Emily Kirkham’s challenging first birth helped give her the courage to be more assertive, particularly when choosing the kind of care she wanted during her subsequent pregnancy and labour. Sheena Bousanga’s vaginal birth after a previous C-section instilled a deep confidence in her body and her ability as a mother which, in turn, enabled her to finally begin ignoring conflicting advice from books, friends and relatives and heed her own intuition. After Melissa Newell* pushed her baby into the world, she was enveloped in an exhilarating feeling of well-being. “Did I feel powerful? I think a better word is superhuman,” says the Chatsworth, Ont., mother of two, adding that she has since carried that sense of competence and capability into her personal and professional life.
Midwife Jennie Stonier has seen similar scenarios unfold for countless women from all walks of life. “I can’t tell you how many have said to me afterward, ‘Now I know I can do anything,’” says Stonier, who divides her practice between western Quebec and northern Inuit communities.
The power of choice
Despite a culture that celebrates personal empowerment, many expectant mothers may be missing out on the chance to have this kind of birth experience, largely because they don’t even know it’s possible. Take Sheena Bousanga, for instance. Until becoming pregnant for the second time, most of the stories the Waterloo, Ont., mother of two had heard about vaginal birth were the usual horror tales. Having breezed through a Caesarean for a breech baby and subsequent recovery, she simply assumed she would have a scheduled C-section the second time around. It wasn’t until she started doing some online research early in her second pregnancy that she stumbled across the notion that, in addition to fewer risks and faster recovery, a vaginal birth might offer a feeling of confidence her surgery hadn’t. “I started finding forums and groups of moms who were very positive about going drug-free, and about VBAC (vaginal birth after Caesarean). It was as if I had found this secret little community of women who thought childbirth was not only natural, but enjoyable,” she says. “It was there I started hearing about the post-birth ‘high’ and empowerment. That’s when I decided: that’s what I want!”
Sheena’s VBAC was a powerful experience. After labouring comfortably at home for several hours, she and her husband went to the hospital, where, less than two hours later, Sheena gave birth. “It wasn’t pretty — I only had eight minutes of pushing, but it was very intense,” Sheena says. Nonetheless, she found the whole experience “intoxicating” and says it changed not only how she sees herself, but also how her husband sees her. “My husband was bragging to his friends, ‘You should have seen it — she was amazing!’” she recalls. “I was proud of myself, but to see him proud of me was even more uplifting.”
Melissa Newell chose midwives to attend her labour and birth. “The level of support the midwives provided was amazing,” she recalls. “They made me feel like I was in control and had the strength to do it without drugs.” And so she did — including two hours of pushing. “It’s funny — you always hear ‘they don’t present medals in the hospital for having a natural birth’ but, honestly, the level of personal pride I felt was much greater and more life-changing than any award ever could be,” she says.
Does it last?
But did the Wow, I did it! feeling have longer-lasting effects? “It gave me more confidence in myself as a mother,” Sheena says. “I started listening to my own intuition.” As a result, she completely changed her style of parenting. “I ended up doing all the things I wouldn’t have thought I was going to do if you had asked me six years ago,” she says. “I co-sleep, I’m an extended breastfeeder, and I ended up switching to cloth diapers.”
Happily, it’s not just the “perfect,” uncomplicated births that can lead to this kind of self-confidence. Emily Kirkham is a case in point. Her induced labour and birth were difficult, as were her first weeks as a parent. She ended up having more interventions than she had hoped for (including an episiotomy) and breastfeeding got off to a rocky start. “It was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life — not just the birth itself, but the entire process — the breastfeeding, the hospital, becoming a new mom,” she says. “But then, just to think you can do all that is pretty empowering.”
Indeed, persevering through weeks of dropper-feedings and sleep-hungry days helped Emily discover previously untapped strength. You might even say it changed her into a different person. As someone who was intensely career-focused before having children, Emily was surprised to find she couldn’t imagine returning to work. She quit her job as an environmental chemist, and started teaching prenatal fitness classes part-time — something she found satisfying in a much different way.
She also became more assertive. When she eventually became pregnant with her second child, Emily was determined not to repeat the kind of experience she’d had during her first delivery. Back then, when Emily’s doctor booked her for an induction without any discussion, Emily hadn’t pressed the matter. “In retrospect, I could have asked more questions, but I didn’t believe I had the knowledge or the guts,” she says.
This time around, Emily and her husband chose a midwife and hired a doula. While the couple initially planned on having the baby in hospital, they ultimately decided on a home birth. “It was phenomenal — just amazing,” Emily says, her voice catching a little. “My husband and I just cried.”
While there is luck involved in having a positive birth experience, there are a few ways to stack the deck in your favour. Here are five strategies to improve your odds of having a confidence-building birth:
Gather information Educating yourself about all of your options — from different kinds of caregivers and alternative methods of pain relief to the risks and benefits of various interventions — is the first step toward having a satisfying, empowering birth experience. “In my experience, informed choice — when women really examine the recommendations and the pros and cons — has more to do with whether they end up feeling empowered and transformed than whether they have a vaginal birth or a C-section,” observes Saraswathi Vedam, director of midwifery at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Cultivate a collaborative partnership Choose a caregiver with whom you feel comfortable enough to communicate openly: A trusting partnership with your caregiver should maximize your chances of having the best possible experience, even if your birth doesn’t turn out as planned. In a study conducted by doula and childbirth educator Penny Simkin, “women’s memories, in terms of satisfaction, were not based on whether the birth was easy, or even if it went as they expected or hoped, but how they were cared for,” she says. Many other studies have found that women who had good relationships with their caregivers, felt truly involved in decision making, and received ample support during labour were the most satisfied with their births — these factors actually overrode the influences of pain, interventions and whether women attended childbirth classes.
Consider professional labour support You may want to look into hiring a doula — a professional who provides continuous one-on-one support during labour. Studies have linked this kind of support (which most midwives also provide) to shorter labours, fewer interventions, less need for pain medication — and greater satisfaction.
Exercise your power to choose When it comes to making choices about your birth, even details that seem relatively insignificant — like what to wear — can help set the tone for an empowering experience, says Kathleen Lindstrom, a childbirth educator, doula and the perinatal program manager at Douglas College in Coquitlam, BC. “It’s very disempowering for a woman to put on a hospital gown,” she says. In short, wearing the costume can make you feel — and act — like a patient. While you don’t necessarily need to put everything on paper, writing a birth plan can help you think through your preferences. True, unexpected surprises may crop up (just like that sudden shower at an outdoor reception), but if they do, you can adjust your plans accordingly.
Keep your perspective Whether your baby is born vaginally or by C-section, becoming a mother is an important rite of passage, so try to celebrate it as such. And remember, while a wonderful birth experience can help start the mom-baby relationship on the right foot, it’s by no means the only way to lay a strong foundation for motherhood. Just looking after your little one every day will do that.
“Yes, birth is important,” acknowledges Catherine Quaglia, a Birthing from Within mentor and breastfeeding counsellor in Duncan, BC, “but it’s just a few days. Parenting is for the rest of your life.”
Empowered by nature
What do labouring women and long-distance runners have in common? Beta-endorphin, the natural painkilling hormone that produces the runner’s high, is also released in large amounts during normal labour and birth — nature’s way of helping you through labour’s challenges and giving you a sense of well-being once your baby’s in your arms.
This post-birth buzz serves a purpose, according to Saraswathi Vedam, director of midwifery at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Our bodies have evolved a system that promotes not only bonding to the baby, but a sense of empowerment that assists us in the challenges of parenting,” she observes, “whether that’s getting up at night several times to feed the baby or dealing with sore nipples.”
The natural advantage
While any birth can be empowering under the right circumstances, there is some evidence that a spontaneous vaginal birth may maximize your chances:
• An Australian study of 272 first-time mothers found the roughly 50 percent who had spontaneous vaginal births were the most likely to report a marked improvement in mood and self-esteem in the days after delivery.
• A US study comparing new mothers who’d given birth in hospitals to those who’d had their babies in free-standing birthing centres, where the rate of
spontaneous vaginal births hovers around 99 percent, found 63 percent of the latter group experienced increased self-esteem, versus only 18 percent of the hospital moms.
*Name changed by request.