What was your first impression of birth, your thoughts about how and where it happens? Unless you are one of a very few who had a mother birth your siblings at home, you probably learned it was something that happens in a hospital. Your mother went to the hospital and had a baby. You grew up seeing TV and movies about women going to the hospital to have a baby, and the birth scenes were filled with screaming and crying and threatening the dad for “doing this to me”. In many of these on-screen depictions, the water breaks with a huge (often comedic) splash and within minutes the mother is doubled over in pain and screaming bloody murder. She is rushed to the hospital in a car or taxi or ambulance with panicked and incompetent friends or husband or boyfriend and reaches the hospital “just in time” to start pushing (usually 2-3 times) if she makes it without delivering in the vehicle. If you’ve never given birth or been to a birth, these images may be your only “experience” with birth.
While many birth scenes in our favorite TV shows and movies are comical, the message is definitely the same: Birth is fast, scary, dangerous and unbearably painful and it absolutely needs to happen in a hospital. You might not even know how deeply ingrained in your mind this is until you really start thinking about birth. And by then, these images have already started causing you to dread labor.
But isn’t labor painful? It can be – but not from the very start. 24 hours of labor doesn’t mean 24 hours of excruciating pain. Is it fast? Not usually. Many women don’t have their water break until well into active labor, and some have it break without any contractions at all. If it doesn’t break, that doesn’t mean contractions immediately start at 2 minutes apart and are breath-taking. Labor, like so many things, often ramps up gradually and much of it is uncomfortable, but not painful. Pushing can be “normal” and last an hour or more, but again, we see women who are scared by that– no one in the movies pushes for an hour! Something must be wrong. It adds another layer of struggle to the birth.
Is labor dangerous? Again, not usually. In most cases, if something about labor is going to cause concern, your healthcare provider will have an inkling of it long before labor starts. Yes, things can change and get a little frightening during labor, but the vast majority of labors have few complications and even those are almost all non-life-threatening.
Entertainment may present home or birth center births as crazy hippies, and natural birthing as unrealistic. One particular “reality” show used to seem to make a point of showing women who said they wanted a natural birth (but often had done little to prepare or ensure that outcome) in the hospital begging for anesthesia. One episode featured a nurse who said something along the lines of “Lots of women say they want to go natural but that’s because they don’t know how bad it is”. In movies, the woman who wants an unmedicated birth is always either screaming for drugs or ends up with a cesarean birth.
This bombards us with false information about birth and shapes how we think about it. Fearing birth means women start out already tense. Tense muscles make birthing harder and more painful. Believing that birth is dangerous frightens us, especially when we don’t know what to expect from labor. Fear can lead to uninformed decisions and even fighting our own bodies during labor.
What do we do? Educate ourselves. Learn more about how our bodies work especially during birth. Find and support entertainment that shows more realistic birth, like Call the Midwives (thanks, BBC!) which may not be current in procedures, but shows that birth is a normal bodily function that often doesn’t need medical intervention. Seek out women who have had great births and if you’re one of them, talk about it!
The more we understand the process of labor, the less we fear it. Then we can birth better and celebrate the experience and the journey instead of dread it.
Just for fun, Google "Worst Movie Birth Scenes" or something similar to see the looooooonnng list of terrible births depicted on-screen.