by Ingrid Bauer
Inevitably, in discussions about unassisted or natural birth, the topic of pain-free birth rolls around. When it does, I wonder if striving for a “pain-free birth” doesn’t inadvertently miss the potential beauty of natural birth itself. I don’t believe birth is meant to be pain-free-in fact, I believe it’s far more than that! I believe, and have experienced, birth to be downright ecstatically, blissfully, orgasmically pleasurable. “Pain-free” doesn’t even come close to describing that experience. That’s like calling a high sexual union with your mate “pain-free”, or the most breathtaking sunset you’ve ever seen “ugly-free”. For I think that as long as we’re focusing on getting rid of, or avoiding pain, we’re focusing on the wrong area and we’re completely missing the point.
There’s also the idea that birth is painful but simultaneously pleasurable. Which is it? I just can’t buy into the whole “no pain, no gain” paradigm, or the description of the “joy pain”, or sacrificing to experience joy. How is pain joyful? How is joy painful? Given the opportunity and knowing it was natural and healthy, wouldn’t you forgo the pain each and every time? I think the folks who believe that no woman should have to suffer through childbirth have the right root but, through fear and ignorance (and perhaps greed in the case of the pharmaceutical industry), have climbed up the totally wrong tree.
I don’t deny at all that these things get very mixed up in our cultural conditioning and most of us have confused and enmeshed the two. Most of us, unfortunately, have instances in our upbringing and lives where pleasure and hurt were closely connected and became entwined. For some people this goes as far as masochism where no pleasure can be experienced unless there is pain (or a lot of intense therapy).
But is this natural? Does this happen in nature when there is no interference? Would undomesticated animals raised in a natural environment really endure a painful situation willingly because they also somehow convinced themselves it was pleasurable? I wonder.
When my first child was born 15 years ago, I had read Grantly Dick-Read’s book “Childbirth without Fear” and Ina May Gaskin’s “Spiritual Midwifery” (with all that mention of “rushes”!) and theoretically at least believed birth could be pain-free. But I realise now that that was an intellectual decision. I didn’t really believe, didn’t really know, that nature is utterly benevolent and founded on pleasure. My first labour at home, midwife attended and interfered with (though we both didn’t realise it) was uncomplicated. At the time, I described parts of it as hard work rather than pain, and the emotional and mental and even physical highs were significant, but much of the physical part definitely wasn’t super pleasurable. I mean, it didn’t compare favourably to great sex or anything. And I now believe that is what birth can be like-like really, really great sex. The whole time. Not just emotionally, but physically, spiritually, holistically.
I believe there is a positive place for pain in nature. I think it serves as a valuable warning sign that something is wrong or should be changed immediately. For example, a cut or a burn might warn of a sharp or hot object and the hand is immediately withdrawn.
I have had the experience of changing my way of eating (and watching my son and husband) with the result that burns and cuts, even very deep cuts and 3rd degree burns, hurt only for an instant and then never again unless they are banged. I believe that in a fully healthy situation, this is what pain is for-a momentary and very temporary danger warning.
Prolonged pain is, in my opinion, a sign of blocked energy, whether physical, emotional, environmental, or other. I don’t deny at all that pain arises (and denial is just a symptom of another kind of pain I think). I understand that there are millions of women for whom birth is extraordinarily difficult and painful and I don’t discount or question the reality of their experience. I’m not talking here about denying feelings or striving obsessively for some ideal and judging yourself if it is not reached. Pain, both physical and emotional, is still a regular, even frequent, companion on my life journey, especially in those areas where I am still learning what my natural expression is or where I am reluctant to make certain changes. But I no longer believe that this pain is inherently necessary or natural, as in “birth (or menses) is painful”, or “burns/cuts hurt while they heal”, or “teething hurts”, or “rejection is devastating”.
I now look to these examples of pain as indicators that something may be amiss or require change. When pain arises, I try to thank it because it is a clear indication that something is out of alignment, that life energy is being blocked or resisted, either in my body, thinking, acting, environment, or the way in which I interact with my environment (such as eating, speaking or physical activity). And then I try to find a way for the life energy in me to flow more freely.
So, how does this idea of pain as blocked or resisted life energy connect more specifically to birth? I guess the best way I can explain it is to relate it to the birth of my second child. Before this birth, I felt as though there were several areas I had been working on, consciously and unconsciously, to free up my resistance to that powerful energy of life, which moves through us all the time but seems particularly present during birth. I believe all of these things together contributed to my birth experience, that there is no one way to release these blocks, but I do know my thinking played a major part. Here are some things I did:
I immersed myself in the beauty of powerful birth lore. I explored and unravelled my fears around accepting full responsibility for my own pregnancy and birth, releasing my power away to no one and nothing but Love itself. I created an unhindered birthing environment that was safe, dark, private, silent, free of strangers or any outside interference or intervention.
I released a lot of energy in my body that had been used trying to digest indigestible food by changing to a primarily raw, organic, dairy and grain-free, instinctive way of eating 2.5 years before my baby was born.
I felt really “in” my body and my beauty and my sexuality. I enjoyed my nakedness and my physicality. I moved and exercised my body a lot. I came to believe, really believe, that Nature/God/Spirit is LOVE, pure and simple and that love is everything, everywhere, always.
I sang, sang, sang. For me personally, sound is a powerful tool for moving energy and releasing blocks (I think this is one reason some women make “unearthly” sounds while birthing). During my pregnancy, I not only spent months rehearsing and performing Mozart’s Requiem with a large choir and orchestra, I sang all the time and practiced toning.
Toning is using sound by singing notes, usually one at a time, to consciously clear energy channels in your body. Some systems use specific notes for specific “charkas” or energy points in your body, but I just used intuitive toning, letting my body dictate which note it “needed” at that particular time. I also used this during birth and after my baby was born if he was crying through pain or unexplained tension. I would let his sound and body “give” me the note and tone while holding him against my solar plexus. All the tension would noticeably flow out of him through my voice and he’d stop crying and relax immediately. (Carrying a child and moving, as in active garden work or brisk walking, also helps release tension for the baby.)
I had tremendous faith that birth is a natural process and that my body knew what to do, and I looked at all my fears and doubts about that before the birth. And I believed that I was strong, powerful and beautiful enough to match the very strongest energy of birth. I think very often fear arises when we believe this energy is more powerful than us rather than realising that we are part of it. I appreciated the support of a partner who believed, without doubt, that I could birth as easily as the semi-wild horses he had seen giving birth, particularly if there was no interference.
With this second birth, I went into active labour very suddenly and without warning just after 3:00 am. I was taken aback by the intensity of the contractions. For some bizarre reason (fear!) I decided to time the contractions even though I hadn’t planned that and had no idea what the timing actually meant! They were five minutes, five minutes, then three minutes, three minutes, then two minutes, two minutes, progressing rapidly.
I didn’t realise how fast things were going and sank into fear mode. If these first 6 contractions were already this intense, how would I ever stand 10 more hours? After all I was an older mom, hadn’t had a baby in 12 years, and this was going to be hard! Immediately, my abdomen was gripped with incredible pain. I couldn’t stand straight. I bent over grasping the sink and rolled and rocked and moaned with every contraction. Despite the intense pain, I was “coping” well.
But all of a sudden I remembered. I realised that even as I was rocking and moaning with the contractions, part of me was actively resisting and holding back against the powerful life energy that was coursing through me. I was still split, hadn’t fully embraced or committed to that energy, and was being painfully pulled between the two choices. It became crystal clear to me in that moment, that the thing, the only thing that was causing pain in that moment was NOT the strength of the birthing energy, but my fear and resistance to it. The more I resisted, the more it hurt.
I decided to completely move into that energy, as part of it, rather than against it or bravely alongside it. I had a good look at the next contraction. The words “This is only sensation” came very clearly, out of nowhere, into my awareness. I decided I wanted to feel this sensation, not resist it, no matter what it was, no matter what it felt like. I wanted to be and feel alive, no matter what that might mean! I consciously opened my arms, heart, sex, and body to it. I was willing to experience the very centre of it, now, in this very moment. And WOW!!
Forget about pain-free! In that moment, literally within seconds, that overwhelming pain was transformed to the most intense orgasmic pleasure. And I mean intense. Those contractions were powerful. Contractions came one upon the other with rarely more than 5-10 seconds between, and often less (not like my first birth where I slept between contractions!). I felt sometimes close to the edge of being overwhelmed and falling back into fear (have you ever been so happy that you’re afraid you can’t take any more and it’s going to end? It’s a bit like being at that edge).
But then I opened my mouth to sing and didn’t stop. I just melted right into that life force, flowing like an open channel through my body, out my mouth, out my sex, out my heart. I wish I had a tape recording because apparently I sang some incredibly beautiful melodies (“not like any birthing sounds I’ve ever heard” said my good friend, who caught the last bit and has been to several home/unassisted births). I don’t remember what it sounded like, (except one note); I just remember the feeling of the energy.
I felt everything within my body: the cervix opening, the baby moving down, the bones cracking apart slightly, his head emerging. No pain, no burning, just oh so luscious sexy sensual wet alive moving fullness. There was absolutely no pushing at all. I just kept breathing and singing and wasn’t aware of any contracting or bearing down in my uterus, just smooth movement. Just before he emerged, I instinctively arched way up and then lay forward again (I was on hands and knees), as it felt almost like he was moving “around a corner”.
Exactly two hours and 10 minutes after the very first twinge, he came out to the waist into his papa’s and my hands and paused there between contractions, opened his eyes, looked around, and sang “Oh” on the exact same note I was toning. Then he whooshed out on the next contraction and I took him in my arms.
That birth changed me, changed so many things in me, showed me the true beauty and pleasure of Nature and birth, cracked my heart wide open. I can hardly read a single book on birth now-even the most progressive, alternative natural birth book-and not think that somehow, something utterly vital is missing. Something nobody ever told me about. So much emphasis is on how to handle the physical pain. Nobody ever prepared me to simply fully embrace the sheer sensual pleasure of birth.
I am so grateful for this experience and this learning. It has touched me in places that go far beyond parenting and my relationships with my children. It continues to motivate me throughout the challenges that life brings and gives me new perspective on the painful areas that arise. It has given me concrete evidence that when I choose to merge fearlessly with that powerful energy that moves through all of life, when I identify and overcome the blocks and resistances, be they physical, emotional or whatever-there is only incredible joy, pleasure and bliss.
Ingrid Bauer is a writer, speaker and natural child-rearing activist who lives with her partner and 3 children on an island on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada.
This article was first published in the Instinctive Birth issue of MIDWIFERY TODAY magazine, Winter 2003, #68. It is adapted in part from emails, which originally appeared in 2000 on an unassisted childbirth email list.
Since then, Ingrid has given birth to her third child, a daughter, who was also born quickly, blissfully and unhindered into her hands.