When pregnant with my third baby, I had a very specific awareness of my ideal birth, and spent much time visualising this. I was conscious that this would most likely be the last time I gave birth, which deepened my wishes for a straightforward water birth at home. If I could have ordered my birth experience off a menu it would have been ‘One orgasmic birth please, and make it snappy!’
Tennis players, footballers, gymnasts – it’s well known that visualising a perfect move helps many sportspeople improve their performance. Athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill described using visualisation to prepare for the 2012 Olympics: ‘I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance.’
And when it comes to birth, part of effective birth preparation is to home in on what we most want for the birth. Pregnant women using hypnobirthing often spend time each day visualising their perfect or ideal birth. In contrast, just ‘going with the flow’, when this means avoiding aiming for anything particular, can mean missing an opportunity to captain our own ship across the ocean of birth, as this article explains.
It’s less commonly that I hear women describe their actual birth experiences as ‘perfect’. Some do though, and lately I’ve heard several birth stories where women said just that.
Kathryn Los wrote in 2011 about her sixth baby Alexander’s freebirth at home in water, saying ‘This truly was the perfect birth experience for me’. She described how she had resolved during her labour to ‘set the tone’ for a joyful birth experience, and found herself singing a favourite song through her contractions. Kathryn is a doula and supported me during my second baby’s birth; this birth story was a huge inspiration to me when I found myself pregnant the following year. It opened up for me the potential of what birth could be.
Katja, a Mindful Mamma hypnobirthing client, told her first baby Flo’s birth story at our local NCT home birth group meeting. Flo was born at home in water, and her father Oly has written a wonderful blog about it here. Katja joked with me ‘You said it probably wouldn’t be perfect, but it really was!’ Katja had had a clear idea of the most important aspects of her birth preferences, her deepest hopes and wishes, and these had happened for her.
Lauren, another Mindful Mamma client, wrote to me with the birth story of her first baby Joshua, who was born in a birth pool at a midwife-led unit after a straightforward labour mostly at home (Lauren found she was fully dilated on arrival at the unit): ‘It was a completely incredible experience, I have tried to capture it here but words cannot describe it really. I feel incredibly humbled to have had such a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world and feel somehow more whole having been through it together with Gary. I am also incredibly thankful that I was able to have the birth I wanted, for me and for Gary and for Joshua. It was exactly as my birth plan was written, the only difference being that I chose to birth in the water instead of getting out. I am so glad that I didn’t have any intervention and that I didn’t have any pain relief, I wanted to fully experience the birth without any haziness and I was able to do that. Our baby was so alert when he was born, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.’
It’s spine-tinglingly wonderful to hear a new mother describe her baby’s birth with such undiluted joy. But in my experience most women, however straightforward and positive the birth, are unlikely to describe their birth experience as perfect, and will express mild regret at some niggle, or surprise that something unexpected happened, or rueful amusement at some unintended development. The surprises are not necessarily negative – the most joyous moment of my son’s birth was the feeling of his head crowning. I’d been expecting the ‘ring of fire’ but instead I felt a huge stretch and pure pleasure as he surged into the world, I knew I’d done it! But niggles and minor regrets appear to be a common feature of sifting through the events of a birth afterwards – perhaps the iPod playlist kept jumping to an unwanted song, or the birth pool wasn’t ready in time, or the baby’s cord turned out to be too short for immediate skin-to-skin on the mother’s chest so it was her tummy instead. These niggles don’t detract from the joy and wonder of the birth, but are part of the process of a mother coming to own how her experience really was.
Emma’s third baby Nina was born at home in water, without the need for intervention of any kind, not even a vaginal examination. Despite Nina being the biggest baby of the family, it was the first time Emma had given birth with an intact perineum and she found this made a huge difference to her recovery. Although this was a completely straightforward birth physically, Emma’s emotional experience of Nina’s birth was more complex. Emma talked to me about her feelings during labour and how her emotional response developed in the following weeks, as she gradually took on board the events of the birth.
‘I was aiming for a repeat of Orla’s birth because it was so easy and so fast – I had a baby before I really knew it and I thought ‘Sure I’ll have another one of them!’ But I was very aware that I needed to prepare myself for the fact it might not be because every birth is different and third labours are notorious for being unpredictable. I do remember an awareness of it passing the time when Orla was born and slight disappointment that it’s not going to be that straightforward, it’s going to take longer. Then Orla woke up. I had prepared myself for that but hadn’t prepared myself for the fact that she might just cry for a long time. I hadn’t realised how upset she’d be and how much that would affect me. It really stopped me from being able to go as fully into another world and totally surrendering – I was much more present than I ideally would have been. I remember saying to my midwife at one point ‘Both my babies need me now’. At one point I was pushing earlier than I needed to and I said ‘Should I be pushing now?’ She said ‘Just do what your body tells you to’ – I realised I was consciously pushing and that realisation helped me. It was a more difficult and longer labour. My body was far enough along that it didn’t totally stop labour, and in the end it was a very straightforward birth, no tearing… On paper it was very straightforward, brilliant, but in reality it was more difficult because I hadn’t anticipated how I’d be affected by that scenario.
‘After the birth I was a bit disappointed. It was hard feeling torn and hearing Orla so upset. I felt positive about the third stage as that was the first time I’d had a totally normal third stage – that was the one thing I’d been worrying about beforehand. Once I moved on and thought about it a bit more rationally I realised this ticks all the boxes for a wonderful birth. Certainly having no stitches or tear made an amazing difference. In those early days, I was processing it by talking it through with friends and my midwife. I also wrote my birth story and shared it with friends. Now I’d describe it as it was a very good birth and it was all straightforward.’
A few days before my son was born, when I was nearing 42 weeks and feeling as if the pregnancy might go on forever, it dawned on me that to get my labour started I would need to let go of the ideal birth I had been visualising, and welcome the real experience I was about to have, however that unfolded. As Milli Hill, founder of the Positive Birth Movement, says in her article Don’t be afraid to plan for the birth you want, ‘What’s needed is balance – a way for women to find that half way point between throwing their hands up in defeat, and being so rigidly stuck to their hopes that they can’t face the idea of any kind of compromise.’
How can this balance be found? Mindful acceptance is the key – an acceptance that is not passive, resigned, fatalistic or detached, but active and positive. Mark Williams, world expert on mindfulness and director of Oxford Mindfulness Centre, explains it like this:
‘The root of the word (the same root as the words ‘capture’ and ‘perception’) means to receive or take hold of something – and through this, it also means to grasp or understand. Acceptance, in this sense, allows the mind to embrace the true, deep understanding of how things really are. Acceptance is a pause, a period of allowing, of letting be, of clear seeing. Acceptance takes us off the hair trigger, so that we’re less likely to make a knee-jerk reaction. It allows us to become fully aware of difficulties, with all of their painful nuances, and to respond to them in the most skilful way possible. It gives us more time and space to respond… In short, mindful acceptance gives us choices.’ (Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, p.163)
What does this kind of acceptance look like in birth? Recently I was reading about the way mothers are able to move from openness to the myriad possible characteristics of the mysterious baby-in-the-womb, to acceptance of the particular baby that is born, and I saw some parallels with how this works for feelings about birth. Naomi Stadlen, author of two of the most important books on new motherhood, describes the process of ‘making heartroom’ that pregnant women go through as they open up a space in their minds and hearts as well as a physical space for their growing babies:
‘After a mother has created an inner hiatus during pregnancy, however tentative, it seems possible for her love to flow into the empty space after the birth. The early act of making heartroom seems to prepare for the act of loving. Making heartroom is expansive. It’s like a pair of arms stretching out to welcome a variety of possible babies. When a mother feels the huge opening and melting of her heart towards her particular baby, her feelings seem to close around him, loving him, and him alone, for being exactly the baby that he is’ (How Mothers Love, p.16)
It seems as though something similar is happening with a woman’s feelings about the birth. During pregnancy, a woman may be holding on to her wishes, hopes and dreams for the birth, visualising the best that it could be. At some point, whether later in the pregnancy, as the first signs of labour begin, or during the birth as events unfold, this hold becomes looser and a space opens up to make room for the unknown – the variety of possible circumstances that may develop. Later, the mother’s feelings close around the birth as it really was, accepting every last detail. This closing can take some time, just as the mother’s body takes time to close and heal after the awesome opening up of birth. As a mother tells her birth story she recalls different moments each time, and each telling may reflect a subtly different emotional nuance.
Some women find that birth takes a completely different course than the one they may have expected or hoped for. Sometimes this may result in a sense of failure or overwhelming grief, burdening the new mother with a heavy load to carry into the postnatal year. But this isn’t inevitable, and often a sense of personal strength and achievement is the dominant response to a challenging birth. Research exploring new mothers’ emotional responses shows that feeling in charge, supported and actively involved in the decision-making process during the birth help them begin motherhood feeling positive about themselves and their babies.
Claire, who participated in the Mindful Mamma course with me last year, wrote to me about the birth of her baby Alfie: ‘Well, the labour process was interesting and ended up being quite far removed from the natural birth I wanted, but I felt so positive about the whole experience and that the right decisions were made at the right times. I remained in control, relaxed and calm throughout even when it became apparent the outcome was going to be different to what I had wanted and planned. We were able to communicate our thoughts and feelings to the hospital staff and they were wonderful in complying with our wishes and ensuring all the other medical team also kept calm and didn’t rush anything.’
This is not the passive resignation of coming to terms with something unwished for, but an active, dynamic acceptance that builds a bridge between the ideal and the real; gently letting go of hopes that didn’t materialise, working through challenging events, and savouring all that is good in the birth experience.
Picture credit: Letting Go by thiselena on deviantART thiselena.deviantart.com