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Birth: Letting Go of the Fear

QUESTION: I am six months pregnant. I am so fearful of giving birth that I even have nightmares that wake me, crying. My mom had a very difficult, painful birth (and she told me the story many times as I was growing up). My biggest concern is handling the pain. I know I can't do without an epidural, but I have heard that you can't get one until you are in active labor. How can I let go of my fears, so I can enjoy the remainder of my pregnancy?

ANSWER: Your mother's negative experience of your birth has set the emotional and psychological backdrop for your own upcoming childbirth experience. Her story is one laced with unresolved fear, panic and pain. No wonder you are afraid! Women, like your mother, who are left with no way to process the trauma they experienced in childbirth, continue to tell their stories in an effort to heal. But it is imperative that you separate your own upcoming childbirth from your mother's birth story.

It is likely that your mother's experience is a result of a lack of realistic preparation for coping with labor and an absence of support during labor and childbirth. You are not your mother, nor are you helpless in preparing yourself for childbirth in a manner more likely to make it a positive empowering experience, rather than a negative traumatic one.

Childbirth is an event of great, often underestimated, power. As such, it is not a neutral event. Preparing to meet the intensity of contractions allows you to master the challenge of coping with this aspect of life. Active preparation and involvement in labor and childbirth is no doubt, a benefit your mother did not have available to her when she was pregnant with you. There is no need to repeat the mistakes of the past. Use your mother's experience as an opportunity for learning. Take action against your fear, rather than become paralyzed by it.

In order to resolve fear and prepare actively for your childbirth consider the following guidelines:

  • Realistic coping skills and education to the normal process of birth. Take classes that teach the normal process of birth and read books that emphasize what goes right and why, rather than focusing on what can go wrong. See my book, "An Easier Childbirth" for stages of labor, early labor projects, breathing, relaxation and visualization exercises for childbirth and developing specific techniques that help you cope with healthy pain at the height of a contraction.

  • Read stories of births that went well, women who coped with the intensity of contractions and were supported in the labor process, by a doula and/or their partners. Allow yourself to take in the positive experiences women have to balance the messages you heard growing up. This is an important part of the healing from your mother's emotional pain around childbirth. But do not stop there.

  • Use a body centered hypnosis and visualization tape for resolving your fears. Create a birth visualization on tape that you can use in preparation for labor. Address your fears, rather than run away them. Embedding a new story about birth in your nervous system must take place experientially to be effective. Doing so, will calm your mind and ready you for labor, rather than leave you a victim of your fear. This preparation allows you to replace the negative messages embedded experientially through the limbic system, which holds the emotional charge of your mother's stories about childbirth. The experiential process is critical to allowing you to separate from your mother's negative experience and be ready for your own positive labor and childbirth.

  • Create a birth plan and assemble your birth team. Allow yourself to be supported during this significant life event. Choose a birth practitioner that supports the way you want to give birth, whether you do so with an epidural or not. Consider having a doula present who is experienced in helping women cope with the normal and healthy intensity of labor. Prepare with your partner for this pivotal family life event. Some of the best anesthesia is the soothing that comes from genuine, supportive encouragement!
Research shows that respect for the woman during the process of labor and childbirth, and a woman's active participation in the experience, are key contributing factors to positive feelings of self-esteem in birthing women. (Perhaps ingredients your mother did not have!) Addressing you fears about the birth through active education and preparation is what will allow you to enjoy the rest of your pregnancy.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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