For the birth of my third child, my birthing cave was decorated just as I had imagined: soft chiffon ribbons of fabric were draped across my walls; dim twinkling lights illuminated the room; and deep purple sheets lined my bed. I even had a satin birthing gown ready to don. For nearly three months I had been immersed in the philosophy of hypnobirthing, and my cave was part of the beautiful, painless homebirth I planned to have midwinter.
On the night of January 29, however, I was not in this cave.
Instead, I was returning from work, picking up my children ages six and three, then making dinner, and then calming my hysterical three-year-old by playing Return of the Jedi for the 100th time. Sensing the excitement of my birth, my three-year-old boy simply would not go to sleep.
All the while, my cave sat empty and dark upstairs as it became clear that I was indeed in active labor.
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Hypnobirth is an increasingly popular genre of childbirth education and preparation - the modern day Lamaze, touted by celebrities like Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. The basic premise is to breathe, visualize, relax, and tone your mind and body to anticipate a calm, easy birthing experience. In some cases, hypnobirthing women have even reported experiencing little to no pain in labor. Through these self-hypnosis techniques, the predominant narrative around birth changes from one of fear and emergency, to one of normalcy and calm.
"Let's be clear," states Dr. Christiane Northrup, "women in our culture have already been hypnotized with the mass hypnosis that birth is this horrendous emergency. We're already under the spell of things like What to Expect When You're Expecting, which is about everything that could ever go wrong. Why don't you try a different spell? It can't possibly do anything except help you."
The grandmother of hypnobirthing and founder of the Hynobirthing Institute, Marie Mongan, now in her eighties, is passionate about helping women see pregnancy and birth as normal, natural, and instinctive. So instinctive, she argues, that hypnobirthing "is not really a method or a technique. We don't teach anything, for there is no need to teach. Rather, we help women become aware of the magnificence of their bodies. The whole answer is Mother Nature's gift, step by step, right from the very beginning of pregnancy."
Any Olympic athlete (and copious scientific studies) will tell you visualization is a key to success - birth is no different. Through mental imagery and relaxation, hypnobirthing reprograms your mind and body to remove doubt and fear, and instil confidence and calm.
By visualizing an easy, peaceful birth you help make it so. This practice reduces fear and adrenaline, allowing for deep relaxation and optimal production of oxytocin while inhibiting the release of stress hormones that can increase pain sensation. Light touch massage and other stimulating techniques are also utilized to flood your brain with non-painful input, thus reducing its capacity to interpret pain. Scientists call this principle the Gate Control Theory of pain.
For many women, the result of these techniques is effective pain management. For others, it's no pain at all.
I asked Dr. Northrup about her thoughts on "pain-free" labor. "That has not been my experience," she laughs, citing her role as the mother of two and someone who used hypnobirthing with the birth of her second child in the eighties. "I think it would be a really good idea to change our expectations that labor is going to be excruciating," she adds. "Look, it will rise and it will fall. A lot of the pain for a lot of women is panic and clamping down. Whenever you're clamping your voluntary muscles you're going to have pain. The more relaxed you can possibly be, the better off you're going to do."
Related: Hypnosis for Childbirth: What is it and How Does it Work?
I'll admit: what originally drew me to hypnobirthing was indeed the possibility that pain in labor could be reduced or even eliminated. As I got more into the philosophy, I realized my quest went beyond pain management. The videos of women remaining nearly silent as their babies crowned contrasted sharply with the endless cursing and animalistic wailing I emitted in my first birth. I yearned to be like those women and to have the calm, peaceful life I imagined they had.
A few weeks before my planned hypnobirth, my partner and I attempted the recommended perineum massage. Picture the "calm relaxation" of your husband stretching your vaginal skin while your two children keep running in and out of the room screaming. Somehow, I figured, if I practiced hard enough, hypnobirthing might magically transform me into the meditative, serene, yoga-practicing mother I had always fantasized about being.
As it happened, retreating to my cave, meditating in peace like a Buddha, and feeling no pain was a tad unrealistic. Instead, and much more fittingly, I was watching Star Wars and calmly feeling my surges (the hypnobirthing term for contractions) come and go.
As my labor progressed that evening, I used the techniques I had learned, and remained relaxed throughout the surges instead of clenching and tensing as I had done in my previous births. As a result, the surges felt shorter and less painful. In between them, I was able to retreat into deep relaxation. I even laughed a few times amongst some tears and shivering and vomiting. I was noticeably better able to cope with the pain. My biggest concern turned out to be whether the labor wasn't progressing right because I wasn't feeling overwhelmed.
Our son was born en-caul at 1:20 in the morning in our living room.
"Why do we plan on the flaws in birth?" asks Mongan. "When you plan a vacation the travel agent doesn't say 'it's going to rain every day and here are the statistics for airplane crashes.' Birth is the best journey that a woman will ever take. We want to help them turn their greatest fear into their greatest achievement. "
I did not achieve the holy grail of a pain-free birth, and perhaps that's as it should be, says Dr. Northrup. Many women miss the transformative opportunity of birth by "trying to escape it," she notes. "That's what we do in this culture, we want to escape everything that is uncomfortable. Labor and birth are rituals of transformation the likes of which you will never find anywhere else."
Alas, I did not miraculously transform into one of those women in the peaceful birth videos either. But I am getting to know my new self as the mother of these three little beings. Now that my son is six weeks old and the newborn fog is beginning to lift, I can also see a much more valuable achievement.
Despite my hectic life with a full time job, kids, and responsibilities, hypnobirthing taught me how to give my pregnant and laboring self precious time and attention. That is a worthwhile miracle indeed.