Labour can be long, difficult and painful – the hardest thing a woman ever does. Our physical and mental resources are stretched to their limits – sometimes beyond – and that is the very thing that we are afraid of.
We are afraid of the pain, afraid that we won't be able to cope, afraid of losing control and of letting go. Often our partners are even more afraid than we are.
Since the early part of the 20th century, pregnant women have been systematically disempowered to the extent that we no longer trust our bodies to do the job of birthing. We have become dependent on others to deliver our babies.
Instead of telling us that there is nothing to be afraid of and reassuring us that we are lovely, healthy women perfectly capable of meeting the challenge of childbirth – something every woman should have a go at if she wishes, we are encouraged by the so-called experts to be afraid. We then lose our power and give others control over us.
The truth of the matter is that despite the cultural values, fashion and personal beliefs which can inhibit our childbearing abilities, women do know how to give birth. A woman who is encouraged to listen to her body can discover exactly what she needs to do to make labour easier for herself and her baby.
Birth as a pleasurable experience
The way we give birth is a product of our culture; it has to do with the values, hopes, fears and the institutions that each society creates to regulate our behaviour in childbirth. A basic belief in women's ability to give birth is at the heart of the active birth movement.
Focus is kept on the fact that over 90% of healthy pregnant women, receiving good antenatal care during pregnancy and continuous support during labour, will give birth naturally. There is trust that the natural process is fundamentally correct, unless there are unequivocal signs that mother and baby need help.
What we need to remember is that Mother Nature has brought us through nine months of pregnancy and is certainly not about to desert us in our hour of need. When push comes to shove, nature does have an unexpected plan on hand, plus a few delightful surprises.
Bearing a baby is part of a woman's sexual cycle. Conception may generally be seen as the most exhilarating part of that cycle, but for many women, the power of the rhythmic contractions and the rippling of the pelvic floor during the second stage of labour is both erotic and orgasmic.
To enjoy both lovemaking and childbirth, our bodies need to produce hormones to help us feel secure, relaxed and uninhibited. The way a woman behaves when she is giving birth the natural way, without drugs or interference, will often mirror the way she behaves when making her babies.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise to note that the self-same hormones that raged through our bodies to help us enjoy conception are the very hormones that rush to assist us when we are ready to give birth.
If childbirth was such an ordeal, surely our foremothers would have made it their business to avoid it like the plague. Yet they went on quite willingly and cheerfully having many babies without the help of pain-relieving drugs. Why? Perhaps for the same reason they had intercourse.
The words women have used to describe their births reflect their intensity: 'utter joy', 'elation', 'tingling', 'can't wait to do it again', 'very pleasurable and immensely sensual', 'a spiritual and ultimately sexual experience', 'simply orgasmic'.
Unfortunately it would appear that a high percentage of women do not experience sensual pleasure in birth. That may be because 98% of births take place in hospital, which inhibits our physical responses. It surely also has something to do with the drugs given in labour, including epidurals – how can we experience these sensations if the whole area is numb with painkillers (should we rather call them pleasure killers). I am convinced that childbirth would be more pleasurable for more women if we expected it to be so.
Those loving hormones
Oxytocin, often called the love hormone, is the main player in every reproductive response in both women and men. Oxytocin triggers caring behaviour between partners: the male becomes more caring and protective of his mate and the woman in return will provide comfort, nurturing and loving support for him. This is nature's way of ensuring that any offspring of this union will have two caregivers.
Oxytocin can enhance the production of sperm, and during sexual intercourse oxytocin increases movement of the sperm inside the fallopian tubes. The release of oxytocin following orgasm dissolves anxiety, lifts depression, and causes the cervix to attract and draw in the sperm. It also facilitates ovulation. Mother Nature has her own agenda for this feel-good state. What she is really interested in is the procreation of the human species.
Oxytocin is also the hormone that enables the mother to maintain effective contractions of her uterus during birth and for delivery of the placenta. A high peak of oxytocin after birth helps the placenta to separate easily and safely without any significant bleeding. In fact, one of the greatest peaks of oxytocin that a woman can have in her life is just after childbirth (if the birth has occurred without any intervention).
Conditions required for maintaining this high level of oxytocin are that the mother has privacy and nothing demanded of her except to enjoy her baby. If the flow of oxytocin is left undisturbed, it will motivate breastfeeding. A recent term for this important stage of childbirth is 'bonding'.
We should try to keep the 'fight or flight' hormone, adrenaline, out of the birthing room until it is required. All the hormones released during lovemaking and labour originate from the primitive part of the brain that we share with all other mammals. Inhibitions during lovemaking or the birthing process occur in the new brain or neocortex (that part of the brain that is so highly developed in humans).
During the birthing process (as during lovemaking) there are times when the woman behaves as if she is not quite with us. This change of consciousness can be attributed to a reduction in neocortical activity and is normal and welcome during lovemaking and labour. It is important to note that any disturbance that stimulates the neocortex will interfere with the natural progress of both lovemaking and labour.
There are umpteen ways that this can happen:
intruding into a woman's space;
switching on a bright light;
looking at her;
any release of adrenaline also tends to stimulate the neocortex, that higher functioning, thinking part of the brain, thereby inhibiting the birth process.
When a person is frightened or distressed, the body will release the hormones adrenaline and nor-adrenaline. These hormones act on nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system and produce what is commonly called the 'fight or flight' syndrome, a series of behaviours that cause a rescue from the source of danger.
In labour, if a woman is subjected to a situation that causes distress, her body will automatically release adrenaline to assist her. This can be the case if a woman is not completely au fait with her birthing environment, if she doesn't know the hospital very well.