One of the first things I talk about in my sessions with hypnobirthing couples is the influence of stories. In particular, negative birth stories. There exists an implicit understanding in our society that birth is just going to be awful. In the West, it’s commonly viewed as a medical procedure for which you need to be in hospital, with emergency equipment available. Depictions of birth on TV or in film are of helpless women, overcome with pain, screaming on their backs with their legs in the air. As children, we may have heard our mothers talk about pain relief they were given that left them woozy, confused, and scared. As adults, we watch ‘One Born Every Minute’, listen patiently to our friends’ horror stories and pray that things will be different for us. And when we come to give birth ourselves, is it any wonder that we enter into it with anxiety and fear – which in itself can make the process more fraught, confirming all our worst fears and compounding the truth in that original story. So, the story becomes even more powerful, and we are left in its shadow.
When a story like this is the prevalent one in our society, it can become hard to hear the stories that contradict it. As humans, this is just what we do. We like to be certain of things, so when we hear an idea it becomes like fact. Rather than live with the uncertainty of conflicting information, we ignore anything that doesn’t fit.
There’s now another story out there about birth which is slowly growing – and those that hear that story become just as certain that it is fact. This is the story that birth will be beautiful, that we can breathe our babies out with no pain or pressure, that as long as we remain calm and relaxed, birth will be a pleasurable and empowering experience. Of course then when we inevitably have some anxiety about birth, or perhaps opt to use pain relief, our experience becomes a failure. Rather than question the validity of the story, we blame ourselves – or we resolve our discomfort by buying back into the mainstream story that birth is a terrible thing. Again, the story becomes more powerful and we are left in its shadow.
Like all conflicting tales, the reality is usually somewhere in the middle. Many women experience difficult or even traumatic births, which I’ve written about previously. And many women have pleasant, pain free and even ecstatic births. And we now know that there are certain factors which will increase the likelihood of either (which is how I found hypnobirthing in the first place, but that’s another story). But, for most women, birth will fall in the middle of this spectrum. It may be a little bit beautiful, and it may even be a little bit awful. But if we change the story to focus on the strength, courage and resilience of women, we can begin to find a new story – that no matter what happens, women have the power to birth and those around them have the power to help make birth a positive and empowering experience.
The power of these stories, though, can influence women’s experience not only of birth, but pregnancy too and the weeks, months and years after birth. Which got me thinking about all of the other stories that exist around child rearing. These stories that, without us even realising, influence our ways of thinking and have an enormous impact on how we feel about ourselves and our lives.
Let’s take another really prevalent myth – that you will fall in love with your baby the minute you set eyes on them. You will look into their little eyes, and you will feel like you’ve always known them. You’ll recognise each other. You’ll feel connected to the ancient wisdom of the maternal bond.
I wonder where that little fairytale started. Maybe because, as women retell the stories of their early childrearing experiences they do recall a sense of love and recognition – overlaying their feelings about their much older children on to those early moments. Maybe the story started as a sop to women who, treated as second class citizens for much (all?) of history, needed something to look forward to in the thankless drudgery of daily life (you don’t need to vote if you get boundless love, do you?) Maybe because there is some truth in it – for some women, they will experience love at first sight. And when that becomes the prevalent story, it becomes harder and harder to talk about anything which deviates from this.
In fact, many women describe only feeling ‘love’ days or weeks after the birth of their babies. While it might be more common to feel fiercely protective and besotted by this little creature, our feelings are also mixed up in relief, exhaustion and anxiety – leaving us likely to feel more than a little bewildered. If this then conflicts with the story we expected, we can add some guilt and anger in there too. We might feel cheated, betrayed, and disappointed in ourselves, ironically making it even harder for positive feelings like love to come to the fore. If our experience is anything less than blissful, rather than question the validity of the story, again we blame ourselves. It must be that WE are not loving enough, it must be that WE have failed in some way. It can’t be that the story isn’t true. Again, the story becomes more powerful, and we are left in its shadow.
What else? That age old fairytale that, as long as you find the right approach every baby can sleep through the night. Or that myth that, if you’re disciplining in the correct way, your child won’t have tantrums. Or those even more subtle ones – that when things go wrong it’s always the mother’s fault. That it is possible to juggle work and family without any emotional fall out. That you’ll get your sex drive back after 6 weeks. That the laundry basket can be emptied.
And having children can also make you think about all the other myths you swallowed over the years. When my 3 year old asked why I was shaving my legs, I was suddenly faced with the story that women should be hair free. When my 5 year old said it was ‘Daddy’s screwdriver’ I was smacked in the face with the story that only men can fix things.
But once we start to see these stories for what they are – myths, legends, fairytales – they immediately become less powerful. And seeing them as only one of many different stories opens our eyes to new possibilities. We can either choose to only see the stories which fit our world view, or we can explore those many other stories which make us feel a little uncomfortable, a little uncertain, and maybe a little braver. This means there can be no right or wrong, just a story which fits better or worse for us. And once we peel off the layers and see under the fabrication, we can cast off these fairytales completely and write our own stories. Like the story that mums can fix things too. Now where’s that screwdriver?