We've all seen it - the typical birth scene in a film. A pained, screaming lady laying flat on her back, with her legs in the air, surrounded by beeping equipment, a pale, nervous-looking husband and a number of people in white overalls peering at her nether regions.
This scene depicts what giving birth should be, or at least what people think giving birth should be. And no wonder when women mention they're having a baby, most people conjure up this image, along with every horror story they've ever heard, to produce the inevitable outcome in their head - "Oh my god, you're going to have to give birth! I've heard it's the most horrendous thing ever! Poor you! Take the drugs!" (coupled with a look that's half sympathetic and half grossed-out).
This is currently a common occurrence for me. I'm just over 34 weeks pregnant and I'm at a point where I'm starting to dodge any form of conversation about birth when I'm out in public.
Not that I particularly want to. I'm not in denial; I'm not avoiding the issue; it's not that I don't like the idea of it. Quite the contrary - I could talk about labour and birth for hours. I'm instead choosing to discuss it with only supportive individuals - those who have a good outlook on birth. I'm also researching and reading the right material to physically, mentally and spiritually prepare me for a more positive birthing experience.
And all the work I'm doing to stay positive, to have self-belief, as well as understand the natural process of birth (something that we're losing in society), the more confident, excited and in control I feel. Many advocates for natural birth will tell you that positive input throughout your pregnancy means you're half way there to a great experience.
Let me explain a bit more. When we hear or see something negative or frightening, whether it's about birth or something else, this usually conjures up fear. For instance, if you're afraid of flying and someone tells you about a near death experience they once had in an aircraft, it's likely to play on your mind for some time. Not only that, you won't be aware of it, but your brain will also store this information in your subconscious. This can then decide to make an appearance in your conscious mind at any time - probably when you don't want it to, say, when you're about to board a flight.
And this principle applies to birth. Years and years of society portraying birth in the light that it has means many women worry about labour and the arrival of their baby for most of their pregnancy. Couple this with all the horror stories about pain, long drawn-out births, complications and instruments that "do what?!!" (trust me - everyone will want to tell you what happened once to a friend of theirs) no wonder woman aren't even allowed to entertain the idea that birth can in fact be amazing, empowering and redefining.
In 1933, Dr Grantly Dick-Read published a book called Childbirth without fear. Well worth exploring if you're pregnant (and even if you're not!). The basic concept of his theory, the Fear-tension-pain cycle, is that the more a woman fears childbirth, the more she will tense up and this tension is what makes labour more painful.
To explain briefly, you may have heard of the 'fight or flight' response - an evolutionary response we have to danger, which floods our body with the right hormones to help us 'fight' or run from whatever it is we fear. Although this response can be very helpful in life-threatening situations, we also experience it in our day-to-day lives where fighting or running is not an option - for example, feeling stressed at work, worrying about financial problems or having fear about a situation (such as birth) for whatever reason. The response works by diverting blood away from your major internal organs and to your peripheral limbs to give you more strength and speed.
In terms of birth, fear causes blood to be pumped to your arms and legs, meaning less oxygen can flow to your uterus (which, by the way, is the strongest muscle in the human body). This then means your uterus can't function as it should to allow you to dilate efficiently and to give birth (that's a whole other physiology lesson but you get the gist!). The hormones released during a fight or flight response also means your labour can slow or even stop. Pain and/or 'failure to progress' then results in, you guessed it, medical interventions.
I think the main thing we seem to have forgotten when it comes to birth is that mankind has done it since day dot. It's nothing new. Yet, it has somehow turned into an intervention-fuelled medical problem rather than being the most natural thing every species on the planet does (in some shape or form).
My Aunt (who I must mention in this blog and you'll likely hear me talk about again), a midwife for over 25 years and now a well-known advocate in the midwifery community for natural birth, said something very profound to me the other day. If women had their head's chopped off, most of them would give birth no problem. It's often the mind and everything we've been conditioned to believe, to fear and been told to do in our society that gets in the way of a good birthing experience.
So I'll continue to dodge the horror stories in my final few weeks of pregnancy and focus on the things I can control that may help me have a better experience, physically and mentally. I'll walk, swim, keep up my squats, attend Pilates classes, practice deep relaxation, breathing techniques and meditation. I'll read about and watch empowering birth experiences that often don't ever get mentioned or recognised. Because, yes, believe it or not, they do exist!