When Thierry Postel, a psychologist, surveyed just under 1,000 midwives who had assisted at around 200,000 births in France, they recalled a total of 668 mothers (0.03 per cent) who reported reaching a “petit mort” during their labours. Another 868 (0.04 per cent) exhibited “signs of ecstasy”, thought to be induced by the birth hormone oxytocin.
Caroline Flint, a former president of the Royal College of Midwives, is also playing up the sex angle in her new book, Do Birth. Flint suggests that the setting for labour should be as dark, private and comfortable as possible, which is reasonably common advice, the idea being that a mother is relaxed. My chosen guide, The Good Birth Companion by Nicole Croft, suggests aiming to create the sort of environment in which you could sleep, using the image of a cat who hides in the airing cupboard in order to litter. But Flint takes things a step further, advising a partner to stimulate the mother’s nipples and clitoris in order to get the oxytocin flowing. A few weeks ago she told the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/01/natural-birth-childbirth-midwife-ecstasy?INTCMP=SRCH that when she gave birth in 1965, the experience was “mind-blowing. I felt so brilliant. I mean it was bloody painful… but it was ecstatic. Some women have orgasms – I didn't, but I was in utter ecstasy."
And it’s not just the French, or people from the Sixties: check out this online comment on the Postel story from a Daily Mail reader: “This confirms what I've always known. Three children now in their 30s gave me the best orgasms ever.
While I don’t like to side with the 62 people who immediately hit the red “dislike” arrow on the poor woman, that really did leave me struggling to keep my breakfast down. Don’t get me wrong: I want to believe that childbirth can be a positive experience. Now 39.5 weeks pregnant, all my research into natural, active birth says that I need to drift off mentally and let my body do the work. Fear is the enemy. Fear will intensify the pain. Fear leads to – OH GOD – tearing.
But how can you not be afraid? How can you not be braced for the worst pain of your life? I believe that other people can do it; maybe they even orgasm. I’m just not sure I’m built that way.
Take my experience with Janet Balaskas. The founder of the active birth movement in the UK, Janet is author of the book Active Birth and runs “active birth with yoga” courses at the Active Birth Centre in North London. Having identified that I wanted an active birth, I naturally booked in.
Run in two sessions lasting two hours at £22 each, each class began and ended with relaxation, and in between covered breathing techniques, affirmations, meditation techniques (“ommmm”) and optimal birth positions. Get all this right, Janet suggested gently, and childbirth could indeed be ecstatic.
Watching her and some of the others in my small group, I believed her – but I also felt like the class dunce. Not wanting to stand out with a squeak, I pitched my oms a bit too low and strangled them. Instead of letting my body become familiar with the different poses, I fretted about when to use them.
And it felt as if Janet could tell. She was obviously going out of her way to compliment and reassure everyone, but seemed to miss me out. The only praise I got was when we were kneeling on all fours and arching our backs up – a helpful position that uses gravity to help the baby’s descent – and she went around the whole group like this: “GOOD Rachel, GREAT Lucy, YOU’VE GOT IT Rhiannon… and Emma.” You’re here too, she seemed to be saying.
Am I bad at kneeling on all fours? Am I paranoid? Either way, it doesn’t seem as if I’m likely to be able to transform agony into bliss.
It was the same with my hypnotherapy CD. When the lady asked me to visualise a beach, a perfect beach, I immediately started to short-circuit, unable to choose between a number of perfect beaches I had visited. Which beach would be more private? Was there decent medical care nearby? Could I perhaps visualise my back garden instead?
About half the time I listen to that CD, I fall asleep. The other half, my mind keeps ticking over and making lists of things I need to do, so that I miss all the affirmations and reassuring images. I basically have no idea what happens in the second half of it. I could have been subliminally programmed to become a terrorist for all I know.
So as I sit at home swelling up and and waiting for my labour to start, all I can do is to find my own kind of control-freak calm. That means getting everything ready at home (scrubbing floors, painting walls, filling the freezer), re-reading Gina Ford and re-packing my hospital bag. It means focusing on having a quiet, relatively undisturbed hospital birth. Ultimately it means accepting that despite all my efforts to go down the hippy route, I’m about 1,000 times more likely to have an epidural than an orgasm.