I’ll never forget when a client who took my birth class recalled how nothing she’d hoped for had actually happened.
Before birth she had felt prepared, confident, and sure that everything would be fine. After, she was left feeling completely floored and let down—by birth, her body, me, and my birth class.
I’ve lost count of how many times women have shared with me their pain and let down after giving birth, and how they were certain they had been prepared, confident their birth would go well, or that they’d be able to cope with whatever happened. As a Birth Story Healer, it pains me to see so many women left feeling blindsided, unprepared, and disappointed—I know something needs to change in the way we approach the unexpected and unwished for when preparing for birth.
As a childbirth educator, nothing felt worse than the growing realisation that despite having the best of intentions, not only was my approach not always effective, it was also hurting the people I was trying the hardest to protect. At one time, I thought I had all the answers when it came to approaching fears and worries about birth. Working with different models of childbirth preparation over 12 years, as well as helping people process difficult births, I came to see that not all approaches are deeply preparing people for birth or honestly conveying the range of possibilities that can occur. In many cases, the way we prepare and work through worries (or don’t) is a big factor in how we are left feeling afterward, and how we are able to process our experience.
When facing the unknown of giving birth, we’re all drawn to different ways of dealing with our worries. Some of us bury our heads in the sand, hoping if we just ignore them they might go away. Others choose to “trust the process,” think positive, and not give our fears any real airtime. We might try to slay the fear dragon with logic, reason, and evidence—something we are encouraged to do by many in the birthing world.
Many of us who felt “prepared” had a birth close to what we wanted, so who knows if we were really prepared? Maybe luck also played a part, or maybe it was a combination of factors. If we have a different experience our next time around, we could be left wondering what we did wrong, even though we prepared the same. How would we know we were deeply prepared unless we were faced with something we didn’t want? Many of us, when confronted with our fears or things we had hoped to avoid, are often left feeling blindsided; and in some cases, we might even feel ashamed that we weren’t able to change what happened to us.
Birth preparation is often seen as only a positive thing, yet I came to see with much clarity that that isn’t always so—in fact, it can be responsible at least in part for some birth trauma and dissatisfaction with our experience. My own experience of birth trauma, despite being the most prepared and informed person I knew, did not prepare me deeply enough and left me wondering how I could be feeling so down when I’d done so much to avoid it. Later, when I understood more about emotional preparation and the meaning I’d taken from my experience, it became really obvious that the way I prepared wasn’t working.
I fell for the common idea that being intellectually prepared equals being realistically prepared.
How do we prepare ourselves in the most holistic way so that we are deeply ready for the range of possibilities that could happen, and are primed to be kind to ourselves no matter what happens?
Informed equals Prepared—or Does It?
One of the loudest voices we hear in countering our worries and gaining confidence about giving birth urges us to gather information. We are encouraged to fill ourselves to the point of overflow with facts, figures, research, and evidence-based information about birth—after all, “knowledge is power.” Or is it?
The idea is that the more we become an informed and savvy consumer, understand hospitals and how they work, the hormones and physiology of birth, and common tests and interventions, the more we can steer the course and own our births. Along with choosing a care provider who is aligned with our wishes, the promise is if we prepare ourselves properly, we can protect ourselves and be okay whatever happens, as well as increase the chances of getting the birth we want.
Birth plans or preferences are a natural byproduct of this information gathering process. This can be a helpful part of preparation depending on how its done. We have to ask ourselves from which place are we devising our preferences? What most of us really want at this vulnerable time is respect and support for our choices and to be considered in decisions, which in an ideal world would be part of standard care. Yet birth preferences can be written as a way to avoid having conversations with care providers and can give us a false sense of power and control over a normal, yet often unpredictable process.
This part of preparing for birth can be a very important factor, yet doesn’t always go deep enough, or reach the place from where upset and trauma arise. I’ve often heard patients say that if they’d known enough, tried harder, or made the “right” choices, they could’ve avoided things not going to plan. This mindset is anything but empowering when we realise we weren’t deeply prepared at all.
Gathering information helps, but not if it distracts from the deeper emotional work that we need to do. While gathering information we could mindfully ask ourselves:
- What is the motivating force behind gathering information or making a birth plan?
- What do we really want to get of this process? Simply to make our wishes known or to feel a sense of control over others and what might happen?
- Is this process about being heard or asserting ourselves?
- Which part of us is behind this process? Is it the part of us that is fearful and trying to get the right outcome to gain approval from ourselves or others? Is it our emerging mother self who wants the best for our baby?
As we move through this process, a great guide is to notice how we feel in our body. Do we feel frantic, tense, full of nervous energy, even adrenalised from the process? Do we feel more at ease or an inner strength? Mixed feelings, or something else?
Is our seeking coming from a more wise, centered, and compassionate place that knows we can’t control others or the way our birth will unfold?
Release Fears and Manifest our Ideal Birth.
Another dominant idea, rather than addressing worries head-on, is to shift attention to imagining our ideal birth. In the classes I used to teach, we tried different “fear release” exercises and spent time on visualisations and letting go of worries. While these practices work well for some and can help us to feel calm and relaxed, we often don’t realise—until we are faced with the opposite of what we wanted—that we aren’t necessarily “prepared” for it.
These ideas can also give us a false sense that we can face anything just by remaining calm. Even if we are able to remain calm when our birth plan strays off the path, is this actually considered coping? Does staying calm help us process a difficult birth afterward? Is this just conforming to an appealing idea of a preferred way to behave during the birthing process?
One of the reasons this approach (as well as burying our heads in the sand) is appealing is because of a phenomenon called optimism bias. Around 80 percent of us experience optimism bias, and this means that we believe that things will turn out better than they will, yet we hold a more realistic view of obstacles and complications for others. Given we tend to think this way, it probably makes sense to be overly prepared rather than overly positive. Or at least, while remaining positive, be willing to look at worries and potential obstacles and how to cope with them, rather than hoping they won’t happen or believing that focusing on our ideal birth will make it happen.
By not examining our worries more closely, the part of us that is resourceful, flexible, and can take action might not be awakened to be able to deal with what happens in the moment, as that part is simply too busy being relaxed and calm, trusting that all will be well and ignoring the range of possibilities.
Knowing Ourselves—the Missing Piece.
In order to prepare holistically for birth and decrease upset and trauma, our emotional preparation needs to be our major focus. “Knowing ourselves” is even more important than all the research and information we could ever gather about birth. It’s even more important than trusting our body and the birthing process.
Pam England, author of Birthing From Within and Ancient Map for Modern Birth, says, “In the real world, some bodies are not able to give birth. So instead of focusing on the adage “trust your body,” trust that you can meet whatever challenges come your way.” Perhaps this is what we could focus on instead—trusting that we can love and accept ourselves through whatever unfolds.
Instead of just visualising our ideal birth scenario, how about also imagining ourselves being able to cope with the things we don’t want to have happen—imagining something we could do to cope in the moment. If we can explore the meaning we might give to such an event with self-awareness and self-compassion, how might this give us a much deeper and more thorough preparation?
If we learn how to awaken the part of us that knows we can do our best but also fully accepts that we still can’t control others or the outcome, nor are we defined by it, then we can be prepared for almost anything. Learning to listen within, tune into our bodies and instincts, and love and accept ourselves—whatever twists and turns our experience takes—is a truly holistic approach that could leave us better equipped at that vulnerable time after giving birth, and help as we process and integrate such an intense and transformative experience.