While I was watching my mother give birth to my brother I resolved that I would never, ever have children. It was a wonderfully moving experience - witnessing my fifth sibling's arrival into the world - but the idea of something like that happening to my body was unthinkable. I was twelve years old and I still found it too painful to insert a mini tampon: a doctor's hand or a baby's head entering that sensitive passage, even far off in the future, was not an option.
That resolution stayed firm for many years but eventually, the infuriating prediction from smiling adults that I would 'change my mind one day' came true. A few hours after giving birth to a screaming bundle of joy and still numb from shock, I rang my mother from my hospital bed. "How did you do that seven times?" I blurted before even saying hello.
I wasn't joking. Giving birth was more agonising than I could have imagined in my worst nightmares - I wouldn't wish that experience, that pain, on anyone.
I began to see birth differently
That was four years ago, and in that time my perception of birth has changed completely. I am moved to tears when I hear women talk of their fear of childbirth or about the physical and psychological trauma they suffered giving birth or postpartum. Moving in mothering circles, I hear such talk often - but I believe that in many cases, having a baby doesn't have to be like that.
When I was pregnant with my second child I was tempted to plan for an epidural. But I knew that this would make the need for forceps, vacuum or caesarean more likely, and whilst I hated the labour and birth experience, I did appreciate after it not needing stitches, or morphine, or a catheter.
I sensed that birth didn't have to be this traumatic, and took myself on a journey to discover how to de-program my Western ideas of birth.
Deep down I had this sense that birth didn't have to be painful. This feeling went against my own experience and the experiences of most mothers I knew. It went against the way my culture portrays birth through television, magazines and in birth classes. It went against the bible that says labour pain is God's revenge on Eve for eating the apple. It went against even my own common sense.
Undoing the cultural programming surrounding birth
But at the same time there were stories that gave me enough hope to try trusting that deep-down feeling, crazy as it seemed. I knew one woman who gave birth without realising she was in labour, another who had slept through contractions unmedicated, and had to be shaken awake by the midwives to push. I'd read of a woman whom had an orgasm whilst giving birth and even seen the photo that proved it. Amongst all the fear and cultural programming was a little voice that whispered, "if it can happen for them, maybe it can happen for me too."
The only method I'd heard of that promised pain-free birthing without drugs was called hypnobirthing. I bought a hypnobirthing manual online and practised some of its visualisation exercises. They were very relaxing but I couldn't get hypnotised. My lung capacity couldn't manage the manual's deep breathing exercises. The author's 'know-it-all' tone grated on me but at the same time I was intrigued by her argument that western women are brainwashed into thinking birth is painful.
I'm not one for 'you can do anything if you put your mind to it' platitudes. I knew there were women giving birth calmly in fields on the other side the world but I didn't really believe that I could give birth like that. But I was open to the idea. And I took on board every tip I heard that might help: Welcoming contractions with positive thoughts and a smile, focusing on each inhalation and exhalation, relaxing physically and mentally, reversing the brainwashing that says birth is 'gross', 'nasty' or like pushing a watermelon through a hole the size of a lemon, and telling myself that birth is beautiful, natural, easy.
I made the decision to book in for a homebirth
I read Ina May Gaskin's A Guide to Childbirth and reread some of Janet Balaskas' Active Birth (with some skepticism this time - the walking I did, on the advice of the book, during my first labour really only served to wear me out).
Both these books are big on the benefits of birthing at home. A big source of stress during my first labour was being told several times over the phone to "stay at home" by different midwives and then having to fight the urge to push while sitting in school-hour traffic. So this time I booked into a hospital birth centre that was planning a homebirth trial. The trial was delayed and I only got final confirmation of my homebirth two weeks before my due date, but either way I felt confident that the continuity of care (the same midwife and back-up midwife throughout) offered by the hospital would help me feel more at ease.
For the last two weeks of my pregnancy I dedicated half an hour every day to doing a full-body relaxation, some breath meditation and my favourite hypnobirthing visualisation exercise. Like scientology, hypnobirthing advocates silence during birth. My husband didn't believe that I wouldn't scream blue murder during labour like I did the first time, even though I tried convincing him otherwise. I wasn't sure about it either so I finally mustered up the courage to warn my midwives - they were lovely and reassured me that screaming was fine (unlike the well-meaning midwife I had for my first son's birth who gently suggested I "put a little more energy into pushing and a little less into screaming").
Birthing my son was a euphoric experience
Despite my skepticism, my simple efforts paid off. Contractions started on my due date just as soon as I ticked the last thing off my long 'to do' list (which was baking and icing two birthday cakes). They kept me awake all night (and regularly visiting the toilet as my mucous plug came away) but my attention stuck to my breath like glue through each one.
I felt so relaxed that I figured it was just pre-labour. At around 7am I started to feel disorientated and asked my mum to take my toddler out for breakfast, contractions were suddenly coming two minutes apart so I called my midwife.
I got in the bath and felt instant relief. There was now a definite desire to be vocal and I let out a loud but comical, sing-song "AAAAAAHHHHHHHHH" with each contraction. My husband and I joked that our son would enjoy imitating the noise.
It was about thirty minutes after I called the midwife. She hadn't arrived and my husband was in the kitchen making a cup of tea. I remember looking out the window at the sky during a powerfully intense contraction, feeling utterly euphoric. There was a mild stinging and I put my hand down wondering if I would feel the baby crowning - instead, to my amazement, I found his entire head had emerged.
A miracle both ordinary and powerful
It could not have been a more different experience to the first time I gave birth.
It seems almost incredible that birth could go from agony to bliss just through a change of mind-set and some simple techniques. But I've heard of other women (on the Essential Baby forum) who have also had this experience. I think watching my mother give birth planted a seed. It was like I'd seen a miracle, something so powerful and at the same time so ordinary.
Having been through the experience of birth before also helped. I wasn't charting unknown territory this time. I didn't have that naive voice whispering, "so many women do it, how bad can it be?" I knew the intensity of labour, and I'd learnt that trying to run from or fight that intensity was as futile and counterproductive as struggling in quicksand.
I still tend to agree with a family friend, a mother of six, whom I once overheard saying to my mother, "It's wrong that women should feel pressured to endure the pain of childbirth. Why should we have to suffer like that just because we are women? People have pain relief when they go to the dentist." Fortunately, I discovered an infinitely better solution to that injustice than an epidural.
As a teenager I was repulsed by the nurturing roles of women
My unusual birthing journey led me to think about the way my perception of myself as a woman has been transformed through giving birth. I grew up in a culture that does not celebrate the physical signs of fertility. Women's magazines talk of celebrities who 'hate their baby bodies'. An obstetrician was recently quoted in a newspaper likening vaginal birth to "pushing out cannonballs". Women's bodies are admired for their sexual attractiveness (defined by non-stretchmarked skin, perky breasts and nicely-rounded belly-buttons - features I lost with motherhood) but not for their reproductive power.
As a pubescent this led to me wishing I were a man. Not in the gender-confused sense, but the way I saw it was that a woman's very childbearing capability made her inferior to man. My father worked, led, managed, persuaded, got paid, spoke at schools, travelled and had been to university. My mother breastfed, bled, bred, cooked, cleaned and nurtured (she also went to Nursing Mothers' meetings, playgroups, volunteered at school and for charities). To my hypercritical teenage eyes my father was alright, but my mother was disgusting. He represented the cerebral, she the physical. Her body and the way she seemed to wallow in its baseness - in touch with its animal instincts and desires - repulsed me.
Now, having discovered the irrational beauty in nature in myself, I admire the way my mother embraces her sensuality and seek to emulate her. I take joy in images of Neolithic fertility goddesses such as Venus and Sheela Na Gig and get a thrill when I catch a peek of a woman breastfeeding or of a pregnant belly.
We always hear so much about how important early childhood is but it's interesting that I was inclined to view the work my mother did as unimportant, unexciting. Now, thinking back, I realise that the work she did was tremendously powerful - raising children with great love and care, building community organisations - but I was blind to it then. I associated power with great artists, revolutionaries, business or political leaders. Not parents. One of the reasons I returned to paid work part-time last year was for the 'status'. So that I could reply with confidence when asked "what do you do?"
It's quite funny really - on the one hand I view my role as a mother as being by far the most influential and valuable I've ever had in terms of the 'big picture', but on the other hand I still believe having a 'proper job' gives me more credibility.
Feminine qualities a cause for celebration
As for giving birth again one day, which I hope to do, who knows what the experience will be like? Maybe the baby will be posterior and the labour very painful. Maybe there will be a complication and I'll need a caesarean. Or maybe having midwives and support people present at the birth (which was supposed to happen last time but it didn't turn out that way) will make me feel inhibited. Whatever happens, I'm incredibly grateful for the life experiences that took me from a 12-year-old girl terrified of tampons to a woman who sees that feminine qualities such as nurturing, sensitivity, birthing and breast-feeding are cause for celebration, not shame.
Click here to join in the discussion in EB's homebirthing forum.
Compiled by Anni Taylor 2008