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Fear in Birth by Katie Immel
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” –Eleanor Roosevelt The light switch for our main bathroom is housed outside the door. This bathroom has no window. Clearly, this setup was designed by an evil prankster (or maybe just someone without kids). The children of the house have, on numerous occasions, found sheer joy in flipping the switch when someone is in the shower behind the closed door, leaving the poor shower dweller in utter blackness. If the shower dweller is under the age of 14, this event is often accompanied by shrieks of indignation from within the bathroom confines, and angry demands to turn the light back on RIGHT NOW. After a few good giggles, the culprit usually turns the light back on, knowing that it won’t take long for a parent or the victim sibling to inflict some undesirable consequences. Children are afraid of the dark, and a lot of adults aren’t terribly fond of it either. When I asked my 6-year-old about this curious fact recently, her only comment was “it’s creepy.” But when you really think about it, there is nothing about the dark that can hurt you. If we really analyze it, it seems to me that it’s not so much the darkness itself that is frightening, but rather the way that it hides potential danger that can harm us. In darkness, I have no idea what to expect. I don’t know how to find my way. I don’t know how far in front of me the wall is, or what else is in my path that I might crash into. I don’t know whether I’m going to accidentally step on the cat, or reach out and grab ahold of the cactus, or step on a Lego helicopter. In darkness, I am paralyzed, because any move that I make holds the potential for harm to me or someone else. We are not afraid of the dark. What we really fear is the unknown. I don’t know that this philosophical analysis of her actual fear versus her perceived or described fear would mean anything to my daughter. I don’t know that she would even care. All she knows is that when it’s dark, it feels creepy. And she is afraid. Many childbearing mothers find themselves in this same situation. In the same way that darkness stops us in our tracks because of the unknown, mothers fear the unknowns in childbirth. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that consistently surrounds childbirth with fear. As a result, when a newly expecting mother begins to search for information, she may run into “horror” stories of their own births from well-intentioned friends or family and Hollywood and media portrayals such as One Born Every Minute (link to, which portray “normal” birth as a bed-ridden, dangerous medical event in which mothers have very little input on what happens. Add to this a care provider who does not trust birth, is terrified of a lawsuit, focuses on pathology rather than physiology, and provides her with every potential harmful outcome, and the level of fear skyrockets. If nothing changes, when labor arrives, along with it arrives an environment with unfamiliar sounds and people, bright lights, stimulation, questions, needles and monitors, and the result is a mother completely paralyzed by fear. The sum total of all these influences is a big, ugly mess. So what can we do about this? How can we empower mothers, help them conquer their fear and restore joy in the journey of bringing new life into the world? It is not an easy task; you may feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, calling mothers to trust their bodies, believe in their inner strength and in the process of birth in the midst of a chorus crying danger and fear. But the first step is simple: turn on the light! Help her break out of the unknown into a place of knowledge by providing solid information on all the things she needs to know: ways to care for her body and nourish her growing baby, the processes the body takes as it prepares for and begins labor, the process of labor, both physical and emotional, what she may need and expect from those surrounding her during her labor, what to expect right at birth and after, and resources for the journey. In addition to this critical information, parents also need tools to help them set healthy boundaries, ask thoughtful questions and take responsibility for the choices that are made, engage in respectful dialog and evaluate whether a complication warrants extra outside measures. With the right information and tools at her disposal, the darkness will begin to dissipate and that paralyzing fear of the unknown will begin to subside. Then, it becomes possible for her to face labor and birth with confidence and joy, trusting herself, her body and those around her. What a wonderful way to begin motherhood! The mother who labors in an environment of confidence, safety and security, who is surrounded by people attentive to her needs, who trusts herself, her baby and the process of birth, who is consistently given respect, encouragement, information and choices, will emerge from her child’s birth transformed, regardless of anything that may happen outside of her control. This is the kind of birth I dream about for every mother, the kind that I define as a success – one in which the veil of fear has been pulled back and the truth of its joy revealed – a birth that she has owned, in which she is left feeling empowered, joyous and loved. For as long as I am able, I will continue to do my part in making this kind of birth a reality for every mother that I can reach.