I am sitting writing this while my toddler and I have colds. Miss Toddler is also teething, so it’s a bit of a drooly, snotty mess and I’m watching old episodes of Home and Away the Early Years (don’t judge!) on Youtube. SevenTwo recently took it off the air and messed up my morning routine! We’ve been watching 20 minutes of Home and Away most days for over a year now. It helped keep baby calm to have me sing the theme song (both male and female parts) to that classy saxophone/synthesizer music, and helped me pass the time when I was exclusively pumping in those first 6 months (that’s another story). It transported me back to a time in the mid 90s where mothering and adulting were far from my mind. In 1996, my biggest concerns were whether to buy green or purple Doc Martens, and how much Sun-In I could get away with applying to my hair before my mother noticed.
Anyway, I was inspired to write this piece after hearing such a line of misinformation spit from one of the character's mouths. Marilyn says to Angel (who is due to give birth in the coming weeks but little does she know Shane is about to die and there’s a horrific storm coming etc. etc.)
“don’t they give the epidural to the mother so she has the least traumatic birth possible? I know I’d want if it was me”.
I almost spit out my Rooibos. Yes, I know it’s a soap. It aired in 1996 (episode 1876 if you’re interested. Irene is considering surrogacy in this episode too). Shockingly though, people still think this statement is true. I certainly once thought it was. I would have been 13 when this episode first aired.
I think it’s so true that repeated messages about birth – whether from soaps watched in our teens, well-meaning family members or other sources – the general ‘flavour’ of birth talk is overwhelmingly negative and it gets into our heads. Before I began researching the psychophysiology of pain (which started with doing my Masters and then PhD on self-injury), I used to be very pro-drugs during labour. Why wouldn’t you harness modern technology and not suffer through pain if you didn’t have to? I largely blame the media for this. It’s so far from my earliest understanding of birth- with my own mother discussing my birth. That it was quick, required focus, and was intense but not necessarily something that required drugs. She never once said it was painful or something to fear. Over the years of growing up as a fertile young woman I lost sight of this. Assumed that my mum was tougher than me. I’d even read some research somewhere in my honours year saying that redheads have a higher pain threshold than everyone else - so reasoned this to be true. Something my mother was able to experience but not me. Either that or I figured that she was telling me white lies to protect me, and that one say she’d say “well, I didn’t want to scare you!” I think there are a lot of women who think this - that other women just have a higher pain threshold or that those who don't complain about pain are lying.
When I experienced a bout of unemployment in my late 20s, I passed the time in between job applications with researching my family history in Scotland. Initially, I was so confused to see the addresses where babies had been born – they were houses (or at least tenement buildings) not hospitals. I assumed my family were too poor for hospitals - after all, there were not many who could read and write, most worked as laboring or factory work, and they often lived in pretty bleak poverty. I'd never considered where or how babies were born before hospitals or where this practice began. Yet, when I began researching birth I realized that up until maybe the 1940s, giving birth at home was the norm. It was safer – less germs, more relaxing to be in a familiar environment, and it was the norm that your mum, sisters and aunts knew how to deliver a baby or at least act as a support person. In some cases, there would be a midwife, and rarely a doctor present.
As mums and mums to be, our ideas of what the least traumatic birth possible means to us will differ. For me, it means creating a warm, positive, bubble of supportive people who will help shield me from fear mongering and negativity. The ability to tune out distractions and stay in a relaxed state. To be able to trust my body to do what it is designed to do, and work with my baby, who is not some illness or erroneous material to be removed but a person who is an integral part of the process. It’s about teamwork and communication with my body and with my baby – not with the sterile notion of being drugged up so I can have “something” surgically removed. In saying that, it also means the ability to not freak out, feel guilty or feel I’ve failed if the journey takes a different turn. That Cesarean can still be gentle and baby-centered. To still be present and active during birth, even if that means there’s drugs and surgery.
The Hypnobirthing Australia course is beautifully designed to help all women with a variety of births – physiological (‘natural’), cesarean, home birth, water birth, land birth and emphasizes choice :)