All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become. ~~The Buddha
In birth there is nothing more powerful than the laboring woman’s mind. This is the tool she needs most and the one we (doulas and care providers alike) often overlook in supporting her. We often look to our physical comfort measures first, when I believe the work of supporting a woman’s birth begins with her mind.
There have been countless studies done about the power of mind over body, or mind-body medicine, but there has been little done to show how these techniques or skills can be used to help women achieve true a true natural birth with little or no medical interventions. But what is clear is that how women perceive birth in general can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of their own labors. I believe that one of my roles as a doula is to find out what that perception is and help my client understand how it can affect her birth. Then from there we can work towards clearing any negative beliefs about birthing, her body, becoming a mother etc and replace them with positive thoughts, images, and beliefs.
There have been some articles* written lately about how our cultural view of childbirth can color a woman’s perceptions and set her up for fear, misunderstanding, misinformation, and disappointment during her labor and birth. Working with a client who is a first time mom and has never witnessed birth in person this is the primary influence I have to help her understand and sometimes overcome. When all you see is screaming women in painful crisis it is really hard to believe that birth can be a peaceful, beautiful, serene event. It is even harder to believe that oneself can birth peacefully in a place of strength and power rather than the helpless almost near death experience portrayed by our media today.
Another strong influence on the way a woman perceives labor and birth are the stories she hears from women in her family and circle of friends. Some of these stories can be wonderfully positive and give the mother to be hope for a positive experience, but more often than not they are horror stories full of tales about the unbearable pain, long labors, the use of forceps, painful tears or episiotomies, and cesarean sections! For a woman wanting a low key, low intervention, natural birth these are enough to shake her confidence in her body, her baby, and her birth. That shaken confidence can lead to a cascade of doubt and interventions by well meaning medical staff which then derail her chances of the birth she originally desired.
She may even hear stories from the older women in her family about twilight sleep, being separated from baby for hours, or breasts being bound to stop lactation. While those stories may seem preposterous to us today, they can still cause a lot of trouble for labor, birth, and immediately postpartum. When compared to those horror stories the thought of an IV and the electronic fetal monitor seem mild. But it is just that appearance of less harm that can cause a woman to agree to unnecessary interventions because of the well meaning good they propose to do. The challenge then for me is helping my clients navigate through all of those images of birth and realize how even today trust in her own body is paramount to any “machine that goes ping“.
I help my clients clear this prior programing by our culture and the stories they’ve heard by using various techniques designed to get at the heart of what they believe about birth and then release those fears and perceptions. I call this Fear Release. Some of the techniques I use are: Visualization and/or Self Hypnosis, Drawing and Art, and Journaling.
Techniques for Fear Release:
Visualization is the process by which we use our mind’s eye to imagine a scene. It’s sort of the same as how when your reading a novel you can picture what the characters and action looks like in your head. There are two steps to visualization for fear release.
Step One is to bring up the image or images of birth that cause fear, anxiety, or distrust and then “releasing” them. Some common ways of doing that are by seeing the seen as a photograph then imagining tearing it into little pieces and throwing them to the wind, seeing the words that represent the fear (i.e. episiotomy, IV, loss of control, etc etc) written on a piece of paper and then visualizing that paper being burnt to ash, or I’ve even used the image of those scenes being a movie on actual film that is then torn and melted to nothing. There are as many ways to destroy negative images in one’s own mind as their are individuals! It is up to the client to figure out which way works best for them.
Step Two is replacing those negative images with positve, uplifting, empowering ones. I often counsel my clients to see themselves laboring as they desire. Where are they? What position are they in? Who is in the room? What’s the quality of light like? Is there music? See the scene in as much detail as they can manage and then move from the scene of labor to the moment of birth how does that look to them? Next, see themselves holding their baby in their arms, possibly breastfeeding for the first time, and then bask in that glow of accomplishment, empowerment, and full trust that their body CAN do this.
Drawing and Art can often be used in a very similar yet more tangible way as visualization. Some women who have a hard time with visualization exercises may benefit from actually drawing out the images they have of birth that could be a negative influence on their labor and birth. Following much of the same 2 step path as one would doing it in their mind, women can draw, sculpt, or paint the scenes and then physically destroy them. This can be a very powerful moment for them. Giving them actual dominion over that which gives them fear. Continuing on to the second step of creating their ideal birth in ink, clay, or paint. From there I have them display that piece of art in their home somewhere that it can be seen daily, and spend time actually looking at it and feeling ownership of it.
Journaling in any situation can be a very helpful and powerful tool. In preparing for the birth of a child it has the potential to help expectant mothers to undo years of negative ideas and replace them with a much more positive reality. Writing down all of the stories, media images (scenes from movies and TV, news stories etc), and personal fears helps women to define exactly where their ideas about labor, birth, and even parenting come from. Then weed through them, literally tear out the negative ones and replace them with how they wish to experience pregnancy, labor, birth, and being a mother. Actually writing down in her own words the story of her birth before it happens is a powerful tool for a pregnant mother. When ever fear strikes she can use this tool to literally erase it and re-script what she sees as her ideal experience.
It is important to remember that these are only tools for the mind and spirit. They do not replace good childbirth education, proper nutrition, regular prenatal care, or professional counseling for more extreme situations like abuse survivors or mental illnesses.
As a doula I encourage my clients to really spend time examining those ideas, stories, and concepts that may produce fear in her before, during, and even after childbirth. The fear of not making enough breastmilk for example can lead to behaviors that create a self-fulfilling prophesy for that mother. By examining these before hand and using tools to change fear into empowerment many mothers can go forward with a much more positive birth experience and in turn become more confident mothers.
Portrayals of Childbirth in the Media by Tiffany L. Holdsworth-Taylor CD(DONA)