The birth of my first child was my first childbirth experience. I am not alone in this; most of the couples attending our childbirth workshops have had no firsthand experience of birth. When you have never seen a woman giving birth, the idea of childbearing becomes, at its best, mysterious and exciting, and at its worst, unknown and scary.
This blog is the result of years of research and story collecting about what it looks, feels and sounds like to give birth. In my discussions with mothers, fathers and midwives, I have discovered that there are myriad ways for women to cope with childbirth. Individual approaches can differ wildly, yet remain effective and within the realm of “normal”.
Our rights to birth as freely and naturally as possible are limited both by the medical prescription of “normal” but also our own cultural perceptions about how women should behave during childbirth. I admit to believing that my “natural homebirth” would see me calmly breathing my baby out through my blossoming petal of a vagina. My moaning, writhing, grunting, animalistic birthing body was a source of embarrassment for me, it was something abnormal.
The truth is that there is a large range of “normal” behaviour in childbirth. The way women move, sound and feel during labour serves different purposes at different times and changes according to your physical and emotional needs. These states are not often described to women before they experience birthing themselves, which is why I am sharing them in this blog.
If you and your birthing team prioritise a setting conducive to natural birth, here are some of the birthing states you may enter, or that your birthing team may observe and assist with:
Active relaxation: A focussed inner state of trying to let every muscle and joint in your body give in to the power of contractions. During this time, the mother sways, sighs and surrenders her body to the work of the uterus: “I have no doubt that keeping my eyes closed and focusing on my breathing helped me especially in my first birth in hospital as the room was full of people but I was very calm and relaxed” Lydia Garner.
Burrowing: Some labouring women gain great comfort and strength from pressure against their bodies, such as leaning and pushing into their partners or even furniture: “I laboured most of my time clutching into someone as they had their leg forward I would sit on it and concentrate. The closeness and strength from others really helped me through it. Let my body take over and tell me what I needed to do.” Meranie Oliver
Making space: During labour, the baby moves to adjust to the shape of the pelvis which also calls for the mother to respond with her own dance to make space: “I spent pretty much my whole labour on all fours, with my head resting on the couch. I would rise up to my knees for a contraction, and rock and sway and vocalise through that, and then back to almost a child's pose position in between” Amy Scott
Resting: Sometimes the body needs time to get everything in line for the baby’s descent. During this time, the mother is challenged to wait. She tries to find physical comfort in lying on her side. At times, she will doze into the stillness between contractions – almost passing out until the contraction calls her back to action: “My eyes were closed on the toilet and it felt like I was sleeping in between contractions, my mum wedged in next to me so I wouldn’t fall off” Alice Jackson
Closing in: Birthing can be a hugely physically and emotionally demanding experience. At times women need to dig deep from within to find courage and strength. During this state of closing in, women often want get away from any external stimuli: “I think the fact that I was stuck at 9cm for such a long time discouraged me quite a bit... Soon as I moved into the bedroom in pitch black and silence things progressed, 20mins later I had transitioned, half an hour after that baby was born.” Alice Jackson
Expulsive motion: A wide eyed and physical state when women are using their whole being to bear down. This is powerful, instinctive and at times loud: “I was surprised by the guttural noises I didn't know I could make when in transition/ waiting for the midwife to arrive!” Jen Pomeroy
These are just a few examples from a long and varied list of ways in which women labour. I will be expanding upon each of these “states” of birthing in future posts.
We live in a culture where birthing is private; we rarely have a chance to experience birth firsthand. Our ideas of birth are shaped by dramas portrayed in the media and we are not always encouraged to share our birth stories. My sincere hope is that women have access to the knowledge that allows them to own their birthing experiences.
If you have birth stories you would like to share with me - ways you moved, behaved and felt during labour, I would love to hear from you (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
I am a mother of three living in Lyttelton, NZ.