By Tamara Parnay
Birthing is a hugely important subject for parents and parents-to-be. We have a great deal to learn from and share with others, but with this subject, due to its potential contentiousness, we may struggle in our attempts to tap into our collective wealth of knowledge and experience. While the purpose of this article is not to sway readers one way or another about where and how to give birth, it does intend to point out the availability of a wide range of firsthand birth stories, which—perhaps more effectively than any other form of childbirth education—encourage and enable expectant parents to inform and prepare themselves.
Cultivating an empathetic environment for the sharing of our birth stories is a first step towards returning to women the wisdom and control of giving birth. These stories are powerful and empowering. Childbirth is one of life’s most marvelous, miraculous experiences. Giving birth is not only about having babies; it’s also about motherhood. In the same light, sharing birth stories is not only about providing or collecting information; it’s also about community.
As for anything so personal, we need to start by providing a non-threatening environment conducive to open, heart-to-heart participation.
The topic of birthing is highly charged. The contention seems to arise mainly between those who have had natural births or homebirths and those who, for whatever reason, haven’t. One side may come across as patronizing, smug and self-serving. The other side may seem insecure, defensive, envious and even ill-informed.
The Best Birthing Option
Expectant parents who have researched and considered all the birthing options available to them, while taking into account their own values and beliefs, are making an informed, proactive decision. They may plan on any combination of options, such as an assisted or unassisted homebirth, a birth center birth, a natural hospital birth, a hospital birth with minimal pain relief, a hospital birth with maximum pain relief, and even a planned Cesarean section. Of course, there may be unforeseen events that could change Plan A to Plan B, and these changes may be completely out of anyone’s control. So, for instance, those planning on a natural homebirth would need to consider the possibility, remote as it may be, of ending up in a hospital having an emergency Cesarean section.
Maternity care providers in all steps of the process, from pre-pregnancy through postnatal care, need to move more in the direction of assisting people in having personalized birth plans and helping them to safely realize these plans. In other words, maternity care providers must consider the family to be an integral part of the decision-making process.
With informed planning, financial considerations need to be taken into account: Some families may not be able to afford private care. Risk factors must also be considered: It may not be advisable to plan a homebirth for a high-risk pregnancy. Some women might desire pain relief, even considering it to be a crucial part of their birth plan. They may not want to experience the pain of birthing. Pain sensitivity may vary greatly from one person to the next, which would mean that some women may not be able to cope with pain as well as others. If pain relief wasn’t available to some women during labor, their birth experience could be overshadowed, even complicated, by their overwhelming inability to cope with the pain. We can never know what another’s experience is truly like. Parents-to-be need to be realistic about their circumstances and thus deserve to be free to make informed and unfettered decisions about their birth plan. Once they have become informed, the best combination of options for any family is that which they feel best suits them at the time.
Natural vs. Medicated Birth, Hospital vs. Home
Some mothers who have experienced a natural birth may find it difficult to understand why others have not, cannot, or do not desire to do so. Some natural birthers have described to me how they were successful at getting themselves into the right zone, pointing out that they had made the right choices; they emphasized that they hadn’t given up when the going got tough; and they described how they felt in complete control during their birth experience.
For some who chose or needed medical intervention, doubts and “what ifs” may creep into their thoughts when they hear natural birthers’ stories, even if they have processed their birth experience and have come to terms with any disappointment they may have felt, assuming they were disappointed at all. I have heard comments such as, “I must not have been able to get myself into the right frame of mind,” “I think I made some bad choices,” and “Maybe I didn’t try hard enough.” Their insecurities and defensiveness may actually end up reinforcing and perpetuating the attitude that all women can control every aspect of their birthing experience and its outcome if they really want to.
For some who choose a homebirth, they may feel misunderstood, even humiliated, by hospital birth advocates who consider home birthers to be reckless with their baby’s and/or their own well-being. Comments such as, “It’s risky business to birth at home” or “Something could go wrong, and then your baby’s and even your own life could be in jeopardy,” may undermine the confidence of those who are considering a homebirth.
Competition at the Root of Contention?
What might cause these misunderstandings and ill feelings to develop? Perhaps the answer lies in our culturally driven need to compete.
Western society emphasizes individual competition. Competition is not only prevalent in mainstream settings, it also exists in alternative communities and social circles. Society instills in us the need to compare the many things in our lives in order to determine what’s better or what’s best. Then we generalize that “What’s best for me must be best for you, too.” In setting up a better than/worse than dichotomy, competition stifles our ability to empathize with each other.
According to the article “Competitive and Cooperative Approaches to Conflict” by Brad Spangler on BeyondIntractability.org: “Obstructiveness and lack of helpfulness lead to mutual negative attitudes and suspicion of one another’s intentions. One’s perceptions of the other tend to focus on the person’s negative qualities and ignore the positives.”
Unspoken irrational comparisons might take place, such as: “I had the shortest and least complicated natural birth,” “Oh! My natural birth took longer than hers” and “Oh no! How can I share my birth story? I didn’t even have a natural birth!” For many reasons, everyone loses in competitive situations like this. One unfortunate consequence is that non-natural birthers may feel uneasy about sharing their birth stories. We may all lose out on their valuable input, because we don’t end up having the chance to view the bigger picture.
A competitive atmosphere that develops surrounding the sharing of birth experiences is a clear sign that on an individual level, everyone needs to reflect more on their own birthing experience. If individuals find themselves proving others wrong in order to make themselves feel right, then they need to have a look at possible reasons why. They need to give themselves—and then each other—credit where credit is due, as well as acknowledge their good fortune.
According to Spangler, cooperative conversation is characterized by “‘effective communication,’ where ideas are verbalized and group members pay attention to one another and accept their ideas and are influenced by them. These groups have less problems communicating with and understanding others. … Friendliness, helpfulness and less obstructiveness is expressed in conversations.”
Sharing with Empathy
A practical idea for encouraging a less competitive environment is to discover what we do have in common. So, it would make sense to emphasize the ways we have promoted bonding with our newborns from the time they entered into our lives. It is helpful to “fast forward” to the present time and talk about what we are doing now—and tomorrow—to remain securely attached to our children.
When we can get beyond our feelings of competitiveness, we are able to foster a healthy dialogue because we are more receptive to what others have to say. In a cooperative setting, “members tend to be generally more satisfied with the group … as well as being impressed by the contributions of other group members,” writes Spangler. Through empathic listening, we are less likely to make assumptions about others’ views, motives and feelings and more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. We are able to:
- Reflect on others’ birthing experiences
- “Try on” their situation—their “truth”—by imagining ourselves in their place
- Give validation and empathy, but not in the form of an unsolicited therapy session
- Increase our own knowledge of and sensitivity to birthing issues
- Help each other move on to our current parenting situations by sharing ideas for remaining as securely attached as possible to our children today, tomorrow and in the years to come.
In a fully accepting and flexible atmosphere, people are safe to make themselves vulnerable by sharing their feelings, needs, disappointments, triumphs and dreams. Natural birthers are able to view non-natural birthers’ experiences and concerns with sincere, unbiased interest and empathy, and they will softly share their own birthing experience. Mothers who did not experience the birth they had hoped for will feel understood because their own birthing stories are validated, and they will be able to share in the joy of other parents who had the birth experience they had hoped for. Feelings of satisfaction we derive from feeling superior are fleeting; the good feelings we receive by helping other people feel good are long lasting.
Even the most informed people can run into unplanned, and sometimes serious, complications during the birth process. By no means is it justifiable for anyone to be made to feel negatively about whatever birthing options they choose or for whatever birthing experience they have had. We all deserve to have our birthing choices and experiences validated. Through our positive and non-judgmental contributions to this contentious topic, we create a collective harmony that enables everyone to leave the discussion feeling good. We bring these good feelings home to our families. Thus, the empathy we have given to each other touches the greatest gift we all receive in our birthing experience: our own children.
To read our growing collection of birth stories–or to find out how to share yours–visit Your Birth Stories on The Attached Family.com.
Image: Eric Lewis