habit of comparing ourselves to others, of measuring our self worth based on someone else's life, of invalidating our own stories and experiences because of what others “are” and what we “should be”. If you find yourself thinking things like why can’t I get over this or I wish I could just move on instead of pushing those feelings away try to experience them and find out why you are having them in that moment. Give yourself permission to talk about what happened. If you need professional help seek it out (and if you want a recommendation hit me up). Pull yourself out of the trap of comparison. Your feelings are your own and your reaction to the events of your life does not make you ungrateful, week, shameful, or a failure.
Work to understand what happened
I love gathering information, but when it comes to traumatic events this can be something that is hard to do at first (especially if you’re working hard to not think about it). That being said, in my experience, once you give yourself permission to think and talk about hard things it gets easier and the process can feel like a release. So talk to your care provider about your miscarriages and what might have been the cause. Talk to your partner about their thoughts and feelings about the infertility. Talk to your doula, partner, and whoever else was at your labor. Ask them what they saw and felt. If you want to, request your medical records. When your perspective mixes with what others experienced your own perspective changes. You can begin to feel validated instead of crazy. You can start to understand that you are not week and in fact the people around you see you as strong and capable. Most of the time you will learn that you are not alone in your grief and pain. And when you understand what physically happened to you you can work to come up with a plan to prevent it from happening again.
Build a labor support team
Do not for a second think that you have to go through labor alone. At the same time, don’t just invite anyone to this birth. If you are inviting someone because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, don’t invite them. You don’t invite people to your labor because you’d “feel guilty if you didn’t” you invite them because they help you feel safe and supported. Once you’ve identified who your support team is start letting them know HOW they can support you. Let your partner know what you need them to do and what would be the most helpful. Tell your sister that she cannot wear that perfume that makes you want to gag BUT she is more than welcome to brush your hair. Tell your doula what affirmations you most want to hear and what phrases should never be said around you. Talk with your care provider about your birth plan and make sure everyone is on the same page. When you go into labor make sure you are surrounded with love, trust, and confidence.
Take an evidence based birth class
Take a class even if you’ve already given birth. Having a specific time each week to focus on your pregnancy with give you and your partner a specific time to talk about the upcoming birth. Use this time to talk about your feelings, fears, wants, and plans. Make sure you’re on the same page and find out how you can both support one another before and after the birth. On top of this, evidence based classes focus on educating people about their bodies and what they can expect during the stages of labor. They also educate couples about their options during birth. A good class will encourage you to ask questions of the instructor and your care provider. It’s my personal belief that this knowledge gives you the power and when you have that power you feel capable. Even if things don’t go exactly to plan you can still have the ability to understand what is happening and to make choices. This perspective and ability can be the difference between a good experience and a bad experience.
Prepare for an amazing birth, expect a unique birth
Your birth can be so many things, including amazing. The one thing that it will for sure be is unique. Each birth is different, just like each child is different. There is no one “right way” to give birth and there is no way to know everything that will happen during your labor. This is one reason why preparation and education are so important. It is also why it so important to talk about and deal with trauma. Traumatic events have a way of making us worry that every event will be traumatic, which is its own kind of trauma. Accepting and believing that this birth/labor/pregnancy/child is unique and will be different is the only way to appreciate the miracle that you are living through instead of fearing the pain that is hiding around the next corner. With the right preparation and support you can walk into your labor feeling capable and strong. You can have an amazing birth!
If there is one trope I am tired of seeing in TV and movies it is the clueless dad in the delivery room. We’ve all seen that one right? The dad to be is pushing his wife in a wheelchair through the hospital hallways. She’s screaming, he’s panicking, he probably bumps into a few things as he rushes towards the medical professionals. His whole body language seems to say “I may love this person and spend most of my day with her, but I have no idea how to physically and emotionally support and comfort her. I really only understand human anatomy enough to impregnate someone. Where is the baby going to come out of? How much blood will there be? Is she going to poop? Quick, someone take her away before I mess something else up!” They wheel the woman away. She screams “YOU DID THIS TO ME!”, baby comes out, and the dad faints right after he cuts the cord.
I don’t have the time or page space to go into all the reasons this trope bugs me so I’ll boil it down to 2 points. This story says:
1) when it comes to comforting a woman, men are incompetent and
2) birth is a scary process that women must go through alone
How sad is that? Here is this special moment, some might even call it a sacred moment, where we take 1+1 and somehow make it equal 3 and we have this stereotype telling us that one of these people has to do it all on their own because the other person just is simply too absent to help her. I’m not saying dads can’t be nervous, excited, and even a little scared but those aren’t the only things that dads can be at a birth. Dads can also be knowledgeable, supportive, attentive, and loving.
So how do you keep yourselves from falling into the “clueless dad” trap? How do you change the picture in your head from “guy passed out on hospital floor” to “husband holding and supporting his wife as she brings new life into the world”? How do you go from thinking of your partner as a punch line to knowing they will be the one having your back (and rubbing your back) in labor? First things first, BOTH of you get educated. Learn about nutrition and exercise during pregnancy. Learn about tests that may be performed during pregnancy and what they might mean. Learn what tests and procedures might be done in the hospital during labor. After you’re done learning about these things, talk about them with your partner! Talk about how you feel about having an episiotomy, epidural, or possible c-section. What do both of you think about water birth and placenta encapsulation? (side note, these things are totally covered in my ten week birth class...just saying ;-)) Most importantly, learn about each other and how you can offer support during labor. Does she like her hair brushed? Is there a certain smell she can’t stand? Where does she carry tension? What does she look like when she is relaxed?
The second thing you can do is realize you don’t have to do this big thing all on your own. Yes, she is definitely the star of the show, and yes, he is the person who can best support and comfort her, but there are people who are more than willing to help you. There are midwives, doctors, and nurses to handle the medical aspects of birth. There are also doulas to offer physical and emotional support throughout labor. If you and your partner are comfortable with the idea you can also have trusted friends or family at the birth to offer assistance. There are people who are willing, able, and would be honored to be a part of the birth team, they just need to be asked.
I think what might bug me the most about “clueless dad in the delivery room” is that it paints this picture of birth that makes both partners seem so powerless and alone, and that is absolutely not how it has to be. Even if nothing in the birth goes according to plan knowledge IS power, and if Mom and Dad both know and understand what is happening then they aren’t powerless! They have the power of choice. And if both of them are united by knowledge and surrounded by people who love and support them then they are not alone. They have each other. They are both participating in that weird, magical, impossible math. They are both making 1+1=3.
This is not my birth story. This is the story of how I came to believe the way I believe and find what I am passionate about doing. It is a hard story that has to do with trauma, judgment, self hate, self love, acceptance, balance and purpose. It is not for everyone, but it is my story and I wouldn’t change one line.
I have always believed in a woman’s right to choose how and where she births. I have also always believed that birth was something women DO, not something that is done to them. This is what I have always believed. Birth could be scary, but birth didn’t have to be, and most of the times it wouldn’t be.
I have always said how a woman choose to give birth is up to her and she should be respected in that choice. I would say things like “If a woman wants an elective c-section with a tummy tuck right after so be it”, but secretly I would judge these women. I thought women who had elective c-sections or epidurals were women who had been brainwashed, who had given into the scare tactics of the male dominated world, who were just seeing birth as a means to a baby, and as a result missing a chance to take part in a miracle! These are the thoughts I carried around with me. They were heavy and biting, and they stayed with me till I became a parent.
I found out I was pregnant with my daughter the first weekend of October 2013. My husband and I were thrilled. I knew that I wanted an unmedicated birth, but I also knew that being a type 1 diabetic my unmedicated birth would be in a hospital with a doctor. That was fine. My diabetes was well under control, I had an ObGYN who had experience with diabetic women, my husband and I were going to go to classes focusing on natural childbirth. We had support, we knew what we were doing. I went to a doctor for my diabetes once a month, I rolled my eyes as I sat for non-stress tests. I wasn’t worried when the 37 week ultrasound showed my daughter, Clara, measuring at around 8.5 lbs. I was a big baby, I come from a family of big babied, and 8.5 lbs was not unreasonably big.
I felt myself go into labor at 6 AM on May 29th, my husband and I rushed to the hospital with my mom where I labored for over 12 hours. Honestly, I’m not sure how long my labor with Clara was. I was in the zone, my husband and my mom were wonderful and supportive, time had almost no meaning. People laugh at me when I say that I love labor, but I do! It’s the same kind of love that I have for doing anything physically demanding. You, your body, the people surrounding you are all working towards one goal, there is something about that resonates with me even today.
Labor went on and then I have the need to push, the only problem is the doctor isn’t there yet. She’s stuck in traffic the nurse says and then they ask me to hold it. I do, I wind up on my back, by the time the doctor gets there I am exhausted but NOW I can push and so I do. After sometime I start understanding this is not going to be a normal delivery. This is the part I don’t like talking about, and honestly I don’t want to scare people needlessly. This is what I will say, Clara was 9.1 lbs, delivery was difficult and traumatic, Clara spent 5 days in the NICU and then passed away. We were not expecting this, my doctors were not expecting this, the nurses at the hospital were not expecting this. I was healthy and in control of my diabetes, the test and ultrasounds that is sat through said my daughter was healthy, I did everything I was supposed to! My ObGYN couldn’t look me in the eye and I learned what it was to distrust and blame my body for the first time in my life.
I was a mess. I had long rants in my head that sounded like, “Healthy women with working normal bodies were the ones meant to have this experience. For you birth is dangerous and you were stupid to think that you could do this. All those years you spent secretly judging those women who were afraid of birth. What the hell did you know? You were stupid, and worse than stupid you were selfish trying to have this experience at the price of your daughter’s life. You’ve been a diabetic for almost all of your life, did you just forget? And now your body is mangled and your daughter is dead because of what you insisted you could do but should have known that you couldn’t.” I didn’t bother saying any of this out loud. When you’re having thoughts like this but you’re surrounded by people who love and support you, sometimes you feel like you can’t say these things. I knew my mom would cry and tell me I was wrong. I knew my husband would tear up, hold me, and tell me that none of that was true. I knew everyone would say “this wasn’t your fault, this is horrible but not your fault,” and I would know they were wrong.
Despite how I was feeling my husband and I still wanted a baby, so we started to try to conceive. After a year of trying to ignore the voice in my head, decided to try again to become pregnant, and then a parade of one disappointing month after another I was spent. I impulsively quit my new job at a credit union (something I’m still mortified I did) and went home hoping I was pregnant but knowing I wasn’t. I couldn’t stand being around people anymore, I couldn’t stand pretending I was ok but knowing I was a failure. I went home that day and started writing about the things that I couldn’t stop thinking about, my daughter, my body, and my depression. I got help, I got a new job, and I started to fall in love with myself again, but I didn’t fully trust my body yet.
When I became pregnant with my son I wanted to be happy more than anything, but I couldn’t feel anything. I wasn’t afraid because I was getting a c-section. Birth was something healthy women did and I was not healthy. No judgment just a fact, I told myself. I wasn’t afraid, but I also wasn’t happy. I posted the pictures and told everyone when he moved. I watched my blood sugar and went to the doctors appointments. I tried to connect to the pregnancy, but in reality I just wanted it over with. I went swimming with my friends and we called it a baby shower. I bought maternity clothes. And then came time to schedule my c-section and something didn’t feel right. “This baby is coming naturally” a voice in my head said. “Then this baby isn’t coming at all” another voice replied. I scheduled the c-section the next morning and the morning after that I went into labor.
I couldn’t accept that it was labor. In Fact, I went to bed early because “I was feeling off” and slept through a good chunk of labor. I woke up around midnight in early August telling myself that I had the flu, or maybe Braxton hicks, or maybe food poisoning, anything but labor. My husband woke up a little after me, also not believing I was in labor. About an hour of group denial later my mom told us we needed to go to the hospital. I rolled my eyes, I did not want to be one of those ladies who went to the hospital only to be sent away and told to come back when they were REALLY in labor. After driving to the hospital saying “it feels like I need to poop”, making my husband park the car, and walking myself up to Labor and Delivery, I was told that I wasn’t going home, I was having a baby. My son, Fox, was born 20 minutes later and my life changed in so many ways.
My body worked, it didn’t fail me. I had a living breathing son. Maybe there was a way I could give birth and be connected to the process and the people around me. Maybe I could get excited about pregnancy. Maybe I could give birth vaginally, or maybe I would need a c-section in the future, but no matter what I wanted the experience of building my family to be something I DID not something that was done to me. I started to study and learn.
I learned about midwives and doulas and ObGYNs. I learned about birthing positions and procedures. I learned about relaxation techniques. I learned about other pre-existing conditions. I learned how sexual assault, recovery from eating disorders and birth trauma might affect women during pregnancy and labor. I learned that statistically speaking what happened to my daughter really was a fluke. I learned that there are plenty of reasons women might choose to have a c-sections or an epidural or to give birth at home. Most importantly of all I learned and really began to believe that women really should be respected for the choices that they make about their body and pregnancy.
The more I learned the more passionate I became. I wanted to help, I wanted to be a part of this moment at the beginning of life. I wanted to support mothers and fathers and families! Most of all, I wanted to share the connection I felt with my family and both my births with other families. I wanted other families to know that this moment and the life that they helped create has meaning and value. No matter how big or small the life, long or short the moment, it has value.
This is the story of how and why I got started on this path and how I came to believe what I do. It had been long and hard and winding AND it is still in the process of happening! I love my life, my husband, and my children. I am so excited to use what I have learned to help others. I am excited and grateful that you are even taking the time to read this. Thank you, thank you, thank you.