How to Prepare for a Natural Birth

I revisited BabyCenter’s natural unmedicated birth group a couple times around Rebecca’s birthday.  Like usual, people are asking how to prepare for a natural birth.  Which methods?  What are you doing?  Like usual, the responses give sensible and encouraging advice, but in retrospect I can’t get past how narrowly practical their focus is, as if birth were such a specialized activity that getting ready for it nowhere intersects with the rest of your life.

If you want to prepare for a natural birth, you may drive across the country all by your pregnant self, except for your stuffed animals and your household gods.  But only if you haven’t done much driving before.  Don’t take any of your friends up on their offers to come with you, or you won’t remember who you are by yourself.  You won’t remember that you don’t need to depend on anyone to figure out where to go and how to get there, or that you can get out of most messes just fine on your own.

If you want to prepare for a natural birth, you may really listen to yourself talk about aches and pains–especially how your ribs hurt in front, just below the bra line, like something’s cutting into them–and worry about what your reaction now might bode for your reaction then.  You’ll start wondering if there’s a less boring way to talk about what you’re feeling, like maybe to describe it in colors instead of clichés?  So you drop into your pain and you see your bread-white ribs washed with blood like wine, a vision of your own body celebrating the Eucharist.  Then you’ll pray to God to open up the space around your heart to make room for you and the baby both.  And then the pain will just feel like stretching and it’ll hardly bother you a bit.

If you want to prepare for a natural birth, you may masturbate a lot.  Because a month before your due date, suddenly a sub-genre of porn that was never interesting before (and soon won’t be again) is the hottest thing since toast:  women forced to come until they beg for it to stop, until they’re out of their minds and deep in subspace.  Oh man.  And you’ll realize the next morning, the reason that particular scenario is smokin’ now?   It’s because, what if you lose control in labor?  And every time you jerk it, somewhere far back in your head, you’re secretly reimagining losing control as less scary.

When I’d asked our midwives, midway through pregnancy, about learning pain management techniques, Anna said I could if I wanted to, but that people usually react to labor the same way they do to any other tough situation in their lives.  I take the point that how you act during birth is inextricable from how you approach the rest of your life, but her way of phrasing it didn’t sound quite right to me.  After all, you can see I react to difficulties in all sorts of ways, and things like hunger or social context send me in yet other directions. The question is, which versions of yourself do you bring into labor?

When the midwives started the second birth circle class by asking about the physically hardest thing you’ve ever done and how you dealt with it, everyone else (not literally) told stories about rock climbing.  Then it was my turn and you know I’m a dweeb:  My greatest test of physical stamina to date had been grading papers through the wee hours of the morning.  I mean, it can be really ugly, desperate work when you’re exhausted and struggling to stay fair to everyone.  Later, after I got over feeling like a nebbish, it occurred to me that the midwives’ question had been clever, because answering it gives you a chance to define yourself as strong and makes that into a part of your social persona at the birth circle.  That’s useful, because who other people expect you to be has an almost gravitational pull on most people.  So if you establish yourself as a person who struggles but ultimately makes it, then maybe it gets easier to be that person when you go into labor.

This is also the sort of thing that medical doctors don’t do.  Interacting with my doctor’s office positioned me as someone under suspicion of being weak and untrustworthy, and as someone who was dependent on medical professionals to know my own body.  It wasn’t a persona I wanted to answer to, and that was part of why I switched to midwives.

If you’re preparing for a natural birth, you may spend the last week before your due date reviewing other changing points in your life, when your experience took you to the limits of endurance and you came out different.  Then, with luck, labor will be anticlimactic, but you’ll still find yourself transformed into a mother.  And maybe the ways you prepared for labor will help with that transition, too.

For those of you who’ve planned an unmedicated birth or similar venture:  What would a guide to preparing for it look like if it were based on your experiences?  Did you find yourself gearing up for it in any ways people don’t usually talk about?

6 replies on “How to Prepare for a Natural Birth”

  1. I’ll answer this better in a few weeks to a month. Thank you for posting it now, though, as it is so apropos for me. I’m full term as of tomorrow. Your willingness to express, in such open, raw terms, the sensations and emotions that led up to your experience is utterly invaluable. There is so much more to us as people than is easily expressed in ‘polite’ society, and so much value to be had in the sharing of it.

    Going deep into subspace, into alternate states of consciousness is high on my list. I meditate. I, too, find similar fantasies smokin’ hot…all about the loss of control and giving up of one’s self to what is happening physically, be it pain or pleasure. Usually it ends up being both. Other forms of ‘intense sensation’ are also good preparation, I think. Deep tissue massage is a major pointer in the right direction for me. It, too, is about the acceptance of a pain that is not a signal for something bad happening, but a necessary, challenging physical process in order to achieve something good. The more you work into the pain, relax into it and accept it, the more effective the process is.

    All of this will, of course, be tested very soon. I hope that I come out of it feeling like you: strong, capable, knowing of my own mind and body. I think that no matter what happens, I will feel that way, but the experience will be much more defining for me mentally and spiritually than my suppositions about it now.

  2. I’m not sure if this violates the spirit of the post, but I prepared in a completely prosaic way: educating myself endlessly, making sure I was well-fed and fit enough to run the marathon of labor, choosing a compatible midwifery practice, and practicing relaxation till I could do it at the drop of a hat. All the practical prep made my labors go amazingly smoothly, even given complicating factors.

  3. Mo, interesting about deep tissue massage. That totally makes sense.

    With regard to the idea that you’ll be better able to say after you’ve had the baby–maybe? How I prepared probably affected how I labored, because I see the same elements coming up in both places. But it’s hard to say whether the understandings I reached in birth prep actually made labor easier. I figure they did, but I don’t have any direct way to tell. So I wonder about it, but then I also wonder if maybe the symbolic continuities are more important than the question of easier / harder. The psychological element of my birth preparation seemed to be divided between giving particular symbolic meanings to birth (as a life transition, as opening) and letting go, getting me to a point where I didn’t feel like I had anything in particular to prove. I’d already defined myself as strong, and my sense of strength wasn’t about hunkering down like a fire safe or being in perfect control, it was about being open to the changes I wanted and getting caramelized like a crème brulee. …Or maybe emphasizing meaning-making is the luxury of an easy birth. [ETA: On further thought, I don’t think so. If anything, meaning-making is probably more important with a difficult birth.]

  4. Ellen, I did some of the prosaic stuff, too, though not a ton. For the sake of the entry’s completeness, and since I never know what qualifies as a lot or little: I walked at least twenty minutes most days (usually more like 45 minutes earlier in pregnancy, but IIRC it tapered off at some point) and did brief prenatal exercises a couple times per week during the second half of pregnancy. I listened carefully to what my body wanted me to be eating, but at my midwives’ urging, I cut way back on carbs for the third trimester. I read Robbie Davis-Floyd’s Birth As An American Rite of Passage, Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, Pam England’s Birthing From Within, and various things online, as well as talking with our midwives and going to their month-long class on basic info about birth and newborns. I had the routine ultrasounds, urine checks, glucose check, strep B check, and probably stuff I’m forgetting. Out of that, what’s stuck with me most [ie what influences me a year later] is lots of Davis-Floyd, the other books’ points on conceptualizing pain, chard and brown rice, and gratuitous squatting.

    I don’t think my approach would qualify as training for a marathon, though. I have the impression that the more birth gets treated as a specialized activity requiring its own specialized preparation, the more disjoint labor and becoming parent to a(nother) baby become. Maybe they are disjoint events, but I wonder about how much that knowledge might be the product of treating them as disjoint. I’ve read several motherhood memoirs whose authors prepared extensively for labor and felt a little disconcerted at having a baby to care for at the end of the race, while conversely some women going into normal hospital births emphasize the baby to the extent that the process of getting the baby out becomes incidental, unresearched, and unprepared for. A holistic character-focused approach to birth preparation (i.e. the things I talked about in the original post) theoretically mitigates those disconnects, because the personal qualities that are relevant going into labor are still relevant as a new mother. But what I remembered when I read your comment was that of course a lot of people do prepare for both labor and parenthood as specialized activities, no problem, and that those activities have their own symbolic and psychological components.

    I personally find the marathon and research rhetoric daunting, though, because the root metaphor makes it sound like birth is a test that I’ll fail if I don’t study / train enough. It makes it sound like birth is something that you can fail. Also, if labor is its own special kind of event and my background is only borderline relevant, that whispers to me that I’m naked with nothing to fall back on. That’s both scary and inaccurate, assuming my body basically knows what to do.

    But I know my own perspective is pretty limited here, since I haven’t done the research and training and I’ve had exactly one birth. Given that you’ve taught classes on it, I’d be curious to hear more about how you approach some of these issues.

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