Many people today view childbirth as something scary and painful.
Ask any woman about birth and she will most likely tell you that birth is painful, fearsome and full of complications. Women are usually so caught up in the idea of pain in childbirth that this overshadows simple, logical truths – that birth is a natural, normal and healthy physiological process.
How did we become so fearful of birth and so insecure about our bodies’ ability to birth naturally? How did we start to depend on medical professionals to tell us about birth instead of educating ourselves and trusting in Allah ’s perfect design?
As a society, we have been programmed to believe that childbirth is painful and torturous. Scare stories handed down from generation to generation among family and friends have shaped our views on birth. Women learn about birth from their female counterparts and many times buy in to the drama. Pop –culture and mass media also play a big role in affecting the way we view birth. When was the last time you saw a peaceful, calm birth scene in a movie or TV show?
Historically, in medieval times, the conditions surrounding childbirth led to many deaths. Women were made to suffer during childbirth as they were thought to be the lesser sex and childbirth was a means of atonement for their sins. Most laboring women were left alone and denied any form of pain relief or emotional support.
Birth became a lonely and painful affair and death in childbirth became a common phenomenon. This led to much fear among women… not of birth, but of death. This fear of death has come to be associated with all births. It has been passed down through generations and remained forefront in our minds.
In the Qur’an, the immaculate birth is related to us in the story of Isaa.s.’s birth.
The pangs of labor drove her to the trunk of a date-palm. She exclaimed: “Oh, if only I had died before this time and was something discarded and forgotten!” A voice called out to her from under her: “Do not grieve. Your Lord has placed a small stream at your feet. Shake the trunk of the palm toward you, and fresh, ripe dates will drop down to you. Eat and drink, and delight your eyes. If you should see anyone at all, just say:
‘I have made a vow of abstinence to the All-Merciful, and [so] today I will not speak to any human being.'” ( Maryam 19: 23-26)
Looking at this from a psychological perspective, Maryam . was in an extremely distressed state because of what the towns folk were saying about her and her special condition. But Allah (SWT) told her not to grieve and to relax and delight in the nourishment He provided for her in the form of dates and water. This must have had an immensely soothing and comforting effect on her and she was then able to birth with ease.
From this surah we get the impression that indeed birth is a momentous and challenging occasion, but more importantly is that we are told how to approach birth – with a positive mindset.
If a laboring woman is calm and relaxed, her uterine muscles work effectively to open her cervix and she is able to birth with ease and minimal discomfort. When we are emotionally relaxed, beta-endorphins flood our body and act as our own natural painkillers.
These hormones are said to be between two to five hundred times more powerful than morphine. If endorphin levels in the body are optimized it is even possible for the mother to experience a pain-free birth.
If on the other hand, a woman approaches her birth with anxiety and fear, there is a physical and chemical reaction, called the “fight or flight” response that happens in her body. The brain releases stress hormones, which cause the blood vessels supplying oxygen to the uterus, to constrict. Blood and oxygen flow away from the uterus and other vital organs to parts of the body involved in “fight or flight”, like the arms and legs. This results in ineffective uterine contractions as the muscles of the uterus no longer work in harmony.
Tension is then created and the mother actually begins to feel pain. When this happens, she becomes even more fearful and then feels even more pain. And so, the vicious cycle of ‘fear-tension-pain’ continues and will result in a long and drawn-out labor. If the woman is in a hospital, it is likely that she would have to undergo a cesarean section.
Why Do So Many Births End up Like This? What is Contributing to Our Fear?
Apart from preconceived notions about pain in childbirth, the birthing environment also affects the laboring woman’s psyche. Many women who give birth in hospitals may subconsciously be wondering what they are doing in a hospital if hospitals are really meant for sick people.
When a laboring woman changes into a hospital gown and is wheeled into a hospital room, she takes on the role of ‘sick patient’. Her mental state is that of needing medical help to birth her baby. The multitude of high-tech machinery and equipment in hospitals also send the message to her that birth needs much help, and that her body is inadequate.
The attitudes of many care-providers who dramatize birth also can have a damaging effect on the pregnant woman’s confidence about her body’s ability to birth her baby. When tests are done and drugs prescribed for every single slight chance of a complication, the pregnant woman gets more and more anxious and insecure about her ability to birth naturally. The pregnant woman is in a vulnerable state and highly suggestible to offers of medical intervention, especially if it is followed by insinuations that she is an irresponsible mother if she does not accept it.
What Can We Do?
An increasing number of women are recognizing the importance of educating themselves about birth. With knowledge about the physiology of birth, we are able to understand how our hormones help us and how our bodies are perfectly designed for birth.
Attending independent antenatal classes such as HypnoBirthing, Lamaze or Bradley classes are certainly useful in this aspect. With adequate information, mothers and fathers will be able to make informed decisions about their baby’s birth – in areas such as choosing the right care provider and right place of birth.
In many countries, home births and center births are a viable and even the preferred option for low-risk moms. Educating oneself and exercising our rights as consumers can certainly bring us closer to a gentle, more satisfying birth experience for not only the mother, but for the baby and the rest of the family.
First published: February 2014