By Gabs Brown
Childbirth is such a touchy subject. There are very strong opinions on how it should be done, often with ‘natural’ and ‘assisted’ pitched against each other with one side very much being ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. The truth is, whatever vision you have for the delivery of your baby is not likely to match the event itself, especially if you are a first-time mum, regardless of whether or not your baby is catapulted out at high-speed by Mother Nature or artfully removed by a surgeon performing their third C-section of the day.
Labour and birth typically involves an intense coming together of the most powerful forces of nature with all the wonders, limitations and bureaucracy of modern-day medicine. It tests your ability to know when to submit and when to protest like nothing else, all the while playing out an almost-entertaining dance between opposites. I could name five women who all shouted, “I CAN’T DO THIS!” just at the moment they totally did it. I could name three times as many who were overcome by equal amounts of fear and excitement as they held their little bundle of scary tiny strange newborn life in their arms for the first time.
So, how should we approach such an overwhelming and unpredictable event? How can we come out the other side, however things went, feeling OK - feeling, at least, like ourselves? Feeling like we did the absolute best for our self and our baby? How can we make peace with those terrifying first whispers of post-natal depression? How can we feel good, even if everything ‘went wrong’ and felt so, so bad?
I had wanted a natural birth and set everything in place to achieve just that. I attended pregnancy yoga classes, went to natural birth talks, listen to hypnobirthing recordings, watched documentaries that, e.g., revealed the ‘SHOCKING TRUTH’ about the maternity care system, read Ina May Gaskin’s famed book Spiritual Midwifery and consumed countless videos on YouTube of women ‘breathing out’ their babies into a candle-lit birthing pool. The only thing that could possibly get in the way of my natural birth, I thought, was my mindset, and an overly zealous doctor. I believed, with all my mind, body and soul, that I could do it, and I was excited to prove to everyone that I could. I believed that belief would get me through.
When push came to shove (haha), to eliminate the possibility of anyone getting in the way of my au naturel birth, I wrote in my maternity medical notes that under no circumstances was I to be given pain relief and that I wanted only the midwife and the father present at the birth. I prepared myself only for a natural delivery and completely closed off my mind (and body) to the possibility of anything else.
You’ve probably guessed that I didn’t get the birth I had been planning for. I won’t go into the gory details, or harp on about the fact that it was CHRISTMAS EVE, but for reasons out of anyone’s control, I had a long, difficult labour and a baby that needed to be unceremoniously removed using forceps by a team of very many more people than I’ve ever wished to have staring at my nether regions. Half way through labour, I really, really, really wanted pain relief, and despite begging for it everyone respected my documented instructions to hold off. Excellent.
In the end, because it was procedure for the delivery I ultimately had to undergo, I was given a spinal block. That feeling of the anaesthetic kicking in was the single best moment of the entire birth. Afterwards, numb from the waist down, I didn’t feel the rush of overwhelming love that is ‘supposed’ to overcome you as you hold your baby for the first time, and I certainly didn’t feel like the empowered female goddess-giver-of life Ina May Gaskin alludes to in her writing. Everything I had believed that would help me ‘go natural’ had failed. I felt physically butchered and spiritually bereft.
I did, however, experience a tremendous and unexpected rush of respect for everyone in the operating theatre: the doctors, nurses and midwives who had given up their Christmas to help me bring life into the world (the baby was eventually born on Christmas Day). I realised I had been exceptionally narrow-minded in my approach to childbirth, and unduly negative towards the medical professionals committed to minimising all the many risks associated with such a precarious endeavour. I had approached childbirth as though it were some kind of battle between nature and science, when my actual experience showed that the line between them is indistinct.
The main thing that led to me having a far rougher ride than I had hoped was my beliefs. I believed that a natural birth was the best for me, I believed that all births could unfold naturally if only left to do so, I believed that my belief in myself would get me and my baby the best labour possible. If I could visit myself in the hours before going into labour, I’d tell myself to let go of all my beliefs and roll with what was actually about to unfold, not my imagined version of events.
I felt monumentally out of sorts for the weeks that followed. I hurt, I was traumatised, sleep deprived and had to cope, practically and emotionally, with a colicky baby who would cry for hours on end. I could feel the anxiety that had bedded itself within my blood during the labour growing like a hungry little beast into something quite serious, but for weeks I was too scared to look at it. I hoped it would fizzle out on its own accord…of course, it didn’t. Rather than keep pushing that anxiety away, I had to welcome it, see what it wanted, give it some air time. In the end, it was a single yoga nidra session that got me back to feeling like myself again. I lay down, allowed my body to move any which way it wanted, observed many different sensations (physical, emotional, visual...) as they unfolded, and, with help, invited the anxiety beastie to come forth and show itself fully. Turned out he was quite a friendly little fellow who merely needed a quick chat about how rubbish everything had been and could we please now just crack on with this parenting lark. You could say I gave birth a second time – to the anxiety I had been warily nurturing, albeit against my wishes.
So, what did I learn from all this? Firstly, that seeking to control any aspect of my experience is a daft business, no matter how good my intentions. Secondly, despite years of yoga and meditation, I am physically and emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes, I will need help, and that’s OK. Thirdly, the birth itself is a mere small step of the parenting journey that lies ahead, and regardless of how it goes, there’s no shame if those early weeks are spent not enjoying your baby or motherhood but recovering and carefully steadying yourself for the long road ahead.
A few years later I did it all again. This time I envisaged rocking up to the hospital and quickly hooking myself up with an epidural. “Bring on the drugs!” I proclaimed. Typically, out flew my little bundle of joy without me needing so much as a whiff of gas and air*.
Oh The Universe! How thee jest.
*Slight exaggeration, had to push like b****ry for an hour.