There is no greater experience of the human condition where the topic of fear and anxiety generates as much illumination and consideration. Childbirth is invariably synonymous with fear and anxiety, whether it is in identifying fears, eliminating fears, or in the embrace and integration of fears. Understanding that the powerful portal of childbirth can generate a diverse range and level of fears and anxieties for women as they approach childbirth is vital to knowing how we as a society can support women to have a more confident and positive experience of birth.
There is a reason childbirth has otherwise become known as “labour’ it is the most profound and enormous physical, emotional and spiritual metamorphosis that a pregnant woman can undertake and encompasses the ultimate female rite of passage. It is a journey from conceiving, nourishing and carrying her baby within her physical vessel, to birthing her baby into the physical world and coupled with that, the birthing of herself as a mother.
Throughout history, culturally it is only been in modern times that a heavy focus on fear and anxiety in relation to childbirth has evolved. Modern birth practices have facilitated the disconnection of women from the wisdom of their bodies and encouraged distrust in the process of birth itself. Current attitudes and practices surrounding birth that are often quite frankly not woman-centered are also giving rise to a generation of women faced with an alarming likelihood of facing unnecessary medical interventions during their births and in many cases experiencing birth trauma.
This increase in medical interventions and birth related trauma is perpetuating even greater levels of fear and anxiety for modern women leading up to and during their births. I will first take a brief look at how this fear in childbirth has evolved throughout history and then offer some wisdom on how we can help mothers to work with their fears in the ways most suited to them to prepare for birth with calm and confidence.
The forefathers of “medical science” Hippocrates and Aristotle (400BC), in their writings interestingly make no mention of pain or distress as being associated with normal and uncomplicated birth. Visual records of birthing 3000 years and more ago reveal images of birthing women on temple walls surrounded by midwives birthing in squatting, kneeling and more upright positions. These images of birth engender a sense that birth is normal, about women, powerful, sacred and life affirming.
By the end of the 2nd Century AD and with the advent of heavy patriarchal and religious influence that saw questionable biblical translations resulted in the notion of the “Curse of Eve” This is a reference from the biblical passage Genesis 3:16 “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing: in pain you shall bring forth children”…this meant that the association between pain and childbirth was to become embedded into the culture of many western societies.
Many midwives, women healers and wise women were persecuted and executed in this time and as a result much ancient wisdom and knowledge about birthing was lost.
Over the following centuries - women become scared of childbirth and of dying due to fear and lack of care and support. Local shepherds were sent to assist women who experienced complications during childbirth as they were not considered ‘worthy’ of care from a physician. Many women were denied access to adequate medical care – women and babies were left to die and women consequently became very fearful of birth and of dying during childbirth.
Fast forward to the mid19th century where it was Queen Victoria who insisted that she be given chloroform when birthing and therein the use of drugs during childbirth began. Over ensuing years - women began birthing on beds instead of birthing in traditional squatting and upright positions, as they were knocked out cold with chloroform, or believed it to be more dignified and easier and more convenient for the doctors to assist them.
Many women and babies died of ‘childbed fever’ due to childbirth being removed from the home and relocated to hospitals (which were very dirty places with very high rates of infection) Doctors at this time did not have an understanding of appropriate hygiene/hand washing practices.
In the following decades where the over medicalization of birth really began to take root, women were often subjected to a lack of knowledge and tools, birthing on their backs with legs in stirrups, having their babies removed with forceps and also having their baby taken away from them immediately after birth.
Women in general have come to really fear birth and it stems from the historical fear of dying and experiencing trauma. The fear has been passed down transgenerationally from mother to daughter to granddaughter until the fear and anxiety of excruciating pain and peril in childbirth has become engrained in the psyche of most women and therefore a modern reality.
Fear and anxiety surrounding birth in the 21st century has also been perpetuated by Hollywood depictions of birthing mothers highly distressed, seemingly unprepared and screaming in agony, mostly demanding drugs and medical interventions and doctors to assist them to “deliver” their babies!
So much about the inherent beauty and power and normal nature of birth has been lost over time!
To be perfectly realistic and authentic fear and anxiety can and often is a normal part of both pregnancy and childbirth. It is normal to have fears and anxieties surface for yourself and your baby during pregnancy. It is normal to fear the changes that will occur when this new person enters your life, the changes taking place in your body and how this new soul is going to affect your relationships and world, as you know it before kids. It is also normal that a mother may carry fears about how she will cope with the sensations of labour and her capacity to birth.
Physiologically we know that high levels of anxiety and fear, especially during early phases of labour can be unhelpful, these states activate the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system and the catecholamine hormones of adrenaline and noradrenalin that are released in states of high anxiety and fear can inhibit the function of the primary hormone of labour oxytocin. The hormones of fear then interfere with the action of the birthing muscles and down regulate the mother’s own natural pain killers the beta-endorphins.
This can lead to a cascade of problems in labour, including increased pain levels, decrease levels of oxygen to the baby and a prolonged labour experience where the system often has little patience letting mother’s and babies birth at their own pace.
Owing to the history of birth we just looked at and the current mainstream culture of birth, many women are carrying a variety of conditioned fears and unhelpful beliefs surrounding birth. It is a highly integral practice to give a mother the space, time and support to explore and integrate her fears before giving birth. Addressing fears in pregnancy and in the lead up to birth so that they are not acute and overwhelming during the birth process is therefore an essential component to any birth preparation. It is also integral for mother’s and their birth partners to reflect upon any past experiences of birth and if necessary engaging in a debrief or healing session with a birth professional who will listen and hold space for them and assist in the integration of this wisdom from their past birth experience or experiences. An even more profound way to explore and address fears surrounding giving birth is to learn about your own imprint of childbirth.There are many transgenerational traumas and patterns that are handed down from your lineage and sometimes having a conscious knowing of the birthing experiences of your mother and her foremothers can facilitate a deep and lasting healing for all women in your family line.
We know that at the precipice of most fears whether they be related to childbirth or not, there is a great opportunity to step into even higher levels of purpose and power and in childbirth this couldn’t be any more true.
Here are some ways to reduce fear and anxiety during pregnancy and labour:
Firstly feel confident to explore your fears, what are you most afraid of? ... What can you do to help alleviate any specific fears, e.g. through research, education, additional support.
Find your most resonant birth tribe, doula, midwife, doctor, whoever is in alignment with your vision and goals for your birth, where you feel safe, respected and heard at all times.
Create a calm and sacred space in which to labour in, you need to feel private safe and undisturbed in order to birth without fear. Tools to create sacred space include, relaxation music, candles, soft lighting, aromatherapy, birthing affirmations, your own pillows, blankets and comforting items, images of you pregnant or statues of your favourite goddess.
BREATHE… Learn how to breathe effectively during your labour and especially during your contractions, this will assist you to remain in the calming aspect of your nervous system, the parasympathetic division.
FEEL any fears that surface in labour, and EMBRACE them… know that women all over are birthing with you and that everything you need to birth with confidence and without fear resides deep within you, claim your POWER and use it for your baby.
Tremendous fear and anxiety doesn’t have to be a part of a woman’s experience of pregnancy and birth, with the right tools, knowledge and support she can realize her innate power, tap into the wisdom of her body and enjoy birth for the joyful and powerful initiation that it is!
With tremendous love in my heart Katie X