In a birth culture filled with messages that plant seeds of doubt about birth in expecting parents’ minds, it’s easy to understand how fear has come to have an unfavorable reputation. As pregnant parents navigate a medical system with soaring usage of medical intervention, and sift through a barrage of horrific birth stories from friends, family members, and even strangers, it makes sense that they would seek out positive messages to offer some encouragement that this whole giving birth thing might actually work out!
We live in a time of extremes in the way people perceive birth. One on end of the spectrum we have a distrust of the birth process, and on the other end we have the response to the current state of affairs in the medical model – complete trust in the birth process. While both of these models have a positive intention, both exist in a state of absolute thinking.
Black and white thinking about birth results in the conversation around what it means to give birth lacking nuance in our modern birth culture. We are inundated with simplistic messages like…
“Birth is dangerous!”
“Birth is natural!”
“There’s no way you’ll be able to get through it without an epidural!”
“Trust your body!”
“You’re irresponsible if you give birth outside of the hospital!”
“Let go of your fears!”
In and of itself, fear is not a bad force in life or in birth. The worry that comes with pregnancy is awakening the parent within you…a person who has to be more vigilant than you were prior to pregnancy, someone who is now responsible for another person’s safety. Fear creates a physiological response in the body that gives us a burst of strength and energy to get out of a dangerous situation. It’s a normal part of the experience of being a sapient being.
Fear, worry, and doubt can be powerful motivators in pregnancy to take action. It may be a sign from a place of deeper knowing that there’s an important conversation to be had, preparation to make, or decision that needs to be addressed in order to set the best possible path forward for you and for your baby. Rather than avoiding what your gut is telling you and stuffing down your natural emotions with positive thinking, fear can be an invitation to look within and explore what needs to happen next to help you feel more prepared for birth.
One thing that does make fear in pregnancy problematic is the inner narrative around that which you are avoiding. Long-held beliefs about birth, coping with pain, asking for help, and taking up space turn fear from a passing physiological response to an autobiographical belittling. The narrative about the fear, NOT the actual feeling, can make fear in pregnancy have deep, troubling implications that can result in trauma.
What is it about giving birth by cesarean that is so unnerving for pregnant parents? How is making a lot of noise in labor a problem for parents-to-be? What makes asking for pain medication a painful thought for some pregnant folks? The answer in most cases is the way that the parent would perceive themselves, or the way they believe others would perceive them.
As humans we are natural storytellers, meaning makers. Through the practice of self-compassion, parents can begin to explore a truer story about their own inherent worth, realizing that they are deserving of love, regardless of events that unfold during the birth, or what it takes for them to get through the intensity of bringing a baby into the world.
Fears are not neutralized by burning them, avoiding them, or wishing them away with positive thinking. Rather, they are an important communication from your own inner world that invites you to step into a place of courage. The courage to inquire about what those fears are asking of you, and the courage to look at the meaning that you are associating with the parts of birth that create a fear response for you.
Through the brave act of self-awareness and the radical act of self-compassion, your fears can become an opportunity to expand the possibilities for how you might allow yourself to maneuver through the unknown territory of labor. They can become a lens into to your inner world, and help you dismantle old stories that no longer serve you. Fears can help you tune into your inner resilience if you have the courage to look them in the eye.
Nikki is one of the co-owners of Birthing from Within International, as well as a training facilitator for Birthing from Within and Birth Story Listening. She brings compassionate childbirth preparation and loving postpartum support to families in San Antonio, TX, where she lives with her husband and three young children.