Before I start this post I want to begin with a caveat. Before I moved to Uganda I worked in a high-risk ward where I cared for women with complications during their pregnancies and I’ve also sadly met many families whose pregnancies did not have a happy ending or that sadly led to birth trauma. Working as a midwife you have the privilege to care for many in some of the most exciting moments of their life, but also to support families in some of the most difficult moments they will have to face.
This post is in no way meant to sugar coat pregnancy, birth or parenting and it is not meant to patronise or cause offence to those who have had difficult experiences (I’ll try and cover these topics another time).
That being said, we can often be surrounded by messages of fear. Pregnancy and birth is no different. The number of movies, TV programmes, even birthing ones, that choose to fixate on drama or to depict inaccurate information is depressing. Almost as soon as I started working on the wards as a student midwife, I decided that I wouldn’t watch all but one of these shows for these reasons (maybe one day I could work as a midwifery movie adviser?!).
It’s also human nature for us to want to share our experiences, particularly the more difficult ones and to want to know all the possibilities of what could happen. I’ve heard many birthing horror stories filled with gory details and it’s not uncommon for me to be asked, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen as a midwife?”. There’s nothing wrong with sharing difficult or traumatic experiences or to ask these questions. It’s important that we have people to debrief with and it’s natural to be curious, but this shouldn’t be the only side of birth that we hear or see. Birth is beautiful in all it’s gory glory and for every difficult experience, there are many positive ones. We should have a balanced perspective!
When women give birth abroad, the fear level can also be heightened. It can be unnerving and confusing to engage in a health system that you're not familiar with, particularly if it is in a language you’re unfamiliar with. Being separated from loved ones can also be tricky and their concerns can also cause us to worry more. It is important to remember though that many women have given birth in different countries, all around the world. I’ve worked with lots of families who were receiving maternity care outside their passport country. Different care doesn’t mean worse, it’s just different and that’s ok. Getting to know your doctors and your midwives is really helpful. Having a team around you that you trust really helps and makes all the difference. (Have a look at the Midwife's Musings - Top Tips for Birth Abroad post for some other tips!)
Bear with me for a moment, but let’s talk about hormones, and one specifically; Oxytocin. Oxytocin is commonly called the love hormone and is used by health professionals (in synthetic form) to help increase the number and strength of contractions if labour has been progressing slowly. When women feel calm and relaxed during labour, Oxytocin is naturally released, helping them to have frequent and strong contractions, enabling labour to progress well. If we go into labour fearful, we can disrupt these hormones, working against our body’s natural rhythms.
As the name suggests, labour is difficult. It involves digging deep, using resources you never thought you had and pushing through in ways you might not have thought possible. I don't say this to scare or frighten you, but to empower you to know that although it will be difficult, that you can and will do it and that you are strong enough! In my opinion, there’s nothing as beautiful and rewarding, whether that’s a ‘natural’ birth or an assisted birth via the use of ventouse, forceps or a caesarean section. There’s something amazing about seeing a woman’s triumphant face, when she sees that she has done it, that she has birthed her beautiful baby, in whichever way this happened!
Pregnancy, labour and birth are beautiful and deserve to be celebrated. Our bodies are made to nurture and birth a baby, and there is something incredible about this experience. If we can go into birth knowing that we are strong enough to face the challenges that pregnancy and labour pose, we are far more likely to have a positive and empowering experience, whatever type of birth that might be.
So how can the balance be readdressed and how can we enter into pregnancy and birth with realistic but optimistic expectations?
1. Read positive stories
Reading or hearing positive birthing stories is so important. It tells us that whilst it will be difficult and challenging, that it will also be hugely rewarding, special, empowering and a transformative moment. The primary focus of this blog is to share positive stories where people have given birth abroad, to encourage and support others who are in the same situation. Positive stories have power. They tell us that it is possible and that we too can do it.
Have a read through some of the stories posted here as well as on other websites and speak to people you know have had positive experiences too.
The name, ‘affirmations’ may sound a bit strange, but I promise its not. All it involves is having positive phrases that you can think about when you're pregnant and whilst you’re giving birth. Phrases like, “I can do this”, “My body is made to do this” and, “I am stronger than I think” can help you to realise that yes, it is going to be challenging, but that you can do it. Reading or repeat these phrases either in your head or out loud regularly can really help to get into a positive mindset.
On this website, on the resources page, there is a document called “Affirmations” (some are pictured below). It is free to download. Go check them out, download them, make them your phone screensavers, print them off and put them around your house in places you’ll regularly see them. Or even better, make your own. If at any time you start to worry, go and read these messages and remind yourself, “I can do this”!
You are strong enough! You can do it! I believe in you!