"Could I hear your birth story, AFTER I've given birth please!?"
I was sat in a cafe yesterday quietly doing some work when two ladies - one pregnant and one with a newborn baby - walked in and sat down at the table next to me. Once they were settled, the new mother launched straight into her birth story. She had been induced and had a difficult three day labour. She talked and talked ...and talked some more whilst her friend held on to her beautiful bulging tummy and listened to her every word. This new mother clearly needed to air her birth story - the sense of relief in her voice was evident as she relayed every detail and emotion. I knew that feeling well - it's so important for a mother to talk about the most extraordinary and life-changing experience she has just been through. BUT we need to be more aware of who we're talking to, what we're saying and the effect our story can have on that person at that time. What was evident from listening to this mother sat on the table next to me was that she felt triumphant - she wanted to share her experience because what she had achieved was amazing and she wanted to sing it from the roof tops...and, by god, so she should!! She was superwoman and I wanted to hug her and tell her so! My only sadness was that she was sharing it with a first time mum-to-be who was hanging onto her every word as if her birth was going to take the exact same journey. The new mother had no idea the damage it was potentially doing to her subconscious mind and the effect this could have on her when she eventually went into labour.
Not only this, but I too was sat there with my small but perfectly obvious bump and felt this woman's words penetrate my own mind, leaving me feeling tense and a little churned up. Why was it affecting me so much? I tell the ladies I teach to maintain a positive protective bubble around themselves at all times - where had my bubble gone?! I know the effect negative birth stories can have on my subconscious mind. I know that I have to protect myself from negativity and focus on the birth I want. However, this experience had already begun to effect me. I thought to myself, "what would I tell a client to do in this situation?". I'd probably say they should walk away and find another table out of earshot. However, it was 1pm, the cafe was packed and my fresh-out-of-the-oven scone had just been brought to me - I wasn't going anywhere! I searched in my bag and found my headphones - thank god for these! I plugged James Bay into my ears and instantly felt my shoulders relax. I pulled up my birth affirmations from my Instagram account and read a few over and over again until I felt my confidence and calmness return to my body. Phew. The bubble was back in action!
It is such a shame that the pregnant friend had to continue listening for another hour until they parted ways. I'm sure she appreciated her friends honesty and saw it as a way to help her prepare for something similar. Some might say that it's important women have a realistic expectation of labour otherwise they can go into it with blinkers on, only to be left feeling underprepared. However, no two births are ever the same so why do we put ourselves through it? Knowledge is not always power. Not if it only adds to our already preconceived, negative notion of what childbirth is like which, in turn, only adds to our fear. And fear is the last thing a woman needs to feel when she goes into labour.
A woman's experience of birth is unique. The best way for a woman to be prepared and well informed about birth isn't by speaking to other women about their negative experiences, it's by preparing the mind, learning the right tools and having information available to you in a helpful, informative way i.e. through antenatal/hypnobirthing classes, a midwife/doula etc. This is key to being able to make sound, INFORMED decisions about your own body and birth. An emotive recollection of one person's birthing experience is quite different.
So what's happening to the mind and body when we hear these stories?
The subconscious mind is like a computer hard drive. It stores information – experiences, images, words, emotions etc. When it stores dangerous experiences, it is effectively protecting us from them in the future. If we do experience danger, it triggers our fight or flight response to ensure we act in a way that will remove us from threat.
However, the subconscious mind can’t distinguish between real and perceived threat and will trigger the same responses regardless. When we hear a negative birth story, the subconscious mind holds onto the details and stores them as “what birth is”. When a woman goes into labour, her mind will search for the emotion that corresponds to the situation i.e. fear and will trigger the fight or flight response in order to protect us.
The Fight or Flight response is useless to a woman in labour!
This system is pretty amazing, right? But, the reason this is a problem for a woman in labour, is that she isn't running anywhere and she certainly isn't about to start fighting anyone or thing!
When the flight or flight response is triggered, we produce adrenaline. As soon as we start producing adrenaline in labour, blood and oxygen is diverted to the defence systems & essential organs (arms, legs, heart, lungs etc). The uterus is not part of this system so blood and oxygen are diverted away from it. The uterus can’t work comfortably without blood and oxygen so it tenses, creating pain, and that pain then confirms the mother's initial fear that birth is something to be scared of. This, in turn, fuels the Fear-Tension-Pain (FTP) cycle. Adrenaline also inhibits the production of the hormones oxytocin (which helps the uterine muscles to work) and endorphins (our body’s natural pain relief). We have the perfect system already in place - oxytocin to make labour efficient and endorphins to make it comfortable. We just need to keep adrenaline away and allow our bodies to work as they're supposed to.
So, please stop sharing stories that conjure up images of birth as something to dread. It can damage a woman's approach to what can be the most empowering and positive experience of her life. And pregnant ladies, from TODAY please STOP listening to anymore negative birth stories. You wouldn't go on your first ever long-haul flight and watch a video of a plane crash, would you?! You would want to feel positive and confident about flying so you could enjoy the experience. Well, why not treat birth the same!? From now on, only allow positivity to enter your mind and thoughts - your body will then relax and those wonderful hormones can do their job.
How and where can women seek positive birth stories that can powerfully reframe this experience and gain the support of other mums and mums-to-be? The answer is The Positive Birth Movement (PBM) - find out where your nearest group is here.