My first two birth experiences were fairly different from each other. The first was quite blissful and straightforward. The second was more challenging and left me with a bit of anxiety. I never thought I would have a fear of childbirth, but I did for many months afterwards, even though there were no birth complications. Read on to hear my stories and see how I am getting rid of the fear for my next pregnancy!
The home birth of my first child was a transcendent experience.
It was painful in the plainest sense of the word, yes, but it was mostly transformative, magical, and empowering. It was everything I hoped it would be, a true rite into womanhood. Nothing at all like what the media and culture in the US would make you believe birth to be.
My labor lasted only 9 short hours (it is not uncommon for primiparas to labor for 12-24). I labored and birthed in a pool, which was comforting and warm. When I met my daughter after the difficult transition and pushing stages, I just held her and sobbed and cried out “you are so beautiful!”
When my father in law came to visit the next day and asked me what I had thought of it all, I honestly answered to him: “I could do that again in a year.”
And it’s true. I distinctly remember describing the experience as discomfortable, sometimes even extremely discomfortable, but not painful. I never felt that horrifying pain everyone seemed to warn me about. Not realizing that I was getting a little hubristic inside my brain, I legitimately wondered “Is that it? Is that what people are so afraid of? That was kind of….fun!” (don’t shoot me)
That birth did great things for my self esteem as a mother. 😂
When I became pregnant again 17 months later, those positive feelings rolled right on over, and I was sure that my next birth would be equally as easy and wonderful!
I was also super excited about the fact that this birth would be much shorter, as many second time births tend to be.
Against the advice of a dear friend of mine who had personally experienced a longer and harder second birth, I planned for and expected a breezy 4-5 hour birth, one that would surely top off the last one in sheer bliss.
While pregnant, I prepared casually for this birth. I read books, I made meals, listened to podcasts, did plenty of good things. But in the background of my mind I must have believed that I didn’t need as much preparation as before because I knew what would happen, and that I had done it all before.
I didn’t focus enough on mentally preparing myself for whatever experience I would encounter.
My second birth was 12 hours long. It was much more painful. In fact, I was downright scared at many instances because I didn’t feel like I could handle it.
I was a tiny bit of a wreck. (Not the whole time, but many times!) I was confused as to why it was taking so long, I was bored at times, I was angry, I was tired, and I was counting the clock to see if I still had enough time to get to an epidural. (Although I knew in my head that epidurals are not always the savior many think them to be!)
I was not in my rational mind, and I was not in a healthy place. I tried several times to laugh, to move, to cheer up, but over all I allowed myself to fall into a dark rut of a mindset that truly must have hindered any chance of a much-needed oxytocin release.
Negative thoughts cause us to release adrenaline and cortisol, after all. And we all know what adrenaline and cortisol do to a birth. (And if you don’t know, then you have so much exciting reading ahead of you! 😂)
It sounds so crazy typing this all out, but I actually remember feeling like I was inconveniencing the midwives, being such a burden, I wondered if they just wished they could go home. I remembered a time they mentioned a certain fast-birthing mother who had her baby and was home in 4 hours. (We stayed at the birth center for probably 6 or 7 hours after the baby was born.)
I was afraid of pooping in the tub. (Which I didn’t even do last time, so I don’t know why that was suddenly a huge issue!) I was wondering about my toddler who was at grandmas. I was chanting “I’m so done” instead of something actually helpful.Iwas allowing myself to think about all the wrong things!
Me, the one who is usually so “buck up and rub some dirt in it!” had become so nervous and unempowered!
There were moments during that labor when I just about lost my mind, and not in the good “let your monkey do it” way. I screamed several times, which only increased my tension and fear and locked up my sphincters. My husband and midwife both wisely and kindly told me I needed to get a hold of myself, which eventually I did, but still instead of releasing my tension and surrendering to the waves, I just shut up and pushed harder until the baby arrived. The midwives later informed me I was the first mom that had required sutures in over a year.
I was so embarrassed. It was technically a success, but in my heart all I felt was failure. I had allowed myself to go against everything I knew about facilitating smooth births. Instead of meeting whatever came to me with strength and grace like I had done during my first birth, I just let it plow through me because of negative thoughts and a lack of preparation beforehand.
I confessed it all to my midwife the next day who was very encouraging and sweet to recount her own surprisingly difficult birth story, the birth of her 11th child, a story I will have to share with you sometime. She told me that sometimes we just don’t know why hard births happen, they just do. Her words really did help, but the emotional ‘damage’ had already been done. (I realize this all sounds so dramatic, but at the time, it kind of was!)
I blame it on the probable lack of calming hormones, but my mind was already in “protection mode,” putting up a huge brick wall to block out any memory of the birth event.
For the next several months any time I tried to think about the birth I became very tense and my brain even seemed to shake a little bit, I literally couldn’t process what I had deemed to be such a horrible failure.
I think I developed a very mild but real-enough form of birth ptsd, which was strange to admit because there had been no actual trauma, just trauma to the pride and to the mind.
The entire first year of my new daughters birth, I realized that something foreign and bizarre was happening inside me. I told myself as may positive thoughts as I could, such as “practice makes perfect, even in birth!” But I actually felt negative physical sensations every time I considered having another child. I found myself….kind of afraid of childbirth.
Anyone who knows me may not believe it, because I have always expressed the desire to have a very large family. I’m the one who watches birth videos for fun (even c sections, ha), who guest taught at birth classes, who knew so much about birth and midwifery (for an amateur) that I could talk about it for hours.
Rationally, I still knew I wanted to have many more children, but that brick wall my brain had built around the birth had done it’s bricky job, it was preventing me from the desire to get pregnant again, in an attempt to protect me from experiencing the ‘scary’ again. (Although because of ecological breastfeeding I wasn’t menstruating anyways, but even if I could have gotten pregnant, I was not in the mood to think about it!)
Luckily, over time the proverbial wound seemed to heal and the fear loosened it’s grip. My cycle returned, and when my daughter was about 19 months old I conceived again. I was less afraid, but still apprehensive about repeating last time.
In my mind I knew that if I wanted to have a better birth experience, it was my responsibility to consciously work to nurture the return of the birth confidence I once knew. I really wanted to regain the beauty of my first birth story.
So how do you overcome childbirth fear? Especially when you’ve already had kids?
I think this is a problem that many women have but each have to solve their own way.
Here are a few things I am doing to regain the birth confidence I once knew.
- I started by keeping a birth notebook in which I wrote a single birth “truth” or gratitude each day. These truths, like affirmations, helped me to refocus my thinking and re envision the big picture.
- I purchased new birthing and parenting books to help me dive back into that world.
- I started watching birth videos (my own, as well as animal births like this amazing elephant birth or this interesting chimp birth) and forcing myself to replay the scary birth and the great birth in my mind.
Why replay the births?
While reading “The whole Brained Child” (shout out to my amazing midwife friend who gave it to me!) I learned about a method that helps children integrate their memories, and work through difficult ones. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain:
“As an association machine, the brain processes something in the present moment—an idea, a feeling, a smell, an image—and links that experience with similar experiences from the past. These past experiences strongly influence how we understand what we see or feel … The brain continually prepares itself for the future based on what happened before. Memories shape our current perceptions by causing us to anticipate what will happen next.”
They explain that story telling (especially repetitive storytelling) is an important way that kids process the world.
“Your goal is to help kids take the troubling experiences that are impacting them without their knowledge—the scattered puzzle pieces of their mind—and make those experiences explicit so that the whole picture in the puzzle can be seen with clarity and meaning.”
Well, I’m not a kid but I saw no reason this method couldn’t work for me! So instead of pushing the birth memory back, I forced myself to replay it and give a commentary of it in my mind to allow myself to start to piece it back together. It seemed to really help.
- I also started listening to podcasts. The “Happy Home Birth” episode “Preparing for a Positive Birth” was familiar and helpful to me. She talks about how after her difficult birth she prepared herself for a ‘beautiful and redeeming birth’, which is exactly what I felt I needed, another chance to redeem and prove myself.
- And finally, I tackled the fears themselves. The method I came up with was to name a fear, then address it with a truth. (Similar to the method I talk about here)
I asked myself the big question I had been avoiding for 18 months. “What is it that you are actually afraid of?”
I decided to write the fears down. I believe that writing things down is a powerful way for the mind to organize and deal with abstract thoughts and bring them into the real space.
To be honest it was kind of uncomfortable to allow myself to ask this question and really ponder it. I had to reassure my brain that going down this road was okay. I literally had to tell my brain “You’re fine, brain. These are safe thoughts!” 😂
The first and most obvious fear that I identified was the fear of pain. A fear that I have written a lot about before, and one that I knew was silly. After all, fear makes pain worse! After I wrote down “fear” on my paper, I wrote down 5 truths about birth pains that are similar to the ideas I talked about in my post “A homebirther’s perspective on childbirth pain”
1. The pain does not last forever, only a few hours
2. The pain is not constant
3. I have done birth and succeeded 2 times already!
4. My body is not being harmed. Intensity is not scary.
5. The pains bring my baby into the world.
The next fear I identified was “Super Long labor that exhausts me and I have to transfer”. Here is how I addressed it:
1. I have successfully (though admittedly not very gracefully) completed a 12 hour birth, which is starting to get long in my mind but also possible.
2. I can plan ahead to conserve my energy by sleeping, using the birth tub again, eating well, napping as much as possible in the weeks before the birth, and massage.
The last fear had to do with my broken motherly pride: I was afraid because I felt like I had failed, I was embarrassed, I was upset about the true comment my midwife had made (not upset at her, but upset at the fact that she was right!)
“Your first birth was like a second time mom’s experience, and your second birth was more like a first time mom’s experience.” Dang it! She’s so right…
Here is how I addressed it:
1. Screaming doesn’t make you a failure 😂 But you can address what caused it for next time.
2. I still had an out of hospital birth and successfully nursed my baby right away!
3. I also once again thanked my brain for attempting to shield me from the imaginary harm, and basically said “I don’t need this brick wall anymore, I am letting go and surrendering myself to birth.”
Writing all of this down felt SO good. I really felt that brick wall start to fade away!
After completing these several items I wanted to do more. I searched the internet and found a lady who focuses specifically on helping women overcome birth fears.
While listening to her podcast “fear free childbirth”, Alexia mentioned one method I hadn’t used yet, which is to think about how the fear affects you and number how scared you are of it from 1-10. She said that if you number your fear and it’s only a ‘2,’ then you realize that its not actually that scary to you, and you can mentally decide to move on from it.
I decided my birth fears were about a 5 or so on the grand scale of things I could be afraid of. Not as bad as they seemed, but I still needed to ‘clear them’, as she calls it.
That same day, I also asked my new birth educator friend Emily how she recommends overcoming birth fears, and she said to try basically the same things I had already been attempting:
“One – name your fears specifically
Two – identify the root of those fears
Three – ask yourself what you need in order to move past that [fear] (more information, mindfulness, therapy, changing location, or support team, etc)
Four – create a plan and work on it every day (but don’t obsess)
She also added: “Remember to TRUST yourself.”
I really like her addition of creating a plan to purposely move yourself from fearful to fearless. I think that exerting intentional effort is the way to success in this situation.
One last thing I did today was to purchase some really nice pregnancy prenatal vitamins even though I am still conflicted about the data behind vitamin pills, I’m hoping that at least the placebo affect will affect me. 😂
I also got some nice magnesium butter that will help me sleep and boost my mag levels, which is something that was very useful to me in my previous pregnancies.
Plus its nice to treat yourself. Which I have been doing way too much of lately. Ha!
That’s a wrap for today. That’s where I’m at. Feeling a little bit exposed.
I write these posts because not only do they really help me think, but I hope that they help someone else who is going through what I have gone through. I have learned so much from other mothers who have taken the time to share their stories about the beautiful realities of birth and motherhood, and I want to contribute to that community.
To end, I want to quote once again from the one and only Ina May.
I am currently reading her book “Birth Matters: A midwife’s manifesta” which I recommend to all, pre-mothers, mothers, and grandmothers. (Not that I agree with every word she says, but I do agree with most of them.) 😉
Do you have any other ideas or methods to ‘clear fear’?
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