As a midwife, I’m conscious that within the media space for mums-to-be there’s an increasing focus on how women can feel empowered about their birth experiences. It’s a message that’s heard more and more loudly as women want to take control of their birth preparation and their birth choices. It’s completely natural to want to feel strong and free to have the kind of birth you want, but paradoxically, alongside this message of positivity, there’s also been an increase in the number of women who feel as though they have failed at childbirth – and usually this occurs within countries where it is extremely safe to give birth. I wanted to share my thoughts on empowered birth with you, to redefine how empowerment can look, so that it leads to more women feeling positive and accepting of their birth experiences, instead of disappointed.
Getting ready for childbirth is a different experience for everyone, there are many different approaches that may or may not be on your birthing wish list – from a water birth to a home birth to an epidural. From having delivered hundreds of babies, I know that an ideal birth looks different for every woman.
A lot of the messages I read about empowered birth focus on the choices that women make about their labour preparation or birth. Every woman wants to feel well informed about the decisions they may face during childbirth, and increasingly, I’ve found women are guided towards creating an empowered birth plan. There are lots of merits to this – from feeling mentally in control and prepared for the unknown, to providing an opportunity to think about different ‘what if’ scenarios. For example, if you have to have an unexpected C-section then a birth plan allows you to think about the kinds of things you may need to consider in that event (e.g. Who do you want to be present, do you want to discover your baby’s gender yourself or be told by the medical team? Etc.).
Overall, birth plans and the idea of empowered childbirth, involve envisaging the kind of birth experience you would like, the choices you want to follow and so on. Fundamentally, the power is given back to the woman, and the onus is that a mother should feel comfortable with all decisions and feel able to birth her baby how she sees fit. Of course these principles make absolute sense in theory so what’s going wrong? Why do so many new mums feel negatively about their births, when they felt so positive and empowered during their pregnancies? And how can you prepare for an empowered birth without setting yourself up for a fall?
Everyone has a different idea of the perfect birth, but increasingly the ‘perfect’ birth is considered as going into labour naturally, birthing without pain relief, having an unassisted vaginal delivery and leaving the experience without any tearing. Such a birth is ‘ideal’ for lots of reasons, but it’s also an unrealistic expectation that every woman will have such a birth, no matter how much she wants it to work out this way.
Empowered birth planning and preparation, in my view, should be about feeling prepared for all kinds of outcomes and respecting your body and the circumstances of your birth – taking them for what they are, rather than comparing them to a perfect concept of childbirth.
I’ve seen many women feel like failures for not being able to have the experience they wanted and I think this is where ‘empowered birth’ is failing women. Childbirth is such a definitive and unforgettable experience, it’s no wonder you want it to go smoothly and to plan, but it’s just not possible to order the birth experience you want, no matter how much hypno-birthing preparation, reading or pregnancy yoga you do. Your body and your baby will sometimes need assistance or help, or decisions that you’d rather avoid become inevitable.
When problems arise during childbirth it can feel like suddenly everything is out of control and that the birth you longed for and visualised throughout your pregnancy is suddenly being stolen. No wonder a birth experience that doesn’t live up to expectations can leave women feeling negative. With over 20 years experience as a midwife, I know first hand that the only real deliverable and guarantee from any birth plan, is giving birth. Your birth plan do’s and don’ts, wants and wishes, may have been read by your midwife and delivery team, but that doesn’t mean that your baby and your body have. Birth is physically demanding, often complicated and always individual. There’s just no way of knowing how your birth will pan out until it’s over.
When done right, birth plans can be a fantastic way to educate yourself about your choices and can also be a cathartic way to prepare for birth. Asking questions, discovering your options and thinking actively about the birth you would like, can all be very empowering, but often birth plans are seen by mums-to-be as prescriptive. Almost as something that can be given to your midwife, like you’re ordering a meal at a restaurant. No matter how much detail you’ve provided, no one has the recipe for your unique birth except Mother Nature herself.
That’s why I think the focus in empowered birth preparation needs to be shifted to celebrate all kinds of births, because every birth is an accomplishment, no matter how the baby arrives.
Feeling empowered is important, and why shouldn’t you? You’re growing a new life, your body is doing incredible things and you’re about to undergo a lot of changes. Celebrating, accepting and acknowledging all of these things is vital.So how can you prepare for childbirth, feel empowered but also taper your expectations to account for the unknown? These tips on antenatal preparation can help.
Firstly, prepare your body by nourishing it with lots of nutritious food, drink plenty of water and find time to exercise.
Emotionally you need to practice mindfulness in the every day, tune into your emotions more and listen to your gut and make decisions that allow you to feel more supported and more positive.
Mentally, shift the focus from having the ideal birth experience to aiming for a labour and birth experience where you feel supported throughout by a medical team that you trust. Focus on having the ultimate outcome – a healthy mother and baby, rather than focusing on the ‘how’ part.
It’s fine to consider your choices for a birth plan, but think of it as a ‘birth wish list’ instead. I’d even go as far to say not to call it a ‘birth plan’ at all, because psychologically this can trick you into thinking that on some level your plan is a given.
Keep an open mind about childbirth and if it appeals to you, why not read as many different birth stories as possible so you can see the breadth of ‘normal’ birth experiences that exist. From planned sections to home births to assisted deliveries to inductions, monitored births and more, birth is a very varied experience. Accepting that there is a range of experience will help you to feel more empowered about the birth that you eventually have.
Soak up as much antenatal information as possible from an experienced professional. Find a course, a book or resource that offers information not only on labour and birth but also about the early days with a baby as this will help to put your labour and birth experience into perspective.
Your birth is just the beginning of a whole new adventure, and one that you’re going to have to step into immediately. There will be time for reflection on your labour experience eventually, but whatever the experience is like, it serves as the pathway to motherhood, which is where your focus will soon be directed.
Feeling supported during labour and childbirth can make all the difference between feeling positive or negative after you’ve given birth. If you can afford it, consider exploring the option of hiring a professional midwife or a doula who can help you throughout your labour – especially if you would like to have a labour without an epidural analgesia. A private midwife or doula will have created a relationship with you and will be experienced enough to know exactly how to help support you, during the whole experience – from early labour to those intense contractions to the final pushing stages. What’s more, often they’ll be able to visit you at home afterwards to help things get off to the best possible start.
A debrief of your labour experience is often advised for around 6 weeks after the birth. This will give you a chance to go over your medical notes, understand what happened in your labour and will also enable you to discuss any questions, concerns or fears that you may have about your birth or subsequent pregnancies and labours. Taking your time to prepare for this appointment is advisable and will mean you can feel more empowered about the experience you had. You’ll be better able to understand your birth and the decisions that were made, and feeling well informed about your experiences can help you to reflect on them more positively. Even if it wasn’t the birth you wanted you may find that you feel a lot more relaxed having clear hindsight of what happened and why.
Feeling empowered is important. Women who are about to go into labour shouldn’t have to feel afraid or scared, although this is totally normal too! For me, an empowered birth is one where you feel able to ask questions, are accepting of the unpredictable nature of childbirth and feel able to acknowledge whatever kind of birth you have. There shouldn’t be any shame associated with births that fall outside the concept of a ‘perfect birth’. The ideal birth is often down to chance as much as preparation, so be kind to yourself, accept the inevitable variableness of labour and prepare for birth with a flexible outlook, an open mind and self-confidence. Whatever birth you have, you’ve got a lot to feel proud of and positive about already.
Pregnant? Sign up to Urban Hatch’s online antenatal course, HATCH™ to learn how to approach pregnancy and parenthood with comfort and confidence.
photo credit: Krista Evans
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