There is no truth, there is only perception……… Gustave Flaubert
Yes it’s another one of those irritating quotes that pops up as you scroll through your instagram account. But before you roll your eyes and groan, think about it, it’s true – There is no truth only perception. When it comes to a birth story how much is truth and how much is perception? Us midwives love a birth story. Sometimes we hear the story from several people that were there at the birth, all chipping in with their own version of events and that’s when this quote really hits home, because one person can perceive an experience way differently to another. A woman who has laboured high on a dose of birth hormones, adrenaline and some gas and air thrown in the mix will tell you her version of events, but then so too will her mother and her partner that were there with her and they all tell the story slightly differently. Confusing? Yes! So what is the truth? What really did happen during that birth? Who knows. Let’s not forget there was another person in that room too with her version / perception of events …the midwife! Us midwives know we have a massive role to play in a woman’s birth experience, but probably only to a degree, the rest is down to her and the way she perceive the event.
Let’s go back to the gas and air for a minute. Gas and air is fantastic stuff. It’s a mind bending, thought altering, wonder drug. It takes you to another planet where you just don’t give a toss about anything. Many women get right off their faces on it in labour. ‘This stuff is bloody amazing!’ they say as they cling onto the mouth piece for dear life. The gas is seen as her new BFF and she aint givin’ it up for no one. You know when a woman is in ‘gas land’ when she comes out with random things in-between contractions with a strange smile on her face. “Everyone just seems so far away man…just totally thought I was Barry White”. Yep, she’s in gas land. So if she thinks she’s Barry White what else does she perceive about this momentous moment in her life that will shape her version of her ‘birth story’.
Likewise another biggy when it comes to altering perceptions during birth is the beast that is adrenaline. Adrenaline flowing through a woman’s body in labour will trigger the flight or fight response within her. She becomes stressed, perceives she is in danger, fearful thoughts run through her mind. She leaps off the bed mid contraction yelling “that’s it, no more, I’m going home”. She wants to flee the danger that she perceives, but of course she doesn’t get very far, she’s in rip roaring labour and about to have a baby. All that adrenalin surging through her body isn’t particularly helpful during labour and is likely to influence her perception of the birth in a negative way.
And why is it that one woman in labour can perceive the physical sensations of her contractions so differently to another? Some women describe their contractions as agonizingly painful; others report feelings of euphoria with no mention of pain at all. Perception has a part to play here too. In our hypnobirthing classes we demonstrate this idea by bringing the couples into a relaxed state and encouraging them to image that their right hand is in a bucket of cold icy water. We suggest that they perceive their hand becoming cold and then numb. We encourage them to bring their numb hand to their face and feel the numbing sensation transfer to their cheek and mouth. At the end of this hypnosis script the couples themselves seem pretty baffled at what they’ve just experienced. There is no bucket of icy water, that’s the truth, so how come they genuinely felt that their hand was icy cold and numb? What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” ( Naploean Hill ). Clever stuff eh!
So can us midwives really influence a woman’s birth story in a positive way? Well yes, obviously it goes without saying, being kind, showing compassion etc. but it’s not always that simple thanks to good ol’ perception. The calm voice and those reassuring words that you used worked a treat as you supported a woman through her labour last week. The encouragement you gave to spur her on through her labour was spot on. She sent you a lovely thank you card and a cracking box of chocolates. In the card she wrote “Your kind but strong words helped me avoid the epidural that I considered having, I had a fantastic birth experience, thank you”. But beware, woe betide the midwife that thinks she’s cracked it and becomes smug, thinking she’s worthy of a midwife of the year award, because tomorrow you might find yourself in a similar situation; you care for another woman in the same way, yet she perceives your encouragement as patronising and insensitive. She perceives that you prevented her from having her happydural and her birth story is far from positive. No thank you card or box of choccies from her. You feel deflated, cussing yourself that you got it so wrong this time, you bad midwife you.
Most women will have some recollection of the day they gave birth, but it seems time also has a part to play. A woman’s birth story can alter over time, cleverly edited by her mind with key events highlighted that she remembers forever, others becoming foggy and maybe less relevant to her. We shouldn’t dismiss a woman’s perception of events during her labour as irrelevant because it’s not. A woman’s birth story is exactly that – her birth story and that’s fine. Life is based on perception. Perception is based on opinion. Opinion is based on thought. Thought comes from the mind. So as midwives whilst we have some control over certain factors that influence a woman’s birth story, whether positively or negatively, we cannot fully control her perceptions.