Why you shouldn't talk about your difficult birth

Sally and Sue are interviewed for the same job. Both are equally qualified, equally able, and with equal levels of experience.
Sally has researched the company that she's applying to work for, and is confident that they'd be the right employer for her, that she'd enjoy the work, and would have an opportunity to progress her career. She also knows that her qualifications, abilities and experience mean that she's the ideal candidate for the position, and she goes in to the interview, expecting to be offered the job.
Sue however, is nervous, in the back of her mind she knows that her qualifications, abilities and experience are ideally suited to the position, but she doubts herself. She would enjoy the work, but she wonders whether she'd be good enough at it, whether other people would believe in her ability to get it done. She can't imagine them wanting to promote her any time soon, especially considering that even if she were offered the job, which she doesn't think she will be, she'd probably make a mess of it. Sue is confident that there will be better, more capable people applying for the job, and almost feels silly for applying.
Who would you guess gets the job?
Attitude plays an enormous part in outcome, we all know this from experience.
Peter and Paul are both going to look at the same flat, with the view to renting it. Luckily they both have a friend who's already viewed the flat, and have asked that friend what they thought of the place. Peter's friend Simon loved the flat, he talked at length about the large, bright rooms, the tasteful décor and the vibrant neighbourhood. Unfortunately, Paul's friend Mark hated the flat, he doesn't even think Paul should view it, mentioning the strange musty smell in the bedrooms, the cheap electric cooker, and the fading carpet in the communal hallway. Unsurprisingly, Peter and Paul have different experiences when they themselves view the flat, Peter see's the positives that he's been briefed on, whereas Paul has already decided, based on Mark's review, that the flat in unsuitable and unattractive, and as such, this is what he finds when he arrives.
Both of these scenarios apply to couple's experiences of childbirth - not exclusively, but considerably enough that we now have a wealth of evidence to support the theory that attitude and expectation play a huge part in birth outcome.
When you consider the psychology in the above scenarios, the typical human behaviour displayed, it is unsurprising that those women who believe that they'll end up having to have an epidural during labour will have an epidural during labour, that those women who feel they're doomed to end up with an emergency C-Section, will find themselves in theatre.
Some women feel positively about the option to have an epidural when giving birth, so for them, it's the ideal outcome, and they'll probably get it because it's what they want, however, many will say something along the lines of "I really don't want to have to have an epidural; I bet I end up needing one though", and it's precisely those women who might have been able to save themselves an unhappy experience, by changing their own attitude and the influences that they surround themselves with.
To discuss personal attitudes first, there might be a number of reasons that you expect to have a negative birth experience, or that you fear one.
Perhaps this isn't your first baby, and your previous labour(s) and births were traumatic.
Perhaps you already consider yourself to have a very low pain threshold, so can't imagine yourself being able to cope with labour.
Perhaps you suffer with anxiety and extreme self-doubt in all areas of your life, including relationships ("he'll probably leave me for someone else soon anyway") work ("I'll never get promoted, I'm not good enough") or leisure ("I'd quite like to learn how to knit but I know I'd be rubbish at it.") - so it's only natural that this lack of self-belief spills over in to your expectation of birth.
All of these possibilities are yours, and yours alone, and thus, they're yours to address before they have the opportunity to effect the birth of your child.
Birth trauma is a serious affliction; I've known women spiral in to a pit of depression as a result of being unable to cope in the aftermath of a traumatic birth. If you have a negative birth experience then you're significantly more likely to suffer from post natal depression, to struggle to breastfeed if you wish to (self-doubt can also play a part in this), to find it difficult to bond with your baby and to experience relationship tensions with the baby's father, if applicable. No woman should be expected to "accept" a poor birth experience and get on with it, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a severe mental health problem, most famously experienced by soldiers who've fought in warzones) is very common among women following a difficult birth. You need to seek professional help, from any appropriate sources.
Firstly, you should ask to meet with the caregivers who attended your birth, be that midwives or a consultant obstetrician, to be properly debriefed, and helped to understand exactly what happened to make your experience such an unhappy one. Make sure you get as much information as possible about your baby's birth, make sure you've seen a copy of the notes made during your labour, and if there's anything that you don't understand - ask for a further explanation. If you feel that any of the caregivers that attended you whilst you gave birth were at fault, ask that this be properly investigated, and engage with those carrying out the investigation, feel a part of that process.
Secondly, seek psychological help - you're not wrong for feeling traumatised after a difficult birth, nobody will take your child off of you, nobody will doubt your ability to raise your baby based on your percieved inability to have the birth you expected. Counselling, group therapies and other talking therapies may be recommended in order to help you to understand, accept and move forward after a negative birth experience. You may have experienced a traumatic birth but not be suffering from any symptoms of post natal depression, but gaining closure on your experience is vital; hypnotherapy may also be helpful. If you are living with birth trauma, either after a recent birth, or even some time ago, visit the Birth Trauma Association website for help and more information.
Those who consider themselves to have a very low pain threshold tend to be particularly nervous, or frightened of giving birth, especially if they're expecting their first baby. Yes it is natural to be apprehensive about such a daunting and unavoidable experience - but fear and anxiety are likely to be the most significant factors in denying you a calm, gentle birthing experience. If you go in to labour expecting it to hurt like Hell - boy is it going to hurt. Hypnotherapy and tales of positive experience are likely to be your best resources. I'm not referring to hypnobirthing (though you might want to consider reading a book on hypnobirthing, just to gain a better understanding of why women experience pain in childbirth), but a hypnotherapist will be able to offer your a fear, tension, release session (or a series of sessions) which will enable you to let go of the fears and expectations of pain that you have surrounding labour, effectively removing those fears from your mind and significantly increasing your chances of a positive birth.
Low self-esteem, generally identified by feelings of self-doubt, lack of self-worth, or a negative view of one's own character or abilities, is best dealt with through counselling. Chances are, there's a reason you feel this way about yourself, whether that's a pre-existing mental health problem, or simply the aftermath of a previous experience, such as a nasty relationship, or the loss of a job. Giving yourself the gift of self-belief, is much the same as giving yourself the gift of a more positive birth experience, simply by removing the expectation of failure. If you know you're the sort of person who doesn't believe in their own ability to succeed, then you probably already know that a large chunk of your mind is predisposed to expecting a negative outcome from birth ("I probably won't be able to give birth naturally" "I'll panic, I always panic." "I'll be rubbish at that.")
Basically, a negative attitude towards childbirth needs stamping out, before you find yourself in labour, and probably needs attention from someone with the professional qualifications to treat you and alter your attitude.
You may feel that with the growing expenses that come with bringing a new baby in to the world, it would be selfish, irresponsible, or inappropriate, to spend money on a hypnotherapist or counsellor. You may be able to get access to these services via the NHS, so speak to your doctor, but alternatively, a positive, calm, and gentle birth is one of the best things you can buy your baby.
If you identify with any of the above, you can consider yourself a Sue - whilst you should be aiming to turn yourself in to a Sally.
But what about the Pauls? In the earlier scenario regarding the flat viewing, Paul's experiences were influenced less by his attitude (we can assume that Paul is a generally positive and productive man) but more about the expectations that he'd gained as a result of discussing the flat with Mark. This is where a majority of birth related fear stems from, and it's self-perpetuating, the more people that give birth, the more people fear birth.
Without referencing your own experience of childbirth if possible (and if you've experienced it at all) - write down the first five words that you'd associate with labour and the act of giving birth to a baby. Most people will mention pain, some might refer to shouting, swearing, drugs, blood... but then some might use a mixture of these and more positive imagery, others, exclusively positive. The five words that you choose, if not based on your own personal experience, and especially if you've never had a baby or attended a human birth, are probably largely influenced by what you've been told.
This doesn't just include the birth stories of those around you, you'll also have been prepared with what to expect from labour and birth by television, movies, books, magazines etc. and the content of this material will lay deep.
This is why I wish pregnant people would not watch One Born Every Minute on Channel Four. Yes, the births broadcast usually have a happy outcome, yes they are real women having real babies, and yes, the types of birth shown are representational of many "normal" births here in the UK. It is very very rare for a woman to give birth on One Born Every Minute without screaming, shouting, or complaining about the pain she's in. Now, I am not saying that she shouldn't be doing so, I'm not passing any judgement on her for screaming, shouting or complaining - or for experiencing pain (indeed, may positive and even painless birth experiences can include some seriously loud noises.) I'm not about to make negative comments about people who use drugs to deal with labour, because as you'll know if you read Seb's Birth Story a few weeks back, I've done it myself. However, the more women you see give birth crying out in pain, sucking rampantly on gas and air or begging for an epidural before being whisked off to theatre for an emergency caesarean or having their child forcibly yanked from their vagina with a pair of forceps - the more likely you are to have that experience, because you are Paul, and One Born Every Minute is your Mark.
But this brings me back to the title of this post, and the responsibility we all have as women, not to be Mark. Be Simon. Simon talked about the positives of the flat he'd viewed, he encouraged Peter to view it, confident that it would be a cool place for his friend to live. Perhaps Simon had noticed the dodgy carpet on the stairs, the rubbish oven and the funky smell, but his friend had already booked to see the flat after all, and it had a LOT of positives to outweigh the negatives. Thanks to Simon, Peter went in to viewing expecting great things, and perhaps he found a home that he'd be happy in for years to come. He'd get used to the carpet in the communal hallway, and joke about it with his lovely new neighbours, the bedrooms would be fine with a bit of airing, and the cooker might look crap, but Peter's lasagne would still be second to none. Of course, Paul could have had the same experience - he could have found the perfect place to live, but he couldn't get past all those negatives that Mark had already laid down for him.
So you had a shitty labour and birth experience - please see above for some advice on moving forward from a traumatic birth - I will never ever ever try to downplay birth trauma. However, whilst it might make you feel better to talk about it, to seek reassurance and validation from others, who might swap horror stories with you over coffee; your episiotomy for their third degree tear, your failed epidural for their baby born by emergency caesarean with it's cord wrapped around it's neck, but what you don't realise, is that the third friend, who's come along because she hasn't seen either of you in years, will be pregnant next year, and engrained somewhere in the back of her mind, will be your horrendous experience of "normal" childbirth. She'll approach birth, reminded that her perineum may not remain intact, because some people rip theirs to shreds and others have it cut open, that medical intervention, or emergency, is par for the course. And guess what - she's more likely, as a result, to have an experience like yours. Wouldn't wish it upon your worst enemy? Then stop bestowing it upon your friends.
Sure, this is the reality of birth, bad experiences happen, things go wrong. Yeah this is "normal", "common", and "stuff you ought to know about" (maybe not) - but consider the number of complications, or "bad" labours and births that arise simply because of the pregnant lady's expectation of complication or pain, and it's worth imagining how less "normal" or "common" it might be, if we didn't know about it in such detail. 
If every woman went in to labour, positive, excited and confident that she had this covered, that there wasn't anything to be frightened of, and that she could enjoy childbirth - then perhaps the horrors would be unusual, less common, and more an exception to the rule. Maybe there'd be TV programmes aired in which women gave birth, calm, focussed, and happy, because frantic, painful, sweary birth didn't represent most people's experiences. There's that.
 If you know a pregnant lady, please make it your responsibility to censor yourself; less about the horrors, more about the joy please. She doesn't need to know about how painful it is to go for a poo after giving birth - you know why - because she doesn't need to be scared of taking a crap - you're not doing her any favours.
If you're expecting a baby, and would like to surround yourself with positive messages about how incredible birth can be, basically, if you're looking for a Simon, then may I recommend the wonderful Birth Without Fear blog/website which has lots of wonderful positive birth stories (and not just natural home/water/hypno births but positive stories of everything from emergency sections to planned inductions). It's an American site so some of the procedures mentioned might seem more alien to UK readers but I still find it a great source of birth inspiration. Here in the UK, get involved with The Positive Birth Movement - which also shares a lot of great, positive and varied birth stories. There's also the super wonderful Tell Me a Good Birth Story - which will link you up with a lady who's had a baby and will tell you her own reassuring story, which should reflect any particular worries you have (for example, if you're suffering from gestational diabetes and facing a possible induction, or even section as a result of expecting a larger baby - they'll find you someone who's been there, done that, and has a positive story to tell). If you're a Mama, you could even sign up (as I have done) to be a story teller.
Message from this post? If you're scared of childbirth because of your own underlying attitudes - get someone to change them for you, even if they've been put there by other's tales of misery and pain. If you're expecting - don't listen to anyone that has anything negative to say, and seek out positive, empowering messages about childbirth. If you've ever given birth, or know somebody who has, or have heard about somebody who has, and you have nothing nice to say - then please, for goodness sake, say nothing at all.


  1. I think knowledge is power and the more knowledge you can get about EVERY type of birth: the good, the bad and the absolutely indifferent, is good. We, as mums to be, need to have the outlet to find out this information, to hear the stories. Id hate for people to feel they have to censor themselves and their own amazing stories of birth even if it was bad. I feel we shouldn't be telling people NOT to talk about it, but to, Yes, TALK ABOUT IT. Labour in all its variations is such a personal thing that it is often considered a taboo subject to talk about , lets not make people and by people, I mean women, feel they cant share the traumatic cases for fear of feeling guilty. Like you RIGHTLY say, if you are a mum to be who is fearful then speak to someone like your midwife or support group.
    I also want to say that some of your descriptions in the last couple of paragraphs could be enough to make people worried also but as a mum to be I accept this information from you as I know no different and I feel that the more people talk, the better prepared for EVERY circumstance I will be.

    1. Hey Sarah!
      This is the most obvious other side of the argument, and one which I didn't go in to in too much detail, as it would have made this post waaaay too long! The NCT for example have repeatedly come under attack for not properly preparing the couples paying to attend their antenatal classes for the possibility of a C-Section. In fact it's suggested (and having attended NCT classes in my first pregnancy, I'd agree) that a lot of focus is designated to telling participants how to *avoid* ending up having a section, without making them aware that sometimes it's an unavoidable outcome, and they find themselves in theatre, terrified and unprepared. Not cool.
      However; what I haven't said in this post, or at least, I hope I haven't been perceived to say in this post, is that we shouldn't talk about C-Sections, or episiotomies, or third degree tears, or induction, or forceps deliveries - but that when we DO, we do so with positivity and reassurance - that these experiences aren't uncommon, they aren't a sign of "failure" but also that they're not to be feared with a dread that keeps you up at night. It's not so much what we choose to discuss, as the language that we use to discuss labour. I agree with you, childbirth isn't talked about as openly as it ought to be, nor is it celebrated as much as it should be, but that's a whole separate issue and potentially a whole separate blog post!
      Knowledge is, as you say, a powerful tool, and one which pregnant women in particular should be armed with - in fact the lack of knowledge afforded to pregnant women by their health care professionals is yet another huge problem. I know about traumatic and terrible, upsetting birth experiences, I'm not entirely ignorant to them, but at the moment, if someone starts down that route, I'll kindly ask them not to share it with me, and I'll close websites with that sort of content, and actively avoid TV programmes that air those sorts of images or scenes, because I'm consciously preparing myself for a gentle birth.
      I still stand by my previous point that women should censor themselves when it comes to negative birth experiences. It's selfish and unfair to assume that pregnant or one-day-to-be pregnant people want this information, if it's asked of you, as someone said on Facebook, they were outright asked by a pregnant lady whether labour was painful, then that's of course another matter. Some may genuinely feel more comfortable hearing it, in which case, of course they should go forth and find this information, these stories, they're out there and they always will be. However, if someone asks me about my birth experiences, I'll be honest without being frightening, and I choose not to be frightened by other's experiences, simply by making the proactive decision not to be surrounded by them. Talking about birth trauma is very important, as I say, it can lead to terrible mental health complications, but the importance, I believe, should be about talking about it in terms of getting the professional help required to accept your experience, not suggesting to other women that they may be about to face the same, I don't believe that that is helpful to either party. I liken it to speaking to someone about having an ingrowing toenail removed, and telling them about your Uncle Harry whose toe got infected and he had to have his leg amputated - and asking if they've made plans should they lose a limb.
      I'm not sure which bits in the last few paragraphs might worry someone? That would be unintentional and I'll look back over those sections now xxx

  2. I had a really tough birth with M. Obviously I would love it to have been plain sailing but that just didn't happen. M was a breech birth, which I had to do naturally as they didn't know until her foot came out. I would have loved to have known more about the 'bad' births as I may have been able to prepare myself more. Its lovely to hear nice birth stories, but when yours doesn't go that way it can make you feel a bit down. I will always ask if they want to hear my birth story as it isn't nice, and some people don't want to hear negative things, but to prepare yourself for every eventuality it might be helpful to know that it might not go to plan, and prepare yourself for that too! Great post xx #mummymonday xx

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head there, with the fact that it's important to always let people know that yours was something of a traumatic birth before launching into telling them about it. Many women may feel that they want to hear the negatives, and that's cool if that's the route they choose to take, however, they need to be aware that it is likely to create an increase anxiety towards childbirth which could actually make their birth more difficult. As I said to Sarah above though, there's a lot to be said for preparing women for possible outcomes, including everything from sections to breech births. However - there is a huge wealth of positive birth stories, about natural breech births, sections, forceps deliveries etc. We mustn't assume that a "good" "positive" birth is a "natural" birth without complications, that would be silly, and unfair. Good, positive births can take place at home, in a meadow, or on a busy labour ward, and they can involve heavy to no medical intervention. There's a difference, I believe, between hearing about, and preparing yourself with facts concerning, the different experiences you may have, and listening to other women talk about their birth experience using the same language that they might use to talk about a road traffic accident, or a bombing in their local supermarket! xx

  3. A very interesting read! I don't mind hearing horror stories or about traumatic births because I know they do happen, but I also know that most births go smoothly and I hope to have a natural vbac next time around as I had a planned c-section due to Lizzy being breech pretty much the whole pregnancy. My own sister recommended I have an epidural but I have decided to listen to advice (everyone has some to give, don't they?!) but then make an informed decision when it comes to it.


  4. This is a really interesting post. My first born is now 15 days old and my labour was very up and down. It had some really good parts which went exactly as I wanted and then others that weren't what I wanted but I understood why they had to happen. If I hadn't of read other people's good and bad birth stories I don't think I would of coped so well and been as well prepared. Especially as we didn't get to go to any antenatal classes or even have a tour around the hospital due to a mix up.