I’m 27 weeks pregnant as of today. This begins the last week of my second trimester!
I read that my baby can recognize my voice now, so I’ll need to start remembering all those old lullabies my mom used to sing to me...
As promised last week, I want to talk about something that has terrified me since I was a very young child: CHILDBIRTH.
It’s been the big bad boogeyman living under my bed for all these years. A creature I’ve lived in dread of meeting.
Like many, I grew up knowing only that childbirth was excruciatingly painful. I saw it in all the movies and the depictions on TV. Every single portrayal is of a woman, red-faced, screaming in absolute agony, and writhing in horrific pain… looking like she’s on the brink of death!
And it’s not just the fictional depictions, either, that have us conditioned. I was raised hearing about my mom’s 36 hours labor that ended in a caesarian. I grew up surrounded by horror stories from coworkers, relatives, and complete strangers, all about episiotomies and stitches and epidurals that ruined their backs. Stories of vaginas that were left in tatters, of bodies that were forever damaged from labor, never to return to normal... I don’t think I’d ever heard a single positive labor story in my life.
So, it’s no wonder why I, like many women, have been absolutely terrified of childbirth. We've been conditioned to feel this way from a young age.
I used to joke that I was waiting to give birth until technology was advanced enough that they could just knock me out with anesthesia, wake me up when it was over, and say, “Here’s your baby!”
When I was told that this used to happen back in the days of ether and that it was dangerous, I conceded and said, “Well, fine, I’ll just have a C-section. They can cut it out of me and I’ll have a cool scar and my vagina will still be intact.”
It was my gallbladder surgery that was an eye-opening revelation for me on that front. I had no idea how traumatic abdominal surgery could be until that point. Even having had laparoscopic surgery, which is considered non-invasive, recovery took much longer than I expected. It gave me a healthy new respect for what a C-section might actually be like. Now, I couldn’t imagine healing from that while taking care of a newborn!
So, instead, I told people that I’d rather adopt. I cannot tell you the number of friends and young girls that I know who feel this way. Girls that say, “We’d rather adopt than go through the pain and potential ruin of childbirth. We don’t want to destroy our bodies.” Adoption is a beautiful thing. Something my husband and I have seriously considered. However, if we ever choose to adopt, let me assure you that it won’t be because of fear.
Needless to say, at the age of 28, when I discovered that I was pregnant, my predominant emotion was: FEAR. Yes, there was excitement. But, this was overshadowed by a deep, paralyzing, keep you up at night in a cold sweat, fear. For those of you that have been reading my blog from the beginning, you will know that this is what actually prompted me to begin this blog. I went searching online for comfort and reassurance only to be met with a bombardment of negativity! It was an avalanche of horror stories that left me crying in a heap over my keyboard. I even tried tailoring my searches with words like “positive” and “uplifting” and I was still hit with tidal wave after tidal wave of pain and misery.
But, a LOT has happened in the last 27 weeks. I have gone from a crying, fearful mess to a woman that feels genuinely confident about childbirth. Not only have I reassured my fears, I’ve completely abolished them! Now, I can say with pride that I feel both ready and completely and utterly empowered for childbirth.
Let me tell you how I got here.
I have done a lot of reading. At some point, I’ll create a page of the books that I’ve found helpful and a suggested reading list for those of you who are interested.
But, I can credit my newfound confidence almost entirely to one book:
Ina May Gaskin’s Natural Guide to Childbirth.
Some of you may have heard of this before, others will have already read it. But, for those that haven’t, do yourself a favor right now and get it.
Read it cover to cover. It will completely change your worldview for the better, as it has mine.
“Have you never heard anyone speak positively about labor or birth before? If so, you are not alone,” Ina May writes. “There is extraordinary psychological benefit to belonging to a group of women who have positive stories to tell about their birthing experiences.”
She goes on to quote a line from a Stephen King novella, “Believe me: if you are told that some experience is going to hurt, it will hurt. Much of pain is in the mind, and when a woman absorbs the idea that the act of giving birth is excruciatingly painful—when she gets this information from her mother, her sisters, her married friends, and her physician—that woman has been mentally prepared to feel great agony.”
Ina May says that, “The best way I know to counter the effects of frightening stories, is to hear and read empowering ones.”
Which is why she begins her book by showering you with over a hundred pages of POSITIVE first-hand birth stories.
Just reading those stories alone already had me feeling better.
After all, I had never heard someone speak positively about birth before. NEVER. Not a single story.
And here they were, page after page after page.
Did you know that some women not only have a positive birthing experience, they have an orgasmic one? Why does no one ever talk about those?! Why is it that we only hear the negative side?
Now, I’ve touched on all this in an earlier blog post, but it bears repeating. And, since then, I have finished Ina May’s book and I have found the rest of it just as helpful… if not more!
First of all, she gets into the logistics of labor.
I thought I knew the basics of it, but I thought wrong.
Reading the exact process that my body will go through was eye-opening. After all, there seems to be this misconception that’s been fed to us that implies that, sometimes, there’s something wrong with a woman’s body that inhibits her from laboring properly.
Maybe her vagina is too small; maybe her baby is too big.
But, we seem to forget the fact that OUR BODIES ARE BUILT FOR THIS!
Every human body is different, so we might labor differently, but rest assured that your body CAN do this!
I took great comfort in receiving that powerful affirmation.
Ina May’s book is not just a good guide for those that want a home birth. After all, I will be having my baby delivered in a midwifery clinic at a hospital. But, there are some important lessons to learn about modern day obstetrics.
I used to think that there was no way I’d ever give birth outside of a hospital. I liked to joke about home births by saying, “How could I ever look at my bathtub the same way again?” I also used to like to say that I would take every single drug I was allowed to take; that I wanted to be as doped up as humanly possible!
It never even occurred to me that some modern-day obstetric practices might be counterproductive. I just assumed that Western medicine, given how advanced it is, would allow for the safest and easiest labor possible. Surely, a natural birth would be harder than a hospital birth, right?
Well, let’s start with positioning. Most women give birth on their backs. But, did you know that lying on your back actually makes laboring harder? I didn’t! If you think about it, though, it makes perfect sense—you’re working against gravity.
In fact, no one used to give birth on her back. “Women in traditional societies all over the world almost always choose upright positions in labor. This worldwide consensus suggests that women don’t choose to lie down to labor and give birth unless forces within their culture pressure them into doing so. The labor postures common to traditional women’s cultures all over the world include sitting, kneeling, standing, squatting, or the hands-and-knees position.”
It wasn’t until King Louis XIV of France decided that he wanted to watch his mistress give birth that this became a practice; before then, men weren’t even allowed in the delivery room!
If it makes it that much harder, though, why do we still do it? For a few reasons. It makes it easier for the delivering obstetrician to see what’s going on down there. But, wait a minute… they make the situation harder for the woman just so it’s easier on the doctor? I couldn’t believe it! And yet, I’ve confirmed this fact from a few other sources outside of Ina May’s book.
Also, most women these days are hooked up to IV bags or they are connected to fetal monitors… all of which keep women lying down or, at the very least, keep their movement severely restricted. It’s best (and much less painful!) if you are allowed to move freely. “Movement greatly helps cervical dilation during the early part of labor and helps bring the baby into the most advantageous position for passage through the pelvis. That’s why it’s beneficial to stay on your feet as much as possible,” writes Ina May.
Here’s another interesting fact: did you know that getting induced actually makes labor more painful?
“An induced labor is quite a different process from a spontaneous labor,” Ina May tells us. “Women tend to have harsher, stronger, significantly more painful contractions with chemically induced labors, so one who can cope with a spontaneous labor often finds that she needs pain medication to bear the more insistent contractions of an induced one.”
Ina May describes scenarios in which an induction might be necessary, but they are fewer than you might think.
So why are induced labors so common? Again, I was shocked to find that it’s mostly for factors of convenience. Beds and rooms that need to be made available, doctors that have other patients to see to… Hospitals, especially in America, are a business and they don’t always function with the mothers’ well-being in mind. If a labor is taking too long, it’s in the hospital’s best interest to speed things along.
Eating and drinking during labor is another thing that is often restricted during hospital births. So many women are told that they aren’t allowed a snack; that all they can have is a bit of ice to suck on. Why is that a problem? Labor is hard work! “Birth—as experienced by the mother—is the Mount Everest of physical functions in any mammal.” Our bodies need fuel to have the strength to continue, especially for labors that might last a long time.
So, why not allow women to eat or drink?
For a few reasons. As you may have guessed, none of them are for the woman’s benefit.
Number one: they want to prepare you in case you need a caesarian.
The worry is that under general anesthesia, a woman might vomit and inhale some of this while unconscious. “Neither spinal anesthesia nor an epidural causes nausea or unconsciousness, but the restriction of eating and drinking has lingered on without any justification.”
Number two (no pun in intended): they don’t want you to poop.
Apparently, that’s something that’s quite common during labor, which was another fun fact I didn’t know. But, it’s very natural and nothing to be ashamed of. I’d imagine most attending nurses and hospital staff would be pretty used to cleaning up bodily fluids of all variety. It’s certainly not a good enough reason to keep women from getting the nourishment they need for strength and vigor.
Think about it: “Labor is the only hard work that people do that carries a medical prohibition against eating when hungry or drinking when thirsty.” That’s pretty messed up, right?
Ina May talks a lot about the mind-body connection. “Western medicine assumes a total separation between mind and body. Thoughts and feelings are considered irrelevant to physical well-being and physiological functions. When something goes wrong with the body, our culture teaches that pharmaceutical medicines or surgery will be necessary.” Yet, she goes on to describe hundreds of scenarios where the mind-body connection is undeniable, especially with regards to labor.
Fear can be a major inhibitor in all factors of life, but especially childbirth. Labor can be directly affected by our psychology. “Doubt, depression, pessimism, and distrust of the innate abilities of our bodies can all trigger stress hormones that may keep us in a continual state of stress until we learn how to deal with the emotions that produce it,” Ina May warns. In her book, there are so many stories of women whose labor was inhibited by either a negative mindset or an external factor that made them feel uncomfortable or stressed. It is imperative that a woman feel comfortable in her birthing room; labor can actually last longer if that’s not the case.
On the flip side of that coin, words of encouragement and reassurance can work like magic spells. “… true words spoken can sometimes relax pelvic muscles by discharging emotions that effectively block further progress in labor.”
She goes on to talk about oxytocin, which is the love hormone... but it can also help work, along with endorphins, as the body's natural painkiller. “Oxytocin is a reproductive hormone that represents the pole opposite to that of stress hormones. Naturally released oxytocin powerfully affects our brains and bodies in ways that are not well-known within the medical field.”
What releases oxytocin? Feelings of pleasure, like an orgasm. The act of saying, “I love you.” Deep, slow breathing, meditation, singing, dancing, laughing, kissing, praise, hugging… all of these stimulate natural oxytocin release. And all of these are an example of the undeniable power of the mind-body connection.
One of my greatest fears of childbirth has always been tearing.
Just the word episiotomy makes me cringe.
Like many, I have grown up thinking, “how can something as big as a baby come out of a hole that is so small?” Well, it turns out, it’s exactly this line of thinking that can be a handicap and make my worst fears come true.
“Given ideal conditions, a vagina is able to accommodate the size and shape of whatever it contains, whether we are talking about a penis or a baby. The big ‘secret’ is that it is better able to accomplish this task when we can imagine or visualize this happening.” Ina May tells the story of one woman whose vagina opened wider than she had ever seen before. The woman’s secret? She kept repeating the inner mantra, “You are going to get huge. You are going to get HUGE.”
It’s just like Stephen King said, that if you go into labor believing it will be excruciatingly painful, guess what? It probably will be. Well, if you go into labor thinking that there’s no way your vagina can accommodate delivering a baby… you might struggle a lot more.
Ina May discusses many different concepts and techniques to help avoid tearing, beyond just the mental ones. Staying as relaxed as possible is your best weapon.
There is apparently a direct correlation between the mouth and throat and the cervix and vagina. “A relaxed mouth means a more relaxed cervix. Women whose mouths and throats are open and relaxed during labor and birth rarely need stitches after childbirth…. On the other hand, women who grimace and clench their jaws while pushing having a greater tendency to tear, because their perineal tissues are more rigid.”
So if you feel like grinding your teeth and clenching your jaws, stop yourself!
She recommends several techniques for keeping your mouth and jaw relaxed, like taking deep breaths and exhaling with audible sighs. Make a low-pitched sound, enough to vibrate your chest. She recommends singing, as well, with an emphasis on sounds that come from as deep down in the body as possible. Ina May and her partners used to tell women to moo like a cow or to blow raspberries or make what she calls “horse lips”… all of these are tactics that will keep your mouth and jaw relaxed and therefore your cervix, too.
Here’s another fun fact that no one seems to want to talk about: sexual arousal is not only great for stimulating the progression of labor, but it can help keep you from tearing!
Why does no one talk about this? Does sex make us that uncomfortable? No one wants to imagine a childbirth that was somehow arousing or even, dare I say it, pleasurable?
Think about it, though: the same process that created this life inside of you can help you bring it into the world... that's a beautiful notion.
Sexual stimulation releases oxytocin, the body’s natural painkiller. I’ll confess that the idea of getting handsy in front of nurses or midwives at the hospital is a little nerve-wracking… But, honestly, if it means that I don’t tear, I’m willing to throw modesty out the window!
Besides which, I’m already going to have all my parts exposed; I’m not sure how much space there is for modesty in the delivery room anyway.
One of the things that I like most about the Natural Guide to Childbirth is that it is not filled with opinions.
In addition to the many first-hand accounts and testimonials, this book is filled with facts.
The pages are littered with her source citations. So, if ever you doubt something that she’s written, it is incredibly easy to fact-check her.
In a world where anyone can falsely declare themselves an expert, I think this is an incredibly important distinction.
Ina May Gaskin is undeniably a reputable source for information.
I could easily sit here and write for hours and hours describing the lessons that I’ve learned from this book. But, for your sake, I’ll cap it off here. These were just a few of the takeaways that I have found massively reassuring.
The biggest one being that: while, no matter what, labor is going to be hard work...but, if you go into it with a positive mindset, it will definitely help! Whereas if you go in with a negative mindset, it will most certainly hinder. Our minds are incredibly powerful. Let them be our ally, not the opposite.
And, if we advocate for ourselves and take charge of our delivery, we don't have to adhere to so many of these modern-day obstetric practices that would make our labor more difficult. Remember: you are in charge. Don't let any doctor or nurse coerce you into something that you don't understand or that you don't want to do. This is our body, our pregnancy, our childbirth--not theirs!
You might think that I’m pushing this book pretty hard…and you’re right! But, I promise that this is not a sponsored post in anyway; I have zero stock in promoting this. I’m not exaggerating, though, when I say that this book has been everything that I needed. It transformed me from a woman who was terrified of childbirth into a woman that is now reassured, uplifted, and empowered. I can confidently say that I am no longer scared. And I firmly believe that, even if you choose to have a normal hospital birth, every single pregnant woman would benefit from reading it, too.
What have been your biggest fears of childbirth? Or, rather, what was your labor experience? Would you have benefited from reading this first? As usual, I’d love to hear from you all, whether you’re pregnant now, have already given birth, or aren’t pregnant at all. Let’s start a dialogue!
I'm Kelsey! Proud Iowan native, world traveler, writer, wife to the most incredible husband, and now soon to be mother