Since Marie Mongan first launched hypnobirthing in America 25 years ago quoting pain in childbirth as a “myth”, it seems we have all become pre-occupied with having pain-free births.
With a powerful break-through message that childbirth with hypnosis did not need to be painful, hypnobirthing offered a much-needed alternative to the ignominy of the bed-bound epidural or the perceived agony of a labour without pain relief.
Contractions were outed, surges, came in, the un-gratifying word pain was ostracised from the semantics of childbirth and, across the nation, grateful midwives watched in awe as powerful, silent women breathed their way through drug-free labours.
That’s half the story. The other half concerns those who did not experience the blissful or natural birth outcome that hypnobirthing promised them; the many disappointed women whose labours were violent, or which deviated from the normal care pathway, women who found the experience not only painful, but shocking and traumatic – all the more so because they believed it might be painless. I have met many of these women – still processing their birth experience years later, still wondering what they did wrong? Their emotional and physical scars run deep and take many years to heal.
From pain-free we evolved to orgasmic. Debra Pascali-Bonaro’s film Orgasmic Birth inspired women in their thousands to kiss and get intimate with their partners, to stimulate their own erogenous zones and seek out the pleasure principle in birthing. Where hypnosis had pledged to take away the pain, the orgasmic birth promised pleasure. On her website a clip from the film features a woman orgasming as she gives birth. Even the late great goddess of birth Sheila Kitzinger was inspired to write a book on the subject. Birth and Sex in which she described it as “powerfully erotic” and “the most intensely sexual feeling a woman ever experiences”.
The allure of the pain-free birth, the promise of the orgasmic birth represent an ideal that we all strive for – the holy grail of birthing. Critically these evolutions in our perception of birth have been necessary to take us away from the harmful assumption that childbirth is inherently painful – which is where we have all come from.
But while hypnosis has empowered many women, and there is a very real possibility of pleasure during childbirth too, though much less likely in the hospital context, the assumption that childbirth is painless, or that the ideal childbirth is a pleasurable or erotic one, is as harmful as the assumption that it is an inherently painful experience. It denies the reality of so many and therefore does them a disservice.
Women are much less likely to be negatively affected by the pain and the violence of birth if they are accepting of it as part of the birthing experience. When feelings, whatever they are, are allowed and accepted they naturally work themselves through the body. It is only when they are denied and repressed that they linger and fester, always there in the background, waiting to overwhelm at the moment when control is lost.
Mindful birth education teaches us to relinquish that control and birth from presence instead. This means remaining mentally and physically receptive to each moment of the childbirth experience, and to our mental and emotional reactions to it, without needing to resist it or make it different than what it is. Instead of chasing pleasure or denying pain, both limiting thought processes, we learn how to experience both without getting lost in either. The mother is enabled to look her fear in the face and to discover a strength and deep resourcefulness she never knew she had. It is from this place of deep power that she births. In this way Mothers are born.
I have experienced childbirth, in very different ways, four times. My four birth journeys have each contained empowering moments, moments of deep peace and inner connection and other moments when I have felt on my knees and unable to continue. I have experienced surges, waves, tightenings and, at other times, painful contractions which I have got lost in and struggled to accept. It has never been a simple experience.
My third child came in 1.5 hours from first contraction to out. I did not know what hit me. It took me months to process the violence of the experience though, to all intents and purposes, it was a very positive birth at home and completely natural. The violence was part of that positive and powerful experience.
It is awesome, challenging, brutal, visceral, joyful, transporting, awful, deeply physical, incredible, powerful, at times, calm and in-flow, at other times all-consuming and over-whelming. Our preparation and our semantics need to acknowledge the whole spectrum of the experience, not just the palatable colours.
This is a call to all women to expand their vocabulary and their mindset around the childbirth experience. To be neither fixated on the painful or the pleasurable aspects of labour but to view it instead as one awesome continuum during which they will experience great highs and deep troughs and to ensure that they are ready to embrace both and attach to neither.
Pleasure is the opposite of pain, in the same way that positive is the opposite of negative. Surely all real birth experience is one that contains both polarities and all the shades in between?
Nadia Raafat is a Mother of 4, a Yoga and Meditation Teacher, Childbirth Educator and Birth Doula. She founded her Becoming Mother label in London to teach Yoga for Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood and Mindful Childbirth Preparation. She is passionate about her work preparing and empowering women to embrace the transforming childbirth experience and the incredible journey of Motherhood.