There’s nothing that gets me more stirred up than women who gloat about their pain-free births.
This is often followed with a spiel about how it’s all about having the right attitude. Similarly I’ve heard sweeping generalisations about labour pain being bearable and manageable for all.
Here’s the problem: It’s completely insensitive. There’s also the deeper concern I have about women judging other women’s experiences, and thereby creating divisions about something that should unite us in womanhood. There seems to be a competitiveness and lack of care when it comes to treating our birthing sisters.
A few days ago I read something on a popular parenting forum on Facebook. It was a statement from the author of the page, and it came off the back of several other statements in recent weeks about how gloriously pain-free her birth was. It read something like this (I’m paraphrasing)… that birth isn’t naturally painful, that fear makes it so, that it makes no evolutionary sense for birth to be painful, and please don’t tell your horror stories to pregnant mothers, for they only help birth become more painful for society.
She went on to say (more paraphrasing)… that she did everything in her power to ensure correct positioning, that she un-brainwashed herself of notions that ‘birth-must-equal-hell’… all which ensured she had her dream birth.
To be fair to this person, I think she may have wanted to convey that we need to shift our mindset about birth and be positive about it, and be less fear-based… and with education & support there is a fair chance that births can be better. All which I could have agreed with. But she didn’t express it this way. It is how she said what she said that is important. I think it’s vital to be sensitive to other women about the truth and reality of their birth experiences.
There is an air of gloating – that she did all the right things and therefore got her dream birth. Implication: the rest of us didn’t try hard enough or were unprepared. (And unfortunately this gloating only encouraged other gloaters to join in with their glorious pain-free birth proclamations, like it was an exclusive club).
There is an air of dismissal – dismissing the pain that exists for many women.
There is an air of dishonesty – where we are encouraged to be silent about the reality of pain that women experience.
And it is way too over-simplistic.
Sadly this is not the only statement like this that I have heard lately. It riles me because, although I do not begrudge those who have pain free births, I certainly don’t enjoy smugness about it, or those that imply the rest of us are missing out because the pain we experienced was either A. our own fault or B. all in our head… or that we were complete wimps for not finding it empowering. I find it completely insensitive and insulting.
Let me break it down some more.
Yes, pain exists naturally in birth. I’m pretty sure it’s well-documented through the ages as being so. In all cultures, pain has existed in varying degrees in birthing stories. I would hazard a guess that those that experience no pain would be in a minority.
There is also the fact that the body can release hormones to assist with pain in the birth process – which kind of speaks to the fact that it can be naturally painful. (And even more painful when the hormones aren’t working for you despite how much you’re willing them to).
Yes, I understand that pain is a contentious term that can be interpreted so many ways. Some women prefer to think of it as ‘pressure’ or ‘positive pain’. That is fine for them, but for the many that have experienced agony in giving birth, not even the best preparation or education can reinterpret the pain as anything other than pain.
And yes, it does make evolutionary sense to have pain. If it were so easy and completely pain-free to give birth, I think over-population may be a problem.
So that sums up a few initial problems I have with the statement. But I’m more concerned about the emotional impact this statement (and similar ones) have on other women. I think we need to be careful about dismissing the pain that is very real to some.
I’ve experienced giving birth twice. The first time was very painful. Exacerbated by the fact I had little support and was fighting a hospital system that was intent on intervening in the process. Despite my education and preparation I found myself getting an epidural for the last 6 hours of a 23 hour labour.
This led me to choose a different path for my second birth. I thoroughly prepared myself emotionally and mentally and physically, I was surrounded by support, I ensured correct positioning techniques, I had prenatal chiropractic adjustments, I worked with my doula, I got counselling about my first birth, I took hypnobirthing classes, I chose to have the birth at home, I embraced natural birth totally, I felt fearless, I believed in my body… and yet the actual birth felt horrific. It remains one of the most terrifying and excruciatingly painful experiences of my life, and one that still traumatises me today.
After that birth, I was angry at all the books, videos, and classes I had taken – the ‘preparation’ that spoke about achieving a pain-free or euphoric birth. It was set up as this ultimate thing you could achieve if you just believed in your body and if you let go of the fear. I knew it was going to be hard work, but I naively believed that the pain would be bearable if I had the ‘right’ attitude.
When I didn’t achieve this, when the pain was ruthless and relentless, I felt like I failed. When I didn’t get a break in contractions for 5 hours, and didn’t get any relief from my natural hormones, I felt like my “fear” had let me down. Even afterwards friends asked me why I thought it went the way it did, some implied was that I hadn’t prepared enough, or that I didn’t possess the resilience required.
Clearly, not helpful.
I know that I am not the only one in this boat. I have listened to many other women’s birth stories, those that prepared themselves and surrounded themselves with support, and yet still experienced unbelievable levels of pain and trauma.
While I believe it’s important to understand that women are made to give birth, I am just not sure if this also means that it “should” be achieved with no pain. I’m all for educating women about how to work with their bodies, how to embrace labour, and how to use their natural hormones to get through labour. It’s all great if it works and I’m sure it sometimes does, but what happens when it doesn’t work?
I do believe that we need to re-think how we approach birth in society, that it doesn’t have to be so fear based. And in this I think positive birth stories are extremely valuable. But I don’t think we need do this at the expense of truth. The truth is that some women’s birth stories ARE horror stories. But whether we experienced horror or beauty, we should equally have the right to express our experiences, with sensitivity. There is a time and place for birth stories to be told. I don’t think it’s about instilling fear. But I believe in honesty and the right to tell our truth to whoever asks for it.
I also don’t see much sense in sugar-coating the truth to pregnant women. To tell them that it’s not painful isn’t fully preparing them for what might take place. I would argue that it may even lead to feelings of panic when pain does hit, which typically leads down the road of pharmaceutical pain relief and medical interventions.
Birth is experienced differently for different women. I would prefer that we take a balanced approach. Let’s tell women about the whole spectrum of possibilities. Let’s realistically tell each other about the huge potential of women’s bodies to naturally cope, about all the possible scenarios, and all the varying degrees to which women experience pain, and the diverse reasons behind what drives the pain. Let’s take into account how a woman’s unique pain threshold is affected by her own history and exposure to previous trauma.
Then add to that there are elements of labour that a woman simply can’t control. Things like medical conditions, unexplained foetal positioning, or tearing that may add increased pain and trauma. There are certainly things we can all do to try to ensure the best possible outcome, but I don’t believe we have that level of control in labour to guarantee that it be completely pain-free.
So I am asking this of women everywhere:
If you experienced minimal, little, endurable, good or no pain in labour, I am happy for you. If you experienced euphoric, orgasmic and blissful births, I am happy for you. Truly I am. Just please allow for the fact that other women (even educated and prepared women) may have experienced something totally different.
Let us try to understand a very complex issue. Let us unite as women and support each other through this amazing passage we are privileged to take. Let us celebrate what powerful bodies we have and our ability to birth. Let us also allow other women to experience things differently to our own experience. Let us not judge or blame other women for their birth experiences. Let us care for each other by listening to and healing from traumatic birth.
And let’s have compassion for anyone who experiences pain.