When I was struggling with anxiety in my second and third pregnancies I was very open about it. I was comfortable telling people that I’d asked for an elective c-section (you can read about that in Don’t call me too posh to push). I didn’t worry about being honest about my first traumatic birth. It felt easy to talk about why I was afraid of childbirth because I had a good reason to be. I’d been through it and had an awful experience. It was OK for me to feel anxious, I felt like it was justified and that in turn meant I was happy talking about it.
And because I’d had a traumatic birth people were understanding. They were (mostly) supportive of me wanting an elective c-section. I didn’t feel like I had to offer lengthy explanations so they could see my point of view.
Overall I felt supported by friends and family.
But my first pregnancy was a little different. Because I hadn’t been through childbirth before, if I mentioned anxiety about it most people dismissed it or made unhelpful comments like “not a lot you can do about it now!” or “lots of women do it, you’ll be fine”. Midwives looked at me like I was just being slightly hysterical as a first time mum. They certainly didn’t have time to discuss it with me and would often send me off with a “just do the antenatal classes and you’ll be fine”.
In hindsight, the fact that I felt so much anxiety meant that it probably wasn’t going to be fine. I went into the labour room terrified and it was pretty much all downhill from there. We know that anxiety and fear can have a big impact on how a woman labours. Tension, stress and being unable to relax all hinder the natural process. And I was tense. I certainly felt stressed and there was no chance of me relaxing. Everything I’d learnt at my antenatal class went out the window. I panicked. Because I hadn’t done anything in advance to resolve my fears they came back in full force when I went into labour. Which meant that it went to shit.
Here’s the thing.
Had I been listened to and supported with my anxiety then I would almost certainly have gone in with less of it. Which would have meant a far less traumatic birth experience. I might have been able to have a birth plan that offered me more support so I didn’t feel alone and vulnerable. Someone might have recommended hypnobirthing to me (it wasn’t so popular back then). Or I could have had counselling to help me work through my fears before I had to face them head on.
But instead it was dismissed as normal apprehension and trivialised as an overreaction.
Which is why we need to start taking it more seriously.
If a woman says that she’s feeling anxious about the birth then she should be listened to. Given the opportunity to talk it through and helped to understand what’s driving her fears. She needs to be supported and encouraged to explore how she’s feeling.
What she doesn’t need, is to be dismissed. To be told that she’s overreacting. Or that her fears are irrelevant because childbirth is inevitable so she’ll just have to get on with it.
When we feel supported we feel safe. When we feel supported we are able to cope with emotional exploration. We can deal with our fears, and more importantly, consider how we can overcome them. Without that support we get too caught up in our anxiety. We can’t really think beyond what we are worried about and don’t want to have to consider facing up to whatever it is that is frightening us.
So if you talk to someone who is anxious about birth don’t just tell them it’s fine. Don’t trivialise it or dismiss it. Instead make sure you find the time to talk to her. Let her go through her fears and talk about what is really worrying her. Because it will mean a lot to her and can potentially make a massive difference to how she feels when she goes into the labour room. And that can only be a good thing.
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