I grew up terrified of giving birth. Between what I had heard in church about Eve’s punishment being painful childbirth and what my own mother had told me, I believed that giving birth would be the worst, most excruciating pain I’d ever have to encounter. As a little girl, I deeply dreaded the day I would give birth to a baby.
So when I was pregnant with my first child, I was shocked when a neighbor (who had given birth to two children of her own) told me that childbirth wasn’t that big of a deal, pain-wise. “It’s like menstrual cramps,” she told me, “Really bad menstrual cramps.” That resonated with me. I knew menstrual cramps, having dealt with severe ones for many years. And I survived them month after month. Huh. After her comment, something started to shift in the way that I was looking ahead at the birth of my child.
At that point, I decided to shut down the scary birth stories that everyone from my mom to random strangers wanted to tell me. Even though I wasn’t a been-there, done-that mom, I started replacing words like “pain” with words like “intensity” when I talked about childbirth. I asked my mom to stop warning me about the suffering I was about to endure. If someone wanted to share a dramatic birth story–especially if it wasn’t their own–I made sure it was a positive one, not one that would put scary ideas into my head. I asked my friends to tell and retell their own positive birth stories.
I didn’t want to go into the birth of my son scared. Deep down, I knew that my body was fully capable of giving birth to my baby (regardless of how exactly it would happen) and I wanted to change the way that I looked at labor and childbirth. Instead of something terrible and terrifying, I wanted it to be something empowering, something I could do.
NOT the worst pain of my life
And you know what? My son’s birth was empowering. It was intense. And it was definitely not the worst pain of my life. Giving birth was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. I have never felt so proud, so strong, and absolutely alive.
The power of a story
Stories are powerful. They shape the way we see the world from a very young age. My now 3-year-old son asked me, out-of-the-blue the other day, whether shots hurt. I thought about it for a second and I, truthfully, told him, “They’re not a big deal and they don’t hurt very much.” This is true. Shots are quick and often aren’t very painful.
But this is very different than what I had been told as a kid. I was told (by someone along the way) that shots would hurt, and guess what, armed with that perspective, they did hurt. And the pain was not short-lived. I would spend weeks worrying about going to the doctor because I was, perhaps, going to get an immunization. Even into adulthood I was scared of shots. Until one day, I realized that they actually don’t hurt very much at all. A tiny pinch and it’s over. All of that worry for a tiny, tiny pinch.
Likewise, I was told childbirth would be horrific and I decided to change the narrative. I needed to change the narrative. By changing the way I saw childbirth–even before I’d experienced it–I was able to impact my own experience.
Surround yourself with positive birth stories
As I write this, I’m just a few days away from my due date for baby number two. Will this time around be as thrilling and beautiful? Who knows? The birth experience is different for everyone and it’s different each time. Babies come into the world in a multitude of ways and I believe they all can be beautiful arrivals. I’m not here to advocate for any one approach to childbirth. I simply want to suggest that pregnant mamas, especially first-time ones, surround themselves with positive stories about births that went well.
And for those mamas who have experienced traumatic births, I see you. I am thinking of you too as I write this. You get to tell your stories too. You need to tell your stories. They are part of you and sharing is part of your healing. But, like any story involving trauma, it’s good to be sharing in a safe place with a listener who is in a position to support you. Your best audience might be other experienced moms, not a woman who is pregnant with her first baby and who already may be feeling anxious about her own upcoming birth experience.
As I prepare for my next adventure in childbirth, I’ve been reading dozens and dozens of birth stories. Most of the stories aren’t about perfectly-comfortable, easy births, but all of them celebrate the experience and marvel at the ways babies arrive into the world. All of them show concrete examples of how strong and capable our bodies and minds are.
And, most importantly, all of them show the birth experience as something amazing, not terrifying and torturous.
- Shut down the scary stories. If someone starts to tell you a horror story about a birth, it’s okay to ask them to stop. (It’s more complicated if it’s their story and they want to share it as part of their healing, but sometimes scary birth stories are told as rites of passage or because the teller thinks you “need” to hear it. In that case, shut it down.)
- Consider the words you use to talk about birth. Replacing “pain” with “intensity” was really helpful to me. I’ve heard other women use the word “rush” instead of “contraction.” You get to choose your vocabulary, so find ways to talk about childbirth that feel encouraging and empowering to you.
- Surround yourself with positive birth stories. Find your friends who have had good birth experiences and ask them to tell you about them. Read stories in books and online that empower you. If you’ve already had a positive birth experience, write down your story. Tell it to yourself and others.
- A couple books I’ve appreciated this time around that are filled with positive birth stories told by moms themselves are Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (Ina May Gaskin) and Homebirth in the Hospital (Stacey Marie Kerr, MD), both of which I got from my local library.
- A friend of mine who is a doula recommends two web resources which have stories and podcasts: Birth Without Fear and The Birth Hour.
- Share your perspective with whomever will be with you during childbirth. Make sure they are aware of how you are choosing to anticipate the experience; give them the words and ideas that you are looking to embrace. If you have a mantra or some other phrases that will be helpful to you, share them. For instance, it might be helpful for a support person to say, “you can do this,” or “tell me what you need,” as opposed to asking if you are okay or if you are in too much pain.
- Be flexible with your ideas. The birth experience doesn’t always go the way we plan it to. Be easy on yourself and appreciate your strength, your resiliency, and your beautiful baby–no matter how your story ends up unfolding. You grew this baby. You delivered this baby. Be proud. Reframing our expectations about childbirth doesn’t mean we are unrealistic or naive. Don’t get hung up on details. Instead, focus on the big picture of being open and empowered and ready to take on the challenge of having a baby, however that happens for you.