I am an intelligent, educated, empowered, professional woman, who conceived while in love and largely enjoyed being pregnant and was joyful about the prospect of meeting my babies. I have a strong and healthy body that is amply equipped for the labours of childbirth, and I prepared for it consciously, as best I could. And yet I found the whole process challenging, to put it politely, and certainly not as lovely as I had been led to believe it would be.
I cannot even imagine what it must be like to give birth as a child bride who is raped in marriage and forced to bear children while she is still one herself; or a woman who has undergone female genital mutilation and whose birth passage is scarred and contracted; or a woman who has been raped in war, or in a violent relationship, or by a gang; or a teenager from a religious family who falls pregnant and is forced to go through with the pregnancy and to give birth, knowing that she will have to give the child away; or any of the many ways in which women have to endure childbirth – and indeed live – in harsh and dangerous conditions, every single day.
When we give birth, the muscular wall of the uterus that enhouses the baby starts to contract, in preparation for pushing the baby out through the birth canal and into the world. At the same time, the cervix – the opening of the uterus – which has been held closed to keep the baby in, now has to open wide to let the baby out. So while the body of the uterus is contracting, the opening of the uterus is expanding, until it is large enough to allow the baby through. That is how it happens. As well as these soft tissue changes, the bony head of the baby has to fit through the bony opening in the pelvis. Both are malleable to some degree, but it can be a tight fit, and sometimes they get stuck.
Having a baby is one of the most intense processes a person ever has to endure. It is intense to experience it as a woman and it is intense for the people who love her to stand by and witness it.
There is a lot of talk about how lovely it is, but the reality is that it is a huge stress on the body and an enormous shock to the system, and the loveliest thing about it is when it is all over and the mother and baby are still alive and well. Many women are deeply traumatised by childbirth and some never recover. Many bear the scars, both physical and deeper, and many children are traumatised by it too.
We have been told that childbirth should be lovely, wonderful, joyous, etc., and that there is somehow something wrong with us if we don’t appreciate the miracle of nature and of life that is taking place in our bodies at the time. There is a shame associated with saying that it was not great for us, and that we don’t want to go through it again.
These judgements are made by people who either have not given birth, or cannot remember it. This post-traumatic amnesia, which is not uncommon, is perhaps protective of the babies, so that we don’t resent them and hurt them, and also protective of our species, because why else would we knowingly choose to go through childbirth more than once?
I have had two babies. I had never planned to have children, as my life was full and I did not think I was capable of having the stable, loving, long-term relationship that I think all children deserve to be raised in, but I fell in love at the age of 35, and found myself pregnant within a very short time. I was not sure that the relationship would last, but I was more sure about having the baby than anything before in my life. So we made a life together and moved to Byron Bay while I was heavily pregnant, as I knew that was where I wanted to live and raise my child.
I had my first baby at home in a rainforest by the creek. She was born at dawn, and as the sun came up, a gentle shower of rain fell and the kookaburras started to sing. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? It was not. She came a little early; I was still working, and we had spent my day off running around to get hold of the bath for the water birth I had planned, so I was tired. I went into labour just after we fell asleep, and I woke my sleeping partner to let him know, but he was tired and cranky and went back to sleep. I lit a candle and lay in bed, trying to keep the noise down so I did not wake him up. He kept complaining about the light, so I went and sat on the toilet, where at least I could relax and leave the light on. For some reason I did not want to labour in the dark.
The only thing I was really worried about was being unable to control my bowels and going to the toilet in the water bath and contaminating the baby, so I was quite happy sitting on the toilet and letting every other muscle in my body except my uterus relax. After a while, the pain became really intense and I did not think I could do it alone any longer. My midwife lived 30 minutes up the road, so I went to call her for help (I had decided there was no point asking my partner again, which gives you some idea about the quality of our relationship by then). It took me half an hour to crawl the few feet to the phone, the contractions were so close together and intense.
When my midwife picked up the phone, I said I wanted to forget about the water birth at home and go to the hospital and have drugs for the pain. She told me there was not time, that I was nearly ready to have the baby, and that she would come straight away. She also asked me where my partner was and when I told her I had left him to sleep, she told me to wake him up.
So he filled the bath with warm water and I managed to get myself in there. It was magical. The unbearable pain eased, and I was left with only a dull ache during each contraction. I relaxed and started to enjoy the process. My midwife arrived and together, we birthed my beautiful girl.
I cannot overstate how beautiful that moment felt. Perhaps it was just because the pain was over, but looking at that little being who had been living and growing inside me for nine months and feeling a love that is greater than anything you can remember feeling before, is certainly fair reward for all that labour.
My second child was born 15 months later, and is living proof that breast feeding day and night is not an effective contraceptive device! Our life was difficult, but the pregnancy was easy. He was two weeks overdue, but when the time finally came (why do friends and family call you every day to ask if you have had the baby yet?!), he was in a big hurry to come out. The contractions were so intense they took my breath away. I assumed my place on the toilet and nearly had him in it…the labour was less than two hours long, and indeed only lasted that long because I literally held him inside me while we drove down the hill where the tipi with the water bath was installed, because I was determined to have him in the water too. Completely crazy, I know. We had been heating the water with a generator every night for two weeks in preparation for the birth, but that day we were so tired that we had decided to leave it and the water was cold. My partner had started heating it when my contractions began, but it was a lot of water to heat in such a short time. So I slid into a tepid tub and my baby slid out. It was physically much easier than the first time, because everything had been pre-stretched and had not had time to come back into place, but there was a lot of tension between his father and I, which made it much harder in other ways.
I share these stories to show how ridiculously and out of character we can behave when we are pregnant and having children. Anyone who knows me well cannot understand how I could possibly have gotten myself into these situations. I am so particular about personal hygiene, so concerned about physical safety and wellbeing, so not a risk taker, that this story horrifies even me when I read it!
Why did I not go to the hospital like ‘normal’ people do? I was a doctor in her late 30s, and knew I was viewed as at ‘high risk’ for birth complications. I knew that if I went to hospital, I would end up with a very medicalised birth, with forceps delivery and possibly even caesarean section, neither of which I wanted. I did actually try and do the ‘right’ and ‘sensible’ thing and went to meet the local obstetrician and have a check-up with him. He was from the same place in India as my father and while perhaps that should have been reassuring, given that my father was the other doctor at my own birth (the other was my mother), somehow it was not. And I did go to the local hospital’s birthing unit, but all I could see was a hospital bed with flowery curtains, and hospitals were not places I felt relaxed in then. As soon as I got there, I felt my body going tense and tight, and knew that no natural birth would be happening there.
Why has birth, which is such an essential part of life, become so medicalised?
Life is precious, and birth is literally a life and death experience, when two lives hang in the balance. This can be terrifying at times and in order to try and control the situation, and minimise the risks to both mother and child, we have increasingly made birth a medical procedure, controlled by doctors and nurses and performed in hospitals.
Ironically this attempt to control is what gets in the way of what is truly needed – surrender, allowing and expansion.
Is there a joyful way to move towards giving birth?
When you realise you are pregnant, and you choose to proceed with the pregnancy, you know there will be a birth process at the end of it.
We don’t perhaps think about this too much until the time approaches, and then ancient memories may start to stir….
But when we realise what we are about to go through, it is too late to go back…and there is only one way forward…the baby has to come out, somehow.
The choices are: a ‘natural’ delivery, through the birth canal; or a surgically assisted delivery, with forceps, vacuum extraction or Caesarian section. These all have their pros and (mostly) cons.
Nearly all women undergo a trial of labour…which is called this for a very good reason. In some women, it is very clear that the baby’s head will not fit through her pelvis, and a Caesarian section is planned, but most of us are designed in such a way that we can expand to allow the baby safe passage through and out of us in the natural way.
Is there a way we can support ourselves through this process?
The birthing process is one of contraction (the muscular wall of the uterus) and simultaneous expansion (of the cervix, the pelvis, the vaginal walls, and the perineum.)
I found that preparing for and focussing on the expansion helped me with the delivery.
While pregnant, I focussed on stretching and strengthening exercises, so I was fit and strong and supple. You would not try and run a marathon without training, and why would you not prepare for giving birth? I also prepared my perineum by regularly massaging it with oil, so it was supple and stretchy too.
And when the time came, I did my best to let go, surrender, and allow myself to expand and be expanded from within.
Deeply focussing on my body, and what was happening inside me, rather than trying to dull my senses or escape, also helped.
I am as imperfect as any human, so this was not easy and not always possible, but even when the contractions felt too much to bear, I reminded myself that they would end, there would be a rest in between them, and that there was a purpose to all this and that was to deliver my baby. We are all vessels, and as women, in this moment we are vessels for another being to come into the world.
I found that giving birth in the water was extremely supportive. You cannot go into the water too early, because the force of gravity can assist the birth process, and if you hop in the bath too early, the contractions tend to stop. Plus, the water is not a sterile environment, and the longer you are in there, the greater your chances of contracting an infection. But the water relieved all the lower back pain and the pressure and the weight of gravity, allowing me to just relax and focus on my uterus, and the baby. And when the baby came out, we were held and supported in the water together, so the delivery moment was not so traumatic as it may have been had they come out into the cold air and bright lights of a hospital room.
This was my way, and I am not saying it is for everyone, but it was supportive for me.
Having people around you that you absolutely love and trust, is paramount at this time. You have every right to ask people to leave if they are not 100% there for and with you.
Know that you are held in love, and will be ok, no matter what happens. This is a life and death moment, for two people, and you have to have absolute trust that it will unfold as it is meant to, whether that is what you would have liked, or not. Let go of any pictures you may have of what your ideal birth should look like, and surrender to what is happening, and put absolute trust in your body. Let your body tell you what to do, when you can do it, and when you cannot and you need help.
Above all, surrender, surrender, surrender, to the expansion on offer, and to the glory of this moment in your lives.
Suggested reading: Having children: what’s it like for men? (and some tips from a woman)