In her landmark book, Spiritual Midwifery, Ina May Gaskin (hippy extraordinaire and founder of 'The Farm' midwives) proposes that anyone present at a birth should bring positive energy to the room. Reading Ina May’s book, you get the impression that every birth that took place on The Farm back in 1976 was like the best kind of party: intimate, spontaneous and 100% psychedelic.
I imagine it going a bit like this…
It’s a Sunday in June. You’ve spent the afternoon walking, breasts swinging free, in the dappled light of the pines. Someone suggests a nut roast back at their place; you slip on a kaftan and the party continues. Conversation flows, some deep truths are shared, faces glow in the light of the fire, one friend smokes a doobie, another has a baby, what the hey, tomorrow’s another day, carpe diem, guys, carpe diem...
Today, however, our birth companions are rarely spontaneous choices, and generally require a bit of thought. So who should we choose? And why?
Ina May’s focus on positive energy is a good start. When choosing your birth companions you need to ask yourself the question, ‘Who in my life makes me feel safe and good’? And then the follow-up question, ‘Would this person be comfortable watching me in the throes of childbirth?’ Because the answer to this second question does not always follow naturally, and positively, from the first.
These days, it’s more or less assumed that our partners / co-parents will be at the birth. In this country, gone are the days where birth was women’s work, and the role of birth partner was inevitably filled by female family members, often a mother or sister. But many women still choose to have a second companion, and sometimes this role falls to the woman’s mother aka 'Birth Gran'.
Now I’ve noticed that most women have an almost visceral reaction to the idea of having their own mother at the birth - the mere thought of it fills them instantly with either comfort or utter dread. But for those of you who fall somewhere in between, I’ve compiled a list of some key Birth Gran ‘types’ to help you decide if your own mother would be birthing friend or foe.
The Cheery Stoic
This Birth Gran has often had a number of children herself, generally the old fashioned way. She keeps a low profile, glances knowingly at the midwife when her daughter shows signs of transition, and maintains a steady pulse throughout. She can appear underwhelmed by the experience, but, have no doubt, she is quietly psyched. After the birth, she will be careful not to encroach on dad’s turf, making sure the is behind him in the cuddles queue. She generally deals with the first nappy, and ensures a steady supply of tea. 10/10 in Birth Gran points.
Many of us will see our mother’s adopt an increasingly doom and gloom mindset as they advance in years. Some Pessimists are in their element when they finally have something concrete to worry about, like their daughter giving birth. These Pessimists seem to enjoy the intensity of the birth room, and can end up behaving (on the surface) a lot like the Cheery Stoic. However, you also get the Pessimists who are so sure that things are going to go horribly wrong, that they interpret perfectly normal events as harbingers of doom, and in this way can undermine the labouring woman’s confidence. If your mother is a incurable Pessimist, proceed with caution.
The Annoying One
It’s a sad fact of life that the person to whom we owe more than anyone else in the world is often the same person who gets on our tits like no other. You know if this is your mum. I’ve noticed that birthing women with annoying mums tend to fall into one of two camps: those to whom the annoyances are like water off a duck’s back, and those who are driven to distraction. If you find your mother intensely annoying, however much you love her, get her to stay at home until after the baby is born.
The Fuss Pot
This one is pretty self explanatory, and the success of the Fuss Pot Gran in the birth room depends very much on the type of birthing woman you are. If you want to be offered water / a cold flannel / back rub / TV remote every few seconds, bring her in. If you want to be left alone, shut her (kindly) out.
The Excitable Chatter Box
As a midwife, I find this type of Birth Gran - often expecting her first grandchild - quite difficult to ‘manage’. If the mother is also a chatter box, it’s fine. But when the birthing woman clearly wants quiet, and the Birth Gran is after a good old natter, I find myself torn between wanting to protect the woman’s need for calm and a natural deference towards my elders. Birthing women often have a tremendous capacity to block the noise of their mothers out, choosing to keep them close for the comfort they provide, but not engaging all that much in the chat. My advice? Know your mother; know yourself.
The One Who Can’t Hack It
Not long ago, I was at a birth where the Birth Gran was utterly distraught at the sight of her young daughter in labour. Fortunately, there was another female relative there to take up the reigns. Unfortunately, Birth Gran didn’t take this opportunity to make a graceful exit, choosing instead to alternate between weeping in the corridor and weeping in the birth room. I’m sure we can all agree, this is a situation best avoided.
The thing is, our mothers, as a general rule, love us very, very much. This can make them the best and the worst people to support us through childbirth. I’m sure the Birth Gran in the final example didn’t envisage reacting like that to her own daughters birth; it is hard for any mother to watch her daughter in pain, and for this particular mother the experience was especially challenging. However, the birth of a baby is the mother’s show, not the Birth Gran's; if your mother cannot offer you positive support, and make you feel stronger, she probably shouldn’t be there.
If the idea of having your mum at the birth is appealing, have a good think about how she will feel watching you experience the intense feelings of childbirth. Talk to her. Ask her how she imagines she might feel, if she even wants to be there? Make time to talk to your mother about her own experiences of childbirth, and explain to her the kind of birth you are hoping to have. If, for example, you want a drug-free waterbirth, and your mother is a champion of pharmacological pain relief, it’s worth airing these differences in advance.
Finally, please consider the relationship between your mother and your partner. The potential for conflict between the other half and the mother-in-law is well documented. Remember: we want NO tension in the room. None whatsoever. Positive vibes only, people. And remember, if you can't think of anyone you know personally who can provide your with positive support, there are hundreds of doulas out there waiting for your call.