Dismantling the Fear of Birth
By Sharon Moloney
When I was about 10yrs old, I watched in fascination as our cat gave birth on our back veranda. She paced a few circles in her basket, lay down, gave a quiet meow, and out slid a glistening blob from under her tail. I didn’t know Ginger was pregnant, so it came as a revelation to see her gently open up and bring her babies into the world. As she set about licking off the membranes, I was amazed to see a tiny kitten emerge, eyes tight shut, wet fur and tiny mewling noises. Three more kittens appeared in the same way. A fourth blob, looking much redder and different to the others, appeared at the end, and I was shocked when Ginger set about eating the “malformed kitten” which was actually her placenta.
I still remember the deep awe and excitement I felt in seeing this miracle of birth unfold. Its palpable sense of mystery and power held me spellbound. We don’t often have exposure to such powerful natural moments any more – particularly around birth. In our busy 21st century lives, we live one step removed from the natural phenomena surrounding us. Human birth, like death, is for the most part shrouded away out of sight in hospital. As our distance from Mother Nature has increased, so we have come to fear her processes and regard them with suspicion, looking to science and technology to tame and control what we fear. Consequently, we now find ourselves immersed in a culture of fear about birth.
Although we are much more complex creatures than cats, the basic mammalian heritage is very similar and we can learn something important about birthing from Ginger’s behaviour.
Fear of Birth:
Where does the fear of birth come from? It is ingrained into us from the time we are born, sometimes even antenatally.1 We grow up hearing horror stories from parents, family, friends and even strangers in the check-out queue at the shops. Depictions of birth in the media, especially TV and movies, usually portray a medical emergency with women writhing and screaming in agony, and panic-driven caregivers rushing to save them. The hospital context, where birth now overwhelmingly occurs, conveys the impression of sickness and pathology, which many people find fearful. There is our cellular memory of our own birth, which may have been traumatic, often involving painful procedures or separation from our mothers. And there are our deep cultural fears of our bodies and their natural functions, especially for women in a society which idolises maleness and regards women as ‘other’.
Menstruation as a spiritual phenomenon:
To truly understand birth, you have to understand menstruation. I believe one of the most significant yet hidden contributors to fear of birth is our cultural vacuum around menstruation. Menstruation, especially menarche or the first bleed, is a nodal life event, the foundation on which subsequent female experiences build. When a young girl begins bleeding in our part of the world, she receives powerful suppressive messages about her female embodiment: shame, secrecy, embarrassment, the sense that there is something uncontrollable and contaminating about her menstruation. There is no ritual or ceremony to mark her coming of age, nothing to give social recognition and meaning to her fertile potential and her change of status. Such a comprehensive taboo works powerfully at the subliminal level to divest and alienate a young girl from her female power. As one of my friends remarked, if you spend one week out of every four feeling shamed by your own body, what does that do to your self-esteem?
And yet, menstrual blood is of extraordinary symbolic significance. It is the special blood in which we all begin our lives.2 It is literally the cradle of life into which a fertilised egg burrows to begin the process that will end in the birth of a new, fully formed human being. Such life-giving potency is truly sacred ground. Menstruation is a spiritual phenomenon, a fact well understood by indigenous peoples like the Native Americans and our own aboriginal people, but not yet grasped by Western industrialised culture. When this spiritual power is not appropriated and owned, it is experienced as something external, a force outside us which we cannot control and which is then feared. For many women, labour is experienced as a terrifying ordeal where they find themselves in the jaws of an alien energy that threatens to annihilate them – the bitter fruit of having been divested of their female power many years earlier.
The Body/Mind Energy Field:
Candace Pert, who did the ground-breaking research into endorphins in the 1970’s, speaks of our body as the outward manifestation in physical space of the mind. She says: “I like to speculate that what the mind is, is the flow of information as it moves among the cells, organs and systems of the body.” 3 This gives us a beautiful image of the inseparability of our body and mind. We are, quite literally, what we think and believe. Our bodymind is an energy field, a crystallisation of consciousness, and emotions are the nexus around which our energy spins.
For every thought there is a corresponding physiological and chemical reaction in the body. This is a basic law of the mind. A joyful thought gives rise to pleasurable emotions which we experience as endorphins streaming through our tissues. A fearful thought gives rise to constricting hormones which activate our fight or flight response. This has obvious significance for labour and birth.
By the time women come to give birth in our culture, we are carrying a whole litany of fear-based assumptions, beliefs and myths, which actually create tension and pain in our bodies and contribute to adverse outcomes in birth. Thought precedes experience. Our intention shapes the outcome. So it is imperative that we prepare for birth by dismantling our deep-seated cultural fears and putting positive expectancy and faith in their place. When our unconscious assumptions, beliefs and myths about birth are dismantled, our beautiful female physiology is free to function as it was designed, smoothly and efficiently, not unlike Ginger.
How the Uterus Works:
The uterus is the most amazing organ! At the beginning of pregnancy, it is roughly the size of a small inverted pear; by full term, it has grown to the size of a large watermelon! It is strong enough to hold the weight of a fully grown foetus, amniotic fluid, placenta and membranes, yet flexible enough to be able to open its mouth and release its contents, stretching to an astonishing 10cm in dilation.
There are three muscle layers to the uterus. The outer layer is comprised of longitudinal muscle fibres which wrap from the bottom near the cervix right up over the top of the fundus and back down the other side. Inside this is a middle layer of interwoven muscle fibres richly supplied with blood vessels. And the third inner layer of the uterus is comprised of circular fibres which are at their most dense in the cervix. During labour, the outer longitudinal fibres respond to the hormone oxytocin by drawing up, getting progressively shorter. When there is freedom from fear, this has the effect of drawing open the lower circular fibres of the cervix. The two different layers of muscle work smoothly in harmony together. In the absence of resistance, the cervix slides open as it was designed to do. This was what I witnessed with Ginger, our cat: – no fear, complete freedom from resistance, cervix opening and baby kitten sliding out.
In ancient times, the power of the uterus was revered as incarnating a vital aspect of the Divine. Goddess cultures bore witness to this spiritual power which was closely tied to the rhythms of nature, the fecundity of the Earth and the longevity of the tribe. However, the rise of patriarchal religions saw a demise of Goddess worship and a progressive dishonouring of the female power of the uterus. Deep in our cultural imagination, we still have the body memory of this womb power, but most contemporary women need to consciously work to reclaim it.
How Fear Affects Labour:
Because of the inseparability of body and mind, fear has a profound impact on the function of the uterus. The cervix is a sphincter and sphincters are meant to remain closed to contain the contents of the organ until it is time to expel them. In birth, opening the sphincter of the cervix is an extremely vulnerable act. Our mammalian response is survival oriented. In the wild, if an animal is labouring and a predator suddenly appears, it is to her advantage that her cervix responds by closing. She has time to run away, find a safe place and resume her labour, so that her offspring will not be devoured by the predator. No doubt if I had made loud noises or disturbed Ginger, she would have run away and found another safe place to birth her kittens.
As Ina May Gaskin points out, sphincters respond to fear by remaining closed.4 That’s what they are meant to do. The flow of blood is directed to the muscles involved in the fight or flight response. The muscles of the uterus are deprived of the blood supply needed for dilatation of the cervix. Instead of working in harmony, the upper and lower muscles of the uterus work in opposition to each other, giving rise to extreme pain. For many women, this “failure to progress” concentrates on the poor isolated cervix, to the exclusion of all else – including caregivers, context and fears – all of which play a crucial role in labour.
How to Dismantle Fear:
Thankfully, due to the unity of the mindbody energy field, we can work effectively to dismantle the fear of birth so that it doesn’t follow us into the labour room to sabotage us in our birthing. The following suggestions are based on what has worked most effectively for many of my clients:
• Understand the bodymind connection and how the uterus works during labour and birth; read some anatomy and physiology texts (try the library!) to gain an appreciation of how the uterus functions; research the information for yourself.
• Remember that labour and birth are normal, healthy physiological processes; birth is not an illness or a medical emergency.
• Develop a sense of faith in the wonders of the female body – it is capable of working beautifully in the vast majority of births; the World Health Organisation tells us that 85% of women can birth without any intervention.4
• Explore and become conscious of your assumptions, beliefs and myths about birth. Write down all you believe to be true about birth. Where did those assumptions/beliefs come from? Do they belong to other people? Do you want to subscribe to them?
• Choose your own beliefs and understanding about birth based on your knowledge; turn them into affirmations, write them on bits of cardboard and stick them up all over the house; repeat them frequently.
• Harness imagination – picture and visualise your desired birth outcome; in your mind’s eye, see yourself progressing through each stage of labour in as much detail as you can; see your face relaxed and free from fear; visualise your cervix opening smoothly and easily; do this as often as you can.
• Learn and practice deep relaxation or meditation – how to access your innate relaxation response, to slow the heart and breathing rate, reduce stimulation, slow the firing of harmful neuropeptides, stimulate endorphin release and engender feelings of calm.
• Remember our female bodies are superbly designed to accomplish the task of birthing, having evolved over many thousands of years – as long as there are conducive circumstances!
What are Conducive Circumstances for Birthing?
This is a crucial proviso – circumstances and caregivers can make or break a birth. For a labouring woman what is needed for her physiology to function at its optimum is an environment akin to that needed for lovemaking. This includes:
• Familiarity with those present
• Subdued lighting
• Lowered voices
• Permission to go deep within
• No expectation of rationality – no questions that need thought, no idle chatter
• No causing a woman to feel self-conscious or under observation.
Whilst this may appear like a simple enough wish list, there are few hospital birthing suites that can claim to meet the above criteria. So it is vital to choose wisely where and with whom you are going to give birth, and to be able to communicate your wishes to your caregivers before you arrive in labour.
Ginger found a private place, a darkened cardboard box in a secluded corner of our veranda, to birth her kittens. I still recall my awe at that moment. Birth, like menstruation, is a spiritual phenomenon. When the birth environment and caregivers are respectful, loving and supportive, and when a woman has freed herself of fear, she can allow the miracle of birth to usher her across its spiritual threshold into new dimensions of her being – where she can discover a place of spiritual power and knowingness that remains long after the birth.
1) Mongan, Marie. Hypnobirthing: a Celebration of Life. N. H: Rivertree, 1998.
2) Sheffield, Margaret. Life Blood: A new image for menstruation. London: Jonathon Cape, 1988.
3) Pert, Candace. Molecules of Emotion. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
4) Gaskin, Ina May. Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. New York, Bantom Dell, 2005.
5) Wagner, Marsden. ‘Fish can’t see water: the need to humanize birth in Australia. Homebirth Australia Conference, Noosa, 2000.