“During labor I only exist within myself. There is nothing else. There is my baby and I, and just so much love. We exist as one until we are ready to breathe in this life together.”
"My husband said I was like an Amazonian warrior!"
“My forebrain and hindbrain are definitely separate and fully functioning entities when I birth. It’s the only time I cease to exist yet fully exist at the same time.”
These are real quotes from real women. Raw. Emotional. Real.
Birth, particularly unmedicated birth, is a truly primal, instinctive event and should be cherished as such. Some of the women I have talked to about birthing experiences have expressed embarrassment or shame that they were “cave womanish”, “out of control”, “in the zone”, or even that they “didn’t use” the coping techniques they learned in childbirth class.
It pains me every time I hear this. The fact is that when a woman gets into that "birthing zone", characterized by complete lack of inhibition and internalization, it is a sign that she is following her body's cues and preparing to have a good birth. Relinquishing of control over herself is a positive sign. Under proper circumstances, the rational part of women's brains "power down" during birth and the instinctive sets in.
About 76% of the human brain is made up of the neocortex, which is the part of the brain involved in higher functions like rational thought, speech, spatial reasoning and sensory perception. While the verdict is still out, it’s thought that only mammals have a neocortex. MacLean, an evolutionary neuroanatomist and research scientist, described his theory of three different parts of the brain and their functions - the neocortex (thought), limbic system (emotion) and reptilian brain (instinct). In reality, this is too simplistic an explanation, but the idea relays the point that there are distinct parts of the human brain that each control different, interrelated systems.
During birth, the neocortex ideally "powers down" and the instinctive part of the brain (the reptilian, using MacLean’s model) takes over. This needs to happen because neocortex activity generally controls the primitive parts of the brain and, unfortunately, inhibits the birthing process.
To help the neocortex power down, the birthing woman needs to feel safe, unobserved and warm. Dim lights, minimal disturbance (including conversation and sometimes even music), a familiar environment, familiar people and the ability to move and act as she desires all help women let the instinctual part of the brain take over.
If a woman feels threatened, distracted, stressed or upset, she will produce catecholamines (stress hormones), which inhibits the reduction of neocortex activity. Michael Odent says that, "any situation likely to trigger a release of adrenaline can also be looked at in the framework of factors that tend to stimulate the neocortex." In the animal world, this is beneficial because if danger approaches during birth, the catecholamines will shift blood away from the uterus and to the essential organs, thereby giving the animal the necessary strength to flee or fight. In our human world today, this is less than ideal but something we have to learn to work around.
The "3R's" - rhythm, relaxation and ritual - are preached religiously in many childbirth classes, blogs and books. While good and helpful, sometimes I feel that learning and planning to utilize very particular techniques can undermine women. Techniques should be learned with the idea that you might use them if it feels right when the time comes. Simply learning about options available and educating yourself on birth is the best kind of preparation, rather than stressing over how to “do” certain breathing patterns or visualize very specific images, because when women don't "use" the techniques they thought they would, sometimes they can feel that they have failed in some way, regardless of their outcome.
When you hit the second stage of labor you can forget about acting within the bounds of normal human behavior, and that’s just fine. My midwife joked that she always knew when birth was imminent because women would start tearing their clothes off and making "birth moans".
Some women bellow like an elephant or roar like a lion. Some scream. Some moan. Some grunt. Others are quiet and focused inward. What you do doesn’t matter. It’s how you do that does. As long as you are coping and not suffering, you shouldn’t worry about how wild, reserved or primal you may appear.
Giving birth requires a woman to relinquish control over her mind, body and spirit. It puts her far outside the realm of “normal” human behavior, but that's perfectly all right. Rather than something to be ashamed of, this is something to celebrate. It is beyond amazing that our brain and body work together for an optimal experience without our conscious effort. Embrace the instinctual. Allow yourself to let "go" and experience the power of yourself, whatever form that takes during birth. No matter how you do or don’t act, you aren’t a cave woman. Birth is primal. And that is good.
A professional photographer since 2010, Vicki Beauchamp has been a part of many life-changing moments. The Memory Box Photography was born and she has since started a new birth-based business: Hera’s Gift Birth Services. Vicki won the 2012 IAPBP Photography Contest and was published in Midwifery Today.