(I’m drawing inspiration for this post–and some info for this post–from this great Ted Talk by Kate Dimpfl, a doula in Ithaca, NY. It’s also watchable below and is totally worth watching).
You might be reading this, having had a baby, and thinking “what the hell is she talking about????” Maybe you had a good experience, maybe not so good, but either way, birth is intense. It pushes us past our physical limits (and then some), can feel good, uncomfortable, very painful, or somewhere in between, and is a reminder that we’re just not in control. At least, our brains aren’t.
But hear me out.
I’m not saying that you need to have a pleasurable, orgasmic birth (though some people do), or that you need to be “smooching,” masturbating, or having sex during birth (people do all of those too). I’m saying that the things that make sex good also make birth good. Or rather, the things that support a positive sexual experience will also support a positive birth experience.
- Emotional safety
- Quality care
Consent: Does a mama give fully informed consent for a procedure? Has the care provider taken the time to truly explain the procedure, its risks and benefits, alternatives, and whether she has an option to wait? Is she and/or her partner being ‘frightened’ into agreeing to something they’re not comfortable with? Does the mama feel like she has control over the choices being made; that she is able to make choices? Or does she feel a total loss of control over the situation?
This is a different kind of control than the one I mention above. Birth is so much about the mind giving up control and submitting to the power of the body. Birth trauma is linked to feelings of a loss of control over choices that a woman makes about her body…sound familiar?
Emotional Safety: Does a mama feel safe to labor? Does her body trust that she’s safe? Does she trust her caregivers and support people? Are there people in the room who make her feel anxious or uncomfortable, maybe family members who are themselves anxious or fearful, or nurses constantly walking in and out of the room? Does she have reservations or fears about the birth, about parenting, about her care provider or about her partner? Is there a time limit set on what she is “allowed” to do? Does she feel pressure to conform to expectations? Are the mama’s emotional safety needs acknowledged, especially in cases where she has experienced previous sexual trauma, or previous birth trauma?
Quality Care: Does the woman’s care provider approach her with respect, attentiveness, knowledge, and curiosity? Is she treated as a number, a statistic, a machine, or is she a whole person with psychological, emotional, spiritual, physical, and social dimensions? Does the care provider support the woman, regardless of the choices that need to be made? According to a study by doula and researcher Penny Simkin, women’s positive memories of birth were not related to what happened during birth, but rather to how women were treated by care providers and hospital staff.
Privacy: Are there bright lights overhead? People walking in and out of the room? Loud conversation taking place all around, or out in the hallway? Is the door left open? Does mama feel exposed? Are there people standing around just watching her? Is she able to intimately connect with her partner, to feel loved and supported? Think about what it takes for (most) women to reach orgasm.
All of the above support a woman’s labor in that they assist in the natural process of shutting down the neocortex of the brain–the part responsible for speech, rational thought, and decision making–and allowing the woman to go deep into herself. Instinctive breath, movement, and sound carry her through dilation, transition, and pushing, bringing her to crowning. The hormones that we see during a pleasurable sexual experience (oxytocin and beta-endorphins) are the same hormones as physiological birth, and they help to mitigate discomfort and pain, promote bonding, and allow the birth process to unfold smoothly.
And why else might it matter? Watch the video below to hear more from Kate Dimpfl about how these factors impact the course of labor, the possibilities of cesarean section, maternal mental health, relationships, and more.