Rachel Reed is a homebirth midwife and writer who passionately seeks to understand the nuances of midwifery practice during birth. In this piece, Rachel discusses a common way in which midwives and other birth supports often judge or attempt to control a birthing woman, and offers suggestions to avoid doing so. She offers that as midwives, we should honor and respect a woman who is birthing loudly, as it is based on instinct.
Women’s behaviour has been judged and controlled throughout history. We are supposed to be ‘good girls’ – do as we are told and not create any problems for others. However, the act of giving birth is primal and ‘wild’. Our birthing behaviour originates in the limbic system, the area of the brain shared by all mammals. To labour well we need to shut down our neo-cortex – the thinking human part of the brain. The result is instinctive ‘animalistic’ birthing behaviour. Because we are individuals, our birthing behaviour is also individual. Some women become quiet, withdrawn and ‘in control’. Others become loud, wild and ‘out of control’. For many it is somewhere in-between, or both, at different times during labour. Just like behaviour during sex (also controlled by the limbic system) there are similarities between humans, but we all behave slightly differently.
The idea that there is a ‘right’ way to behave or worse, a ‘wrong’ way to behave is unhelpful and judgmental. It seems that being quiet and ‘controlled’ is considered to be the best way to birth. How many times have you heard a woman’s labour described in a positive way because she was ‘so in control and quietly breathed her baby out’? In contrast, the loud woman is encouraged to breath (ie. stop screaming/shouting) and focus. This happens often in the hospital setting where midwives attempt to keep a woman quiet so as not to ‘frighten the other women’. These women are often described as ‘not coping’ – when in fact they are coping just fine… but loudly. It is those around them who are not coping. Michel Odent suggests that the intense fear and sense of ‘losing it’ often experienced near the end of labour facilitates the fetal ejection reflex. Not many women experience this because midwives (or others) intervene to calm the woman and help her gain control of herself.
It’s not just midwives, but also mothers who judge themselves for ‘losing control’ and making noise. I find it sad to hear a birthing woman apologise for her instinctive behaviour – but they do. Indeed there are childbirth preparation programs aimed at learning how to be quiet and in control during birth. Unfortunately, some women who have undergone this training feel like failures when their instincts take over and they become vocal. Perhaps we (society/culture) are afraid of the primal power expressed during birth – here is a woman connected to, and expressing the immense power and strength of woman. The response is to shut her up and encourage her to act like a ‘good girl’ so as not to upset anyone (including herself).
Here is a beautiful example of a mother birthing instinctively and loudly.
So, lets honour our birthing behaviour whatever it may be. Whether you are a quiet, breathing birther, or a loud and wild birther – you are equally, but differently amazing. Midwives need to learn to distinguish between a woman who is expressing her wild birthing instincts, from a woman who genuinely needs reassurance and calming. Talking with her before birth about what she will say if she really does need ‘help’ can be useful. In addition, make sure she knows that you will not judge anything she says or does during labour. It is also important that women hear and see birth stories that show a range of birthing behaviours – not just the quiet and in control types.
There is no correct way to birth, or to behave during birth. As women and mothers we are subjected to more than enough judgement from others and ourselves. Perhaps it is time to start nurturing and supporting ourselves and others instead.
Read more of this post, in which Rachel discusses judgment of Birthing Choices and Experiences.
Rachel Reed is a homebirth midwife and a lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast. She has practised midwifery in a range of models and settings in the United Kingdom and Australia. Her PhD thesis to be submitted in 2012 is ‘an exploration of midwifery practice during birth’. Rachel has written articles for journals and magazines, and presented at many conferences and study days. She is also the author of MidwifeThinking blog site.
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