This blog is written by Guinevere Webster, Clinical Psychologist and Mindful Mamma practitioner for Oxford. Image is by Sophie Fletcher
In one of my recent classes we were talking about the idea of surrender in labour and birth. Many pregnant women are fearful of losing control during birth, and we may feel uncomfortable with the idea of surrendering to the birth process. Surrender carries connotations of giving up, waving the white flag in hopeless resignation.
This kind of surrender in birth is described by Naomi Wolf in her book Misconceptions: an emergency caesarean left her feeling she had ‘almost no role’ in her baby’s birth, as if the epidural had numbed her will as well as her body. With this kind of loss of control, women are more likely to have a negative birth experience, and are at increased risk of emotional problems afterwards.
So it’s interesting that women who describe positive experiences of birth also talk about surrender: letting go, going with the flow, being carried on the waves of the contractions, letting the birth unfold.
These two birth stories from Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth describe this:
‘Things were happening quickly. I didn’t try to hold any of the contractions back. I just let them come as fast as they wanted to, knowing that would help the birth happen without delay. It all felt very natural. I just went with it.’
‘I fastened on a particular word and meaning: surrender. I began having contractions and feeling big waves of energy moving. I visualised my yoni as a big, open, cave beneath the surface of the ocean, with huge, surging currents sweeping in and out. As the wave of water rushed into my cave, my contraction would grow and swell and fill, reach a full peak, then ebb smoothly back out. I surrendered over and over to the great oceanic, engulfing waves.’
In Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering Sarah J. Buckley talks of her initial shock at going into labour with her first baby at 36 weeks:
‘I still had baby clothes to wash and sort, and hadn’t put the second coat of paint in the spare room… but here was our baby, eager to come.. Our task was to accept this time, this labor, in the present moment. With this surrender, labor really began for me… There was an oceanic feeling; I felt like I was riding the waves, challenged but exhilarated as I came down each time.’
Her second birth was demanding as her baby was posterior and slow to move down because of an anterior cervical lip:
‘Through this intense time, sound was a strong ally, helping me to express my body’s feelings and to find my surrender into the unknown.. She was born, face up with relief and only a few pushes.. I felt enormous surprise and pleasure, merging into ecstasy, as I held my warm, wet, soft, new baby.’
This kind of surrender in birth is more like giving into passion, losing ourselves in ecstasy, being carried on a tide of feeling. Surrendering in this way involves a positive choice to embrace the unknown – an opening of the heart that accepts and welcomes the events of labour and birth however they unfold. In order to let down our guard and surrender to the moment we need to feel safe – private and unselfconscious, uninhibited, accepted and loved. This allows us to trust in our bodies, our babies, and the birth process.
But does this mean losing control? Perhaps it’s a bit like captaining a ship in uncharted waters – we don’t know the exact route our journey will take, so we surrender to the voyage of discovery, but we are still in charge of the ship. In the same way, surrendering during the birth doesn’t remove the need to put thought, care and effort into preparation before the birth: the ship needs to be well maintained, stocked and ready for the voyage. By preparing we get ourselves in the best possible physical and mental condition to launch onto the seas of labour and birth. So releasing control, but not resigning control: choosing to release control and open to the unpredictable birth process is very different from feeling that control has been taken from us against our will, that we have been hijacked and can no longer steer our own course.
Mindfulness helps us to bring acceptance to the birth process, and events as they unfold – and also to ourselves: our feelings and reactions. Mindful acceptance is deliberate, intentional: noticing and embracing the way things are in each moment, without judging whether this is how they ‘should’ be. Acceptance is not about ‘put up and shut up’, but opening up. Perhaps the journey through labour and birth is very like how we imagined it – or perhaps it’s very different. Releasing control and accepting our real experience, just as it is in each moment, allows us to trust, relax and surrender.
Once our babies are born, we surrender all over again – to falling in love, and to the ups and downs of the postnatal weeks. Surrendering to a newborn’s needs and rhythms, we open our hearts to our babies.