Wednesday, May 16, 2012

HypnoBirthing and The Futility of Fear

I recently learned that a friend of mine is a "follower" of this blog (Hi, Adele!). She is a HypnoBirthing instructor, has delivered all three of her children using the method, and has had two homebirths. She is very savvy about the physical and psychological aspects of childbirth, and we've often chatted about pregnancy and childbirth. At Adele's recommendation, I read the HypnoBirthing book a few months back, and partly because I'm so fond of Adele, and partly because I've been thinking a lot about fear and pain lately, I thought I'd share my thoughts about the good things HypnoBirthing offers to every woman who is in the process of becoming a mother (for the first or the twenty-first time).

One defining feature of HypnoBirthing is its claim that childbirth can be painless, under the right circumstances. The way to eliminate pain in childbirth, according to HypnoBirthing, is to reduce fear, eliminate tension, and re-train ourselves to think of the sensations of normal physiological birth as healthy events in the life of mother and baby. From their website:

The method teaches you that, in the absence of fear and tension, or special medical circumstances, severe pain does not have to be an accompaniment of labor.

And, from the author of the method, Marie F. Mongan:

When you change the way you view birth, the way you birth will change.

If you've been reading over the last few weeks, you'll notice my as-of-late preoccupation with fear and pain. I am 35 weeks pregnant, and once again coming to grips with the reality that this baby will come out one way or another, and it's bound to be a serious shock to my system. I blame the shock and the resultant fear on our first mother, Eve. But I don't really have an excuse for indulging in the fear when I contemplate the perfections of the Blessed Virgin. As I get closer to my due date, it becomes increasingly shocking to me that, even and especially from the perspective of the one who gave birth, the Nativity is one of the joyful mysteries, not one of the sorrowful...!

So there I sat, preoccupied with my fear, blaming Eve, praying the rosary and trying to move past it to achieve some pre-birth resolution. And, not surprisingly, one thing that came to mind is the HypnoBirthing admonition against fear. For the most part, HypnoBirthing advocates draw a strong connection between fear and the downward tension created within the body because of it. I completely track with that. I think most midwives, natural childbirth advocates, and other methods of natural childbirth track with that.

But what is most striking to me about fear in pregnancy and childbirth is not the failure to resolve the downward tension created in the body, but a failure to resolve the upward tension, as fear is reflected from the soul.

Fear results in bodily tension. But fear results from tension with regard to our purpose as a human being, our relationship to God, our relationship to our spouse and our children, our relationships with our doctors, and often, a failure to understand the true nature of life and death. Fear will continue to rear its ugly head unless we address very seriously the top-down reasons that fear arises in a woman preparing to give birth. In other words, fear creates tension, which can cause or augment pain, but what causes fear? I can think of a few things right off the top of my head: death, pain, and getting a large-ish baby out of that teeny-tiny little hole...!

Unfortunately, I don't think HypnoBirthing does a very good job of addressing the top-down source of fear. In fact, I don't think any of the methods do a very good job at addressing the top-down fear, except for making some mention in passing about resolving childhood sexual abuse, which is a tragically common but not universal source of fear for women facing motherhood. I think it's all too easy for natural childbirth advocates to say, "well, it's natural, so we just need to learn all about how it works, how the 'pressure' is really just your uterus working hard to peacefully evict the child within, how it more often goes right than wrong, and then we won't be afraid of it anymore." It's a good start, but it won't get you all the way there. Because, for example, no natural childbirth advocate denies that horrible things can happen during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum recovery. So what about when it DOES go wrong? What about when you do still experience pain? What about when you have a miscarriage? What about when you do need a c-section? What about when your baby is stillborn? What about when you're so depressed after your baby is born you can barely get out of bed to take care of the child? What about when the mother dies?

So there are good reasons to be afraid. For me, I am afraid of pain and I am afraid that my baby will die, and I am afraid I might need a c-section. I am afraid of what my doctors will say about me and my future childbearing potential if something goes wrong. I guess those things probably make my body tense, but making my body un-tense will not make them go away. Learning more about how birth works will not make those questions go away.

I touched on it a little bit in my last weekly post, when I wrote about facing the pain of childbearing, but it boils down to this line from one of those great Easter hymns we've been singing for a few weeks: "Ours the cross, the grave, the skies!"

Ours the cross. Christ lovingly prepares a burden that is not one ounce too heavy, which includes all the pain we experience in childbearing - back ache, contractions, c-section recovery, frustrating toddlers and all.

Ours the grave. Sometimes we die, and sometimes our children die. Fortunately for us, these realities are infrequent, but it is good to remember them and be prepared to meet them, because they do come to all of us at some point.

And ours the skies! If you have never had a baby, I can tell you that there are definitely moments that will feel like heaven, as often as there are moments that feel like the walk to Calvary. It may not be in the delivery room. It may not be when you're up in the middle of the night rocking a crying baby that just can't or won't fall back asleep. It may not be when you're changing diapers. It may not be when you're feeding them green pea slop out of a little jar...or it might be. Or it might be when your baby nurses peacefully. It might be when your baby smiles at you for the first time. It might be when your baby falls asleep contentedly in your arms. It might be when you're watching someone else hold and enjoy your baby.

And motherhood carries its own special eternal reward, after death. You are, after all, caring for some of the least of Christ's people. There's a reward in heaven for that! Didn't one of the epistles say that women will be saved through childbearing? There's a reward in heaven for that! I'm pretty sure Christ said something about letting the little ones come to Him, too. There's a reward in heaven for that!

Even if you are not a Christian, rage against pain and death is utterly futile. Fear is futile. "Who of you, by worrying, can add one single day to his life?" Death comes to us all, tomorrow or 60 years from now. Better to make your choices with a level mind, unswayed by fear. If that means talking to your friends and family about what might happen if you die, so be it. If it means asking your doctor every possible question about the complications that might occur so you can prepare to handle them on the other side of birth, so be it. If it means crying really hard and then acknowledging that you can't do more than your best, come what may, so be it. If it means praying to a God that you do not know, so be it.

At some point, you will come to the end of your power to prevent pain and tragedy (even if you have an epidural). Your doctor will come to the end of his or her power to remedy illness (even if he or she does a c-section). Your parents, friends, spouse, and everyone else will come to the end of their power to help you and relieve you of the burden of pain and death (even if your husband takes on all middle-of-the-night diaper changes). There's no sense in tormenting yourself with "what ifs," because pain and suffering come to all at the end of our power, and Christ meets us right there. Do not be afraid, and do not let yourself rage against pain and death. Fear is futile, because pain and death come to us all. Be strong and courageous, for your work is good and noble. Pregnancy and childbearing is hard with or without diabetes, but children are worth it.


  1. I love your thoughts, Beth! I entirely agree: as Christians, we have our own reasons for living without fear. I always think back to JPII's inaugural speech in which he proclaimed "Be not afraid!" I love how powerful this same sentiment is for pregnant and laboring women.

    1. I love that JP II quote. I think of it often when doing hard motherly things. :)