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Birth: From Fear To Faith

By Laura Shanley

Giving birth in a culture that continually depicts labor as painful and dangerous is a feat in itself these days. Everywhere we look, we’re shown images of women screaming while giving birth, and masked doctors heroically saving the day. TV medical dramas abound with women being rushed into operating rooms for emergency C-sections, and sitcoms are notorious for showing laboring women bitching at their guilt-ridden husbands for making them endure the “trials of labor.” Rarely is birth depicted as a pleasurable experience. No wonder most women fear it.

Some women, in fact, are so afraid of birth that they literally can’t conceive. I spoke with a doctor recently who told me that she was infertile. “My husband and I have had numerous tests and there is absolutely nothing wrong with us physically,” she said, “but I’ve always been terrified of giving birth. I’ve known since I was a child that I was never going to give birth. Do you think my fear has actually kept me from conceiving?”

I’ve spoken with other women who have been able to conceive but unable to give birth vaginally. They, too, have wondered what role fear played in their experiences.

Still others have given birth vaginally, but endured a great deal of pain. One woman said to me, “My sisters and I were all C-section babies. For me, it was a triumph just to give birth vaginally. Maybe next time I’ll be able to eliminate the pain.”

So, as much as some women may criticize me for saying that one way of giving birth is more desirable than another, or that there are goals to strive for in birth, I truly believe there are. And the goal I’ve chosen to strive for is a painless, drug-free, medically unassisted home birth.

Red flags go up—even among unassisted birthers—when I talk about painless birth. Most women have pain in labor and they’re defensive if I say that birth doesn’t have to hurt. Some women feel that I’m “blaming” them for their pain, but that certainly isn’t my intention. Given the culture that most of us have been raised in, pain, unfortunately, is actually to be expected in most cases.

However, I don’t see birth as inherently painful, and I know there will come a time when labor will be enjoyed rather than endured. But before that can occur, there must be a change in the consciousness of humanity, and ultimately that change has to start with the individual.

If we truly wish to experience a painless birth, it helps to know a little about the nature of pain, including its function and cause. Pain is a sign telling us that something is wrong. It doesn’t happen indiscriminately. It only occurs when we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing. The pain is a message telling us to stop.

In the case of a laboring woman, it is obviously not a message to stop labor. What then, could the pain be telling us? According to Grantly Dick-Read, author of Childbirth Without Fear, fear is the source of pain in labor. No other natural bodily function is painful, he writes, and childbirth should not be the exception.

When a person is afraid, messages are sent to the body telling it there is a danger out there that must either be fought or avoided. Blood and oxygen are instantly sent into the muscle structure, enabling the frightened person to strike out or run. But the extra blood and oxygen must come from somewhere, so the body drains it from organs it considers nonessential for “flight or fight.” This is why people turn white when they’re afraid. The body knows that the arms and legs need that blood and oxygen more than the face does.

Unfortunately, the body considers the uterus a nonessential organ when it comes to flight or fight. According to Dick-Read, the uterus of a frightened woman in labor is literally white. It doesn’t have the fuel it needs to function the way it was designed to, nor can waste products be properly carried away. Consequently, there is pain. To eliminate the pain, we must eliminate the fear.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Fear runs deep in our culture, and many of us could spend a lifetime (or two) purging ourselves of the fear we’ve developed. Even the most “enlightened” people have had childhoods that weren’t perfect. And even a child raised by fearless parents still has to live in a culture that is constantly emphasizing the “dangers” of being alive. I’m reminded of a statement made by Eric Sevareid. “The biggest big business in America,” he said “is not steel, automobiles or television. It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety.”

And yet, eliminating fear is not impossible, for there is something much more powerful than the most all-consuming fear: faith. Faith is believing that all is well. Faith is knowing that we’re not alone in the universe. Faith is understanding that the consciousness that created us does not want us to suffer in birth or in life. Faith is trusting that our bodies were designed to give birth safely and painlessly. Faith is accepting the fact that we are the creators of our lives and our births.

Faith is not the opposite of reason. Having faith does not mean that we sit back and do nothing during our pregnancy. When we have faith, we understand the psychological origins of the majority of pain and problems most women encounter in labor, and we do our best to face and conquer our fears. We don’t run to specialists for blood work or urine tests or vitamins, for we know that with good food (neither too much, nor too little), fresh air, exercise and the proper beliefs, our babies will thrive.

Having faith is the first step toward eliminating the cycle of fear, tension and pain that most women experience in labor. Faith leads to relaxation, and relaxation leads to pleasure.

There is no doubt that the energy of birth is powerful. But its power can be like the wind that scatters the seeds of the willow tree, or a sunrise that bathes the sky in a beautiful yellow light. This is my vision of birth. Someday, I know the rest of the world will share it with me.

Laura ShanleyAbout the Author:

Laura Shanley is a writer, speaker, birth consultant and author of the book, Unassisted Childbirth. She lives with her daughter, Joy, and dog, Molly, in Boulder, Colorado, where she maintains the website Laura also writes periodically about the joys, trials and tribulations of being an unassisted birth activist on her blog,