This article is dedicated to my childbirth support team – my doula Donna, the RPA Birth Centre midwives, and especially to my husband Ray.
The rawness of childbirth
Traumatically painful. That is the short of it. Childbirth was really agonising. The pain was crampy and stabby, and it rattled my nerves so much that I thought I would eventually just collapse. I was perhaps halfway through the process when I realised that I had completely underestimated the level of pain involved in a natural, drug-free and low intervention birth. Like many women, I discovered how intense pain can charge through the body and then manifest as guttural and desperate cries. My roars of pain were simply irrepressible.
Throughout the pregnancy, I prepared a fair amount to help deal with the pain. Regrettably, when it came down to the day, all I had done didn’t seem enough to get me through. I felt that the calm and relaxed state promised during my hypnotherapy training just wasn’t attainable. I lost focus with my breathing techniques when the surges (contractions) intensified to the point of wiping the smile off my face. Far from being calm and relaxed I felt anguish, despair and worry. I understood why mothers had not warned me enough about the intensity of the pain. They did not want to scare me. Dwelling on the pain could only have amplified it.
Perfect chaos and a bit of mismanagement
Throughout labour and for many weeks afterwards, I reproached myself for my lack of focus with the breathing. I silently blamed myself, thinking I hadn’t practiced enough, or not effectively enough. I further blamed myself for letting my self-care slip in the last few weeks of pregnancy. I hadn’t rested and slept enough in the lead up to the due date. I also studied and worked very much until the end. I literally finished and submitted a university assignment during the first stage of labour. I guess I felt I could manage it, and that doing normal tasks would keep my mind busy and grounded. As first stage lasted 30 hours, I did quite a few tasks to help pass the time, and as you can imagine, I could hardly sleep. I went into second stage labour feeling tired and sleep deprived, which was a major reason why it was quite drawn out and difficult – about 12 hours.
Childbirth is a triumph
But here is the very different angle of this experience. At 38 years of age I conceived quickly and naturally; had a normal, low-risk pregnancy; and, a natural water birth with minimal interventions at a birth centre. That is, no pain drugs, no gas and very limited assessments and monitoring in an intimate and very non-clinical environment. In the end, the labour was long but without major incidents and it resulted in the birth of a perfectly beautiful healthy baby. I ticked all the most important boxes of my birth wishes.
When I debriefed with my support team and voiced my self- criticisms, they gently dismissed them. They said were taken aback with my level of focus and determination throughout the labour. I took a long time to believe this. This was because, sadly, I felt a certain disappointment about the trauma that came after. I would even say I felt ashamed. How could I not feel elated about it all? Why hadn’t the euphoria-producing hormones kicked in? After all, this euphoria is the reward of natural birth. This was the reward that I craved.
You are your own worst critic
But of course, four months gone, I now concede that I totally rocked my labour. The herculean feat forced me to exert new, extreme levels of endurance that I never thought myself capable. It also required a level of abandon and trust that I am not accustomed to express. I had to place complete trust in my support team and just let go and honour the process, come what may. This was hard for someone who likes to tackle difficult tasks solo and needs to feel in total control often. And yes, I stopped the breathing exercises in the middle of my labour, but I started it up again towards the end. There was no other option really. I chose to reject an epidural and other interventions for the benefit of my child and myself. It was really, really hard, but I did it. It also fostered within me a profound respect for women who do elect these interventions.
A sobering experience
Parenthood significantly changed my perspective on certain life matters. For the first time, I felt that a life without bearing a child could be limiting. There is nothing like childbirth and parenthood. Besides that it is a unique experience, parenthood opens up your senses to a range of things that previously went unnoticed. It is life changing, they say. I would add, world changing, as it opens up a new world. Of course, I acknowledge that this is not the case for everyone. Some people have different life goals. These may materialise into exceptional achievements that take them on pathways to places that the rest of us will never even envisage.
Labour was also a tough lesson on the advantages of youth. Age is a factor of lengthier, higher-risk and more traumatic labours. It is also a predictor of outcome for the child. It is unethical, but biologically, females are ready for pregnancy from menarche. Obviously, it is increasingly common for women to prioritise career, travel and other personal projects during their early adulthood. This is what I did.
Further, it seems unlikely that modern capitalist society could ever offer younger women the environment and support to bear children earlier should they choose this. (Stress on women to highlight that I do not mean girls!) A whole host of expectations of Western culture do not factor this in. I personally never desired to have children until I committed to a relationship with my husband who I met in my mid thirties. Also, I wasn’t mentally prepared to bear a child earlier than this. Nevertheless, I still wish someone had had this conversation with me in earnest during my teens.
Bringing to the light
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the pregnancy and birthing experience was becoming attuned to the unearthly, mysterious side of the process. You could call it spiritual. It is hard to put into words but perhaps it will suffice to say that throughout this period I got hints of other-worldliness. These were in the form of dreams, thoughts, gut-feelings and odd signs and events. Add to this, becoming the focal point of a big mama of a mystery – the arrival of new life. To me, bearing a child is a super-human, miraculous instance where reality is punctured by a non-reality. I know I’m not the first to comment on the miracle of life.
The phrase “dar a luz” which means giving birth in Spanish, literally translating to bringing to the light, reflects this idea well. The capacity of women to make a human body that will house a soul that she will bring to the light is in my view, divine. Hence, I attributed all mothers with goddess-like status. The gatekeepers of life. Seriously.
Goddesses and superheroes
Throughout our patriarchal history, men searched for a creator or creators. They conceived gods, creation stories and formed religions. Meanwhile, they ignored the fact that about half the population are the creators. What a huge oversight.
Childbirth made me ponder whether the exceptionality of women’s maternal role could be a reason that men in our patriarchal society have a tendency to be violent, to create wars and can more readily kill life. Afterall, if someone does not directly experience the hardship of pregnancy and birth; they may not entirely comprehend the magnitude of the value of human life. Perhaps they have a reflex desire to be the gatekeepers of death due to an existential need to be in charge of something important.
If not goddesses, then at the very least women should be considered superheroes. Non-violent superheroes who have the dual role of being the gatekeepers of life and nurturers of babies. Men have been good at thinking up superheros with amazing capabilities. Ones who fly, ones that are invisible, others that manipulate the elements or read minds, etc. Well, they don’t exist, but there are real-life heroines who can do the goddess trick of making new human beings.
Hasn’t motherhood given me some interesting new perspectives!?
Men and parenthood
Motherhood made me re-examine the role of men in regards to birthing and parenting. And no, I don’t think that men inherently desire to be the gatekeepers of death. My husband was incredibly supportive in my labour. I feel profoundly grateful for this because I hear that so many other fathers have not, as has been the norm in my family. So my first thought is that men’s role is ideally to be actively present and supportive in pregnancy and childrearing. Yet historically, this appears to be rare in many cultures. According to childbirth and pregnancy writer Sheila Kitzinger, men have stayed out of the picture until after the baby is helped into the world by a midwife or group of support women. Then the childrearing role is taken up mostly by the mother and female helpers.
But really, child-rearing is such a mammoth task. I cannot imagine any thriving society doing without the broad support of men when it comes to parenthood. To me, this means helping out with more domestic tasks like providing birthing support and childrearing, as well as the tasks a mother cannot do when she is busy with pregnancy, breastfeeding and other women-only tasks. Hunting mammoths springs to mind. Interestingly, there is new archeological evidence that shows women were active participants in huting of now extinct megafauna. It is nice to think our ancestors were collectivist and practiced mutual-aid in a way that was not restricted by notions of gender role norms.
Maternity and the patriarchy
My childbirth musings led me to ponder how birthing sits within the patriarchy. Of course birthing and childrearing are profoundly impacted in a patriarchal system. They are plagued with issues in both affluent and poorer societies, with some terrible consequences for both mother and child. I could go on and on with reflections about how birthing and motherhood is undervalued, mismanaged, trivialised and disregarded in planning. I truly think it is downright dishonoured and violated. But I won’t go on. That’s for another occasion.
However, I have reached a conundrum. If there is so much might and divinity associated with our role as gatekeepers of life, how did birthing and motherhood get so trivialised and violated? I think that if women’s reproductive role was valued appropriately, this mother-goddess wouldn’t have to go skulking around dingy pubs and dirty public toilets trying to find a change table. I wouldn’t have to walk for ages in the stinking heat or in the rain trying to find a comfy, well-sheltered bench or parent’s room or even just a nice patch of grass to breastfeed.
Focusing our strength
Finally, I will say this. After giving birth, I now marvel at confident, powerful mothers around me; on TV, in my family, my community and my social groups. (More than I used to.) The unassuming superheroes in our midst. I silently cheer them on and wish they could flex their muscles more and be more influential. I also cheer myself on, by telling myself that if I am capable of creating and growing a new happy and healthy human, I can be more confident and influential too. After having lived through this, one of my deepest desires is that we, the birthing women, could show more of our might and influence and make birthing and motherhood get the reverence it deserves. Here’s an idea. More services and spaces for mothers and babies would be a nice start to better honour mothers and this wonderful, wonderful process.