Why Giving Birth is analogous to recovering from flu. In part 1, I said that when we run a marathon, we push ourselves to the limits. We make our body work more than it wants to, and we run through the pain. We use our minds to override what our body is telling us. Our body is telling us to “stop”, so we make sure our minds stay strong and override the urge to stop. To apply this analogy to labour and birth is not helpful. Yes, there are some attractive overlays, but on the whole, it is stepping on dangerous ground to say that birth is like running a marathon. Why? Because with birth, we do not make our bodies work more that it wants to. Birth is a physiological, involuntary process. We cannot “push” ourselves beyond our limits. To suggest to women that they can somehow push themselves through labour and birth is wrong, and can lead to a sense of failure when they end up needing medical help. Our bodies are in charge of the process, not us.
Birth is more analogous to recovering from flu than it is analogous to running a marathon. Imagine you have gastric flu. You are throwing up. You feel weak. You want to lie down. You can’t face work. Your body is telling you to stop. Your body is activating your physiological immune system. It might give you a temperature to kill off the virus, or it may keep you throwing up to eject the virus. There is a great deal happening in your body, and you are not in control of any of it. You cannot consciously control the process. You can try to “override” it by getting out of bed, and work, even though your body is telling you to “stop”. But if you carry on pushing yourself too hard and ignoring what your body is telling you, you may end up in hospital, needing medical intervention for pneumonia or dehydration. Going against what your body is telling you to do (“rest, lie down, sleep”) can interfere with your body’s natural process of recovery. You cannot directly control the activation of your immune system. However, you can help your body do its job of recovering, by making sure the conditions for recovery are right. Don’t stand in the rain waiting for a bus. Get yourself home. Get yourself warm and dry. Have water to hand. Cancel all engagements. Eat if you want to. Don’t eat if you don’t want to. Keep the room quiet so that you can sleep if you want to. Don’t let your boss come into your room to talk about work. Listen to your body. If, when you try to get up, you feel dreadful and need to lie down again, then lie down again. If it is too hot, and you want to throw the covers off, throw the covers off. If you want to get up and have some breakfast, get up and have some breakfast. Your body will tell you what it needs. If you know anything about birth, the analogy with birth will be obvious by now. We know, thanks to the work of Michel Odent, Sarah Buckley and Ina May Gaskin amongst others, that if you get the conditions right for labour (calm room, peace and quiet, familiarity, no people walking in and out with arbitrary or stressful conversation) then birth goes better. One reason is that you can “listen” more effectively to what your body needs you to do. Some women want to walk the corridor, eat and talk through their labours, rock their pelvis with their bottoms in the air, or sing through contractions. Others want to stay still and quiet, lying down on the bed throughout, not making a sound (yes, really!). Once you have got the conditions right for labour, there’s not much else you can do. You need to wait for nature to take its course. You can’t push your body to go faster or better. You just wait.
Along with creating the right conditions for childbirth, we also need to get our mind-set right for good birth. Taking the analogy with recovery from flu a little further, you don’t want to recover from gastric flu with the belief that your body can’t actually manage this, and you might die. Imagine that with every twinge of illness, you think something is wrong, and your body will flake out and die. With each vomit, you think your body is killing you, tearing up your stomach lining, and that you need medical help to save yourself. This will not help you recover, because the fear hormones suppress the immune system. Also, you might call the doctor too early, and have to get out of your lovely soothing bed to be admitted in the middle of the night into a stressful and busy hospital admission process, which is not conducive to natural recovery. (Unless, of course, your body does need medical help. Which is unlikely in the case of gastric flu, especially if you are a fit and healthy young woman). It is nonsense to talk about “failing” at recovering from flu, or that it was your fault because your mind-set wasn’t right, or that it was your fault because your expectations were too high, or you simply don’t cut it as a human being. It is also nonsense to suggest that you “failed” to birth your baby, or that it was your fault because your mind-set wasn’t right or that it was your fault because your expectations were too high, or you simply didn’t cut it as a woman. The responsibility starts with antenatal classes and birthing professionals, especially if you specialise in teaching about natural birth. We can start by stopping. Stop making the analogy that birth is like running a marathon.