The phrase ‘positive birth experience’ conjours up two images: one of treating birth as a spiritual experience, peacefully wallowing in a birth pool with candles and new age music playing and dining on the placenta afterwards, the other approaching it as some sort of athletic endurance event with no medication allowed and a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears. In my opinion, what is important about the birth experience is not necessarily what happened, but how you feel about what happened, whether you gave birth at on a labour ward, in a midwife-led unit, or at home, whether you had a vaginal birth or a c-section.
There is also the school of thought that ‘a healthy baby is all that matters’. Well, no, getting pregnant does not make you a vessel for your unborn child. A pregnant woman is still a human being with rights and feelings. Being pregnant doesn’t give anyone the right to bully you, frighten you, or do things to you without your consent. You still have the right to make decisions and choices about what happens during pregnancy, labour and birth. And what mum would knowingly make a decision that harms her baby anyway? Other people say that it is just one day of your life and so it doesn’t really matter what happens – but I would argue that it is a momentous occasion and what happens can affect you for a long time afterwards.
Adjusting to life as a new mum can be a challenge. There is a steep learning curve involved. There is a lot to come to terms with; suddenly going from one being to two, lack of sleep, learning how to take care of a newborn, and the physical healing process from the birth. Getting off to a good start, and feeling happy and positive makes it much easier. Or, to put it another way, if you start of full of negative feelings, anxiety, fear or unhappiness, it makes it much harder.
I’ve had one negative and one positive birth experience. The negative one (my first birth) left me feeling very anxious, like my body was stuck on ‘high alert’ all the time, and this affected how I felt about myself as a mother, and how I dealt with the day-to-day challenges of looking after a tiny person who has very limited communication. I jumped every time my baby made a sound and dreaded her waking up, I felt like a terrible mother and went into a panic when my baby cried because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I remember people asking me ‘are you enjoying it?’ (being a mum) and although I smiled and said yes, inside I was thinking ‘What??? Are you mad???’. I was exhausted not just from the disturbed nights but from being anxious and angry all the time, and trying to process and come to terms with what had happened. It took me over a year before I felt anything like ‘normal’ again, and it was over two years (and some counselling) before I felt ready to face another pregnancy.
The positive birth, on the other hand, left me on a high. It was a planned home VBAC that ended in hospital (click for the full story). When they placed my baby on my chest I felt like I could take on the world, I was totally relaxed and happy. I would willingly do it all again, and I actually feel a bit sad that we don’t plan to have any more children. This time I feel full of energy and love (although exhausted at the end of the day of course!). I think it is telling that my second baby has started smiling two weeks earlier than my first, because I am smiling at her all day! I expected life with two small children to be a case of grit your teeth and get through it, but if you asked me now ‘are you enjoying it?’ the answer would be a resounding ‘Yes!’.
Coming back to the phrase ‘birth experience’ – I don’t think a positive birth is dependent on a checklist of what you should or should not do. It is possible to find a home birth traumatic, and a c-section wonderful. I think really it comes down to knowing what you want, and making the right choices to make it happen. Obviously sometimes there are special circumstances, and things don’t go to plan, but if you feel calm and in control of what is happening then you will feel strong and empowered rather than frightened or even traumatised. The ripple effect of how you feel about your birth can affect your life, and your whole family, for a long time afterwards.