What if every expectant mother could rely on her community to celebrate and protect her?  [Photo Credit: Rachel Wilder]

What if every expectant mother could rely on her community to celebrate and protect her?
[Photo Credit: Rachel Wilder]

We build our expectations for birth and pregnancy from childhood; birth stories pervade our culture, from TV and movies to baby dolls. My own life always included lovely retellings of my birth, at home, peaceful and perfect. The trouble is that fear pervades our birth culture, and more often than not, the only stories we hear and the only images we see depict dramatic “success” and dramatic “failure.” The media’s close attention to how celebrity mothers look while pregnant and just after giving birth places enormous pressure on all moms to seem as though pregnancy is effortless and birth leaves us unchanged, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Glossy magazines give the impression that bringing new life into the world is as simple as adopting a kitten. At the same time, this culture that fails to celebrate the enormous strength a mother displays, no matter what her story holds, exaggerates the risks and pain of pregnancy and birth. Even the most conservative of studies shows that there are too many interventions during birth, with no apparent medical reason. A woman’s care provider is likely to question her ability to carry and birth her baby safely, even when she shows no signs of any risk for any complication. What a powerful message!

We are afraid–the stakes are too high. Failure is everywhere in medical language around birth and infancy. How can we begin our journey as mothers with any confidence, when culture and medical authority combine to express their anxieties that we will fail? It’s everywhere: “failure to progress” is an official medical diagnosis during labor, and a baby who does not fit on a growth chart may be diagnosed with “failure to thrive.” We might find comfort and faith in the everyday, commonplace, health most moms and babies clearly display, but even the doctors who know better warn us about every risk and danger. Friends, family, the media, our own care providers, all nervously question a mother’s ability to safely carry, birth, and nurture her baby. We have to fight much too hard to avoid internalizing their doubts as proof our of our inadequacy.

We must work hard, if we want to find positive birth stories and images, while terrifying scenes assault us without our permission. The images of birth that are most common actually depict extremes or pure fiction. Strangers seem somehow compelled to share the most horrifying birth story they have ever heard. Meanwhile, photographs that manage to capture a birthing mother’s inner strength are removed from social media for depicting nudity, even when “the rules” claim that nude photographs are taken down only to protect us from pornography. This applies to images of the postpartum body, as well, unless it reveals no trace of a pregnancy. The perfect mother does not exist, but to know that and to feel it, deeply, are very different things. Effortless perfection is a toxic standard, even when our armor is up and strong. The vulnerability of pregnancy and new motherhood deserve our protection. We could make a shield out of our collective experience, offer reminders to each other, “I know that you are strong, even when you don’t feel strong.” Why doesn’t every mother heard that message loudly and clearly?

“Fear can only be overcome only by Faith” — this is my favorite quote. It comes from an extraordinary doctor and veteran of World War I, who dared to write about “the dignity of motherhood” in his book, Childbirth Without Fear, published in the first part of the twentieth century, as fears about birth rose exponentially every year, and faith in mothers plummeted.others who cherish their memories of birth, like me, work against the same culture of silence around the realities of birth and new motherhood that threatens to overwhelm mothers who feel that they failed, somehow. That culture does not hear any mention of the real and difficult work that a mother does during pregnancy and birth, and that silence breeds fear. My own life seems defined by silence and fear, since my first anxiety attack, around age eight. During my pregnancy and birth preparation, I desperately sought an escape for me, my baby, and my husband. We found it, in the tools provided by HypnoBirthing, a movement partly inspired by Childbirth Without Fear. After a lifetime of feeling that my anxiety could to invade every moment, I moved into pure faith, during my birth, and experienced precious hours with no fear. What a gift I gave myself! A childbirth class did not instill a lifetime of faith in myself as a mother or just in me, but those hours of freedom from fear remain a potent reminder of my own strength, even in my darkest moments. I teach HypnoBirthing now, because the tools I learned from my teacher, while I was pregnant, helped me and my partner overcome our fears, until we were both filled with faith in me. I hope to help other moms have that same confident beginning.

I often wonder what would happen to perinatal mental health, if our culture asked for and listened to our birth stories. What if birth stories were as commonly shared as our newborns babies’ statistics? What if we combed birth stories for a mother’s strength, instead of asking about pain and complications? What if we told a new mother, “Look how you acted as advocate for your health, and your baby’s best interests, even when you thought you were too exhausted!” What if we congratulated new parents on the way they partnered during birth to welcome their newest family member, together? We can always find moments that highlight beauty, strength, advocacy, power, because giving birth requires all of these things! What a gift we could offer new mothers, if we refused fear and chose faith, instead! What a start we could provide, if we truly listened to every mom?