For a mum approaching birth for the first time, there are a bewildering number of ‘natural birth’ options, some of which seem utterly contradictory. For example, I talk a lot about calm birth on this website. Yet in my blog posts, I also describe the wild and very un-calm side of natural birth (roaring, swearing, squeezing, moo-ing), representing these behaviours as something to be admired and certainly not apologised for!
Videos of hypnobirths generally show women lying in deep relaxation, breathing steadily and barely moving a muscle. These images seem to contrast sharply with illustrations of active birth, which depict the many different upright positions a woman will instinctively adopt if she is ‘allowed’ to labour naturally.
Hypnobirthing proposes that, through relaxation exercises and hypnotherapy, we can release fear in the lead up to the birth, with the possible effect that we will feel no pain in labour at all. Mindful birthing, by contrast, suggests that most of us will feel strong discomfort and even pain in childbirth but, through mindfulness practice, we can learn to accept these feelings and fundamentally alter our response to them. Both approaches are bound by a strong belief that the mind exerts a powerful influence over the body. Therefore, preparation of the mind is key to a positive and empowering birth.
Then there’s Sarah Buckley’s undisturbed birth, where a cocktail of natural hormones is released, taking women into ecstasy (outside (ec) our usual state (stasis)), not to be confused with orgasmic birth, where masturbation in labour promotes oxytocin release and its associated pleasurable feelings. (Birth photographer Angela Gallo’s story of her own orgasmic birth was featured in the national press and then shared liberally on social media, bringing orgasmic birth, by no means a new phenomenon, well and truly into the public domain.)
‘Natural birth’ is, itself, a tricky concept to pin down. To some, it means birthing without any intervention at all, while to others it signifies 'merely' vaginal birth, with no regard to the events that go before.
These are just a few examples of the ways in which visions of natural birth can vary, but, together, they show how difficult it can be for a pregnant woman to decide which kind of birth she wants to have.
In her book Mindful Birthing, Nancy Bardacke suggests that, rather than focus our minds on a certain kind of pain-free natural birth experience, ‘We can turn toward the difficult or unwanted and find a way to let it be.’ She explains, this does not mean having no preferences about your birth, but rather it is an approach which helps you develop skills which both increase your chance of getting what you want and help you accept the reality of your own birth.
I looked after one hypnobirthing mum who breathed calmly through all her surges. But when it came to pushing, without any direction from us, she got herself into some modified Cobbler’s Post (we were on the floor and she ended up with one foot in my face) and pushed like crazy. Afterwards, a midwife I was working with said it was one of the least ‘hypnobirthy’ births she’d seen. But was it really? This mum was calm and confident in the run up to the birth. She was calm and confident throughout her first stage. But when it came to pushing, it turned out her body didn't want her to ‘breathe her baby down’, it wanted her to push like mad - and she was thrilled with how her birth turned out, because she just let that experience be.
’Letting be’ goes hand in hand with ‘non-striving’, or ‘allowing things to be exactly as they are', which Nancy proposes creates the optimum mind-body condition for the body to open and give birth. It is understandable that a woman's desire for a natural birth - and associated fear of the alternatives - can become a source of stress. After all, we are dealing here with an immensely important life event. However, if we are ‘efforting’ with all our might to be relaxed then, clearly, something is not quite right.
So what kind of birth should you want? Well, the good news is, you don’t have to decide now. And, in fact, it’s probably better if you don’t - as the Allen Saunders quote goes, ‘Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.’ And so it is with childbirth: calm birth can very quickly become wild birth, ecstatic birth presents in many different forms. You can’t create a bullet proof plan for the perfect natural birth. But, through techniques such as hypnobirthing, you can prepare your mind to accept, with confidence, the uncertainty of birth, so that you are not overwhelmed by the experience when the time finally comes. So the moral of this story is: don't plan, prepare! Nancy likens this process to weaving a parachute:
We don’t wait until we’re ready to jump our of the airplane to begin weaving; we work day in and day out making the parachute so that when the time comes to jump, the parachute may actually hold us. [...] By practising mindfulness now, during pregnancy, we learn some skills to help us find moments of joy during the jump and perhaps help us come in for a soft landing.