F is for Fear in Childbirth, and why it's okay.

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by Jody Richards

There is a movement in the birthing world to “birth without fear”. This movement has many great merits, and I appreciate the well intentioned meaning behind the motto; after all, it aims to empower you to embrace the birthing process, and that is something I can always get behind.  So why do I suggest that birthing with fear is ok, and in some ways, actually quite useful? Through the many experiences supporting families through the birthing process I have come to recognize that fear happens, resistance to the birthing process is a natural response to this primal experience, and women can actually make fear work for them!  

Humans are hardwired to experience fear; it is a necessary reaction for survival.  Endorphin’s, the morphine-like pain relieving hormone which is utilized in labour, are activated in response to challenging circumstances, pain, and fear. There is this common idea that if we are fearful, we are weak; if we let our fear show, we are displaying our weakness.  So the idea of birthing without fear makes us strong and empowered birthers, right? Not necessarily.

Perhaps you are feeling confident going into your birth, and there are certainly those who go through the birth process without a fear reaction. We know, though, that there are almost always unknowns that are thrown our way due to the unpredictable nature of birth.  From one birth to the next, we can’t foresee the pattern labour will follow, the events that might arise, our emotional response, or the interventions and outcomes that will take place in the end. The goal, then, is to help bring fears into the light as they come (because it’s likely they will come), and because we know that it doesn’t matter to the nervous system if the fear is real or perceived danger, what really matters is facing it, working through it, and making it smaller.

Birth is one of the most raw, surrendered events in our life, which can leave us feeling  vulnerable and might bring up some really deep emotions in us. One of my most essential roles as a doula has been to help people with these emotions and fears that arise in childbirth. I feel very fortunate to have been supporting families through birth for almost 2 decades, and this has given me the invaluable gift of being able to recognize when someone is potentially staring at some inner turmoil or fears; sometimes we call this “Facing Your Tigers” (Birthing From Within).

How I help women work through their emotions and fear in labour differs, but it always involves the assurance that they are safe to be vulnerable and explore these fears, and it never ceases to be miraculous when a woman faces her fear in birth.  Often it is fear that is holding them back, exasperating the sensation and pain of labour, and perhaps even slowing or stalling labour. Once they let that fear come through, name it, and make it smaller, their labour almost always shifts into another gear.

Dealing with fear in labour isn’t always straightforward; a woman can feel safe and well cared for and managing her pain well, but still feeling a sense of fear knocking at the door.  I call this experience ‘transitional fear’, which is the fear of the unknown or what’s coming next. When you are birthing your child, you are passing through a window: you are on one side with your baby safely inside of you, and on the other side of that window is this new life. This new life is you as a parent; it is you getting to know an entirely new person, and with that comes all of the great mysteries that this new way of life entails.  

There are many examples of the kinds of fear that can poke its head during birth, and every experience is unique.

I truly believe that it not the avoidance or elimination of fear that is the goal in childbirth, but rather bringing fear to the light as it appears, and having the right kind of support to help you find it, face it, and let it go; this is what matters most.

As a doula, I witness, observe, and attune, and  using my experience and intuition, I can often see the subtleties of expressed fears.  I often use this experience to help people work through whatever fears arise, whether it be a simple check in, an explorative conversation, or a simple affirming touch and reminder that you are safe.  Whoever is in the birth space with you, use them to help you face your fears, should they arise.

One of the best parts of experiencing fear and facing it is the courageous feeling afterwards. In our postpartum follow up talks, I find that people who feel the most empowered about their births are the ones that acknowledged their fears and faced them. Conquering fears makes us stronger, and sometimes facing fear simply means accepting that it exists, and sharing it with someone you feel safe with.  Facing fear gives us the grit and confidence that we will draw on throughout our parenting journey.

Fear happens, fear is ok, and fear can get you through. So, if you need to, birth with fear, let yourself feel it, dig into it, and utilize the right support to help to tap into that courage and face it head on.

Jody Richards is a Certified Birth Doula and Postpartum and Infant Care Doula with nearly 20 years in the field, and the primary labour support doula for In Bloom Births.