Why do so many of us become damsels in distress in the birth room?

4/25/2021 birth human behaviour birth trauma

Sometimes you've just got to be your own fairy godmother

A few years ago, I was sitting having lunch with a midwife friend, who had initially trained and worked as a doula before training to be a midwife. She explained that she had wanted to be a doula, because she wanted to make a positive difference to women's birth experiences.

Then after working as a doula for a couple of years, and observing the rising C-section rates, she felt that perhaps she could make even more of a difference as a midwife.

Reflecting on the roles and how they differed, she offered up a nugget of wisdom that had me nodding furiously in agreement " THE REAL POWER LIES WITH THE WOMEN. THEY HAVE TO BE THE ONES TO RESCUE THEMSELVES. WE CAN'T DO IT FOR THEM".

But what did she mean about women rescuing themselves?

I had learnt about what I will interchangeably describe here as the maiden, child or damsel in distress archetype a few years earlier, when studying the Birthing from Within course. It's not an uncommon or especially surprising thing. Different aspects of our personality can come out to play at certain times, and we may revert to them by default when we are in a primal state.

These modes are not always conscious and are a survival strategy - only with awareness we can recognise them in how we are behaving and check in to see if they are actually helpful and really serving us, or not.

It can feel so big and daunting and hard to take on full responsibility of being a parent and going through something as intense as birth. When it comes to having a baby, many of us forget we are actually grown adults altogether and as soon as we set foot inside the hospital environment we revert to behaving like schoolchildren, where we might think that we have little or no control, freedoms of our own, rights or options. We might feel that the staff there are somehow our masters - the real grown ups, who know everything, compared to us idiots who know nothing about nothing in all matters relating to pregnancy and birth.

Even if all is well, it's common during labour to want someone to magic away the big, scary birth sensations and for someone to sedate them so we can stay in our child mode (the twighlight sleep era where women were put to sleep to have their babies is the greatest example of this infantalising happening en masse).

When we are in our maiden in distress mode, we might want to curl into the foetal position like we did when we were small and needed to self comfort, praying for it all to be over. We lose our bearings, waiting to be rescued, because in the face of something so wild and raw and grown up as birth, we believe we are still a princess, a baby girl, that needs saving from the experience. Where is our knight in shining armour? We might feel angry at the adults around us, if they aren't saving us or sparing us from this pain! Why can't we just have a magic epidural, we might ask?

This mode isn't something only some women find themselves falling into. This is in ALL of us. Our inner damsel is perhaps a part of our conditioning - I mean how many stories or movies when we were growing up were about a princess in some kind of peril who was just waiting for a dashing prince who would save the day and rescue her last minute? For so many of us, it's been hardwired into our brains since we were small - when things get tough, either a fairy godmother or a big strong guy will come and rescue us and bust us out of the scene. We frantically look for an escape. Looking for a way out is precisely what makes so many of our births harder and more intense and traumatic than they need to be.

The problem with the conventional system is it positively reinforces and sets us up to be in our child mode. This is mirrored at every turn in the hospital environment. The uniforms, the air of authority, the officious letters which disregard our own timetable or needs or wants, the frequent use of language which asserts health care professionals are the ones in the dynamic that are the "permission givers" and the only ones who could possibly be any kind of experts on our bodies.

And in the face of this, even the most normally assertive women, women who have climbed in their careers and are the ones usually doing the bossing - can quite quickly revert into their damsel mode within the walls of a hospital corridor (although this can happen at births at home too). I've seen it again and again, and every time, the dynamic is reinforced and further cementing the archetypal roles of both the birthgivers and birth enablers.

It seems nowadays it doesn't take much to nudge us women and our babies into some kind of peril or 'risk' status, resulting in our carers apparently needing to step in to manage ever increasing parts of the birth and take over our supposedly dysfunctional, unreliable woman bodies completely, artificially trying to do the job our bodies were mostly incredibly well designed for. As our increasingly micromanaged births progress and things start to go a bit awry, we are SO grateful to everyone for saving us and our babies. Birth is more and more becoming an awful ordeal to be rescued from rather than a super intense and doable rite of passage that doesn't always fit neatly into a prescribed pattern or timetable.

When we are in a vulnerable state we can ALL fall into that trap. The soft appeal of being rescued (or being a rescuer). Of being mothered (or over mothering) The comforting thought that we can hand over responsibility for this big scary thing called birth and let someone else deal with it (or try and take that responsibility away from mothers and manage the birth for them). Both of these modes are human, but not always healthy.

THIS is why so many women feel disappointed, traumatised, guilty and even ashamed after their births. The damsel in distress mode often makes us feel like shit, because ultimately, being in an infantile state comes with a whole heap of trauma. We may feel angry with ourselves after a rabbit-in-the-headlights birth for adulting so well and so confidently in every other area of our life only to crumple in the birth room into a princess waiting to be rescued. To soothe ourselves, we may repeat the version of events we were told, where the birth cascade of interventions was all absolutely necessary and inevitable, without knowing if that is strictly true, or not.

But now we've talked about the damsel in us, what about the warrior? How is she activated? How do we find the warrior within?

Unfortunately our inner warrior is often only born after we have a really shitty damsel birth. This was certainly true for me. It took for me to be in that child mode with my first child, 100% trusting everything said to me, for my inner tiger to wake up and smell a whole lotta bullshit and wise right up.

I've seen this phenomenon over and over again in women after they have their first babies. The wool is pulled from their eyes. They wake up to their naivety. They recognise what happened first time around and how completely disempowering that experience felt and the lie that the fairy tales our parents read to us and the Disney films we watched sold us for all those years. The trauma and rage at realising the lie is precisely the moment when their inner warrior is born. Women who have woken up from the dream of being rescued, swear that next time, they won't be so dumb. And if the tiger is pissed off enough, she does what anyone does who wants to regain control and does her research. This time is leaving no stone unturned, investigating birth options from all angles, and looks beyond the NHS literature and recommendations. She might seek out the opinion of experts who have experiences, practices and perspectives from beyond her locale, stretching further afield and possibly even from across the entire globe, across time, and across cultures, that she can learn from and gain support from in ways that don't infantalise her.

Now I do not in any way, wish to imply that everyone who needs or receives help is being naive, childish, weak or misguided. Accessing our inner warrior doesn't mean not needing or wanting help or support from others sometimes. Just because you are accessing your inner warrior, doesn't mean you have to stoically do everything alone without help. As a warrior, you might still choose to give birth by assembling a team to support you. These ideally should be people who know how to support physiology, but will also help you to access pain relief for a difficult birth that isn't proceeding in a straightforward way, and who won't treat you like a damsel. These are the people who will believe in you as an expert in deciding for yourself what birth plans you are happy to make in advance and in the moment - including if you want to accept any interventions, or not. These people might be your partner, sympathetic midwives, a consultant who "gets you" and doesn't talk down to you like a child, and doulas.

Now it's really important that I stress to you that I wholeheartedly believe that sometimes, timely interventions and skilled professional support can be a FUCKING FANTASTIC thing. We don't always have the luxury of a range of options to choose from. Sometimes we walk a medical pathway because it's absolutely the right choice for us and our baby. If we have a medical condition that means we are in significant danger, we may choose to access the full benefits of all that modern science has to offer - be it skilled surgeons or other experts, because noone else can do these jobs as well as they do and there isn't a viable or attractive alternative that we deem to be appropriate. Sometimes we sincerely are safest in the hands of a team of consultants and professionals. Sometimes even tigers need extra help, including surgery.

EVEN IF WE NEED MEDICAL INTERVENTIONS, when we access our inner warrior, we are simply remembering that our voice and our rights still matter. That our consent still matters. That our body in the birthroom still matters, even in emergencies. That our mental health still matters. That what happens to our sexual organs really fucking matters. That our sovereignty in making decisions for our baby matters.

The adults in the room need to remember and sometimes to be reminded by the warrior (and her team) that her rights, boundaries and sovereignty in all matters relating to her and her baby do not simply disappear because she is in a vulnerable predicament.

A healthy baby is not all that matters. We matter too. Whether we gave birth in damsel mode or as a warrior, it doesn't make us a better or worse person or parent. It doesn't make us a better feminist if we already found our inner tiger warrior or we didn't. But noone can be the tiger for us. Our partner or doula can't be the only tiger in the room, our fairy godmother or prince charming. Noone can activate our inner warrior on our behalf. Finding her is a part of our heroines journey, and she can only rise when we honour the child/maiden that needed to be soothed and perhaps had unfinished business from childhood. Unmet needs. A desire to people please. A fear of some grown ups. No confidence in her own mind and body.

However you gave birth, you're bloody awesome, no matter what. I hope this blog has helped you understand yourself a little better. Maybe with some new understanding can come healing, forgiveness. acceptance, and understanding.

Give yourself a hug. We all GENUINELY need help sometimes, and there is vulnerability and strength in this. At the same time, it is also true that sometimes, we really need to see through the bullshit we are told and be the ones to rescue ourselves - to be our own fairy godmother and prince charming.

Maybe you're done having babies. It's never too late to recognise these archetypes within us and hold them close to us. They are all sacred. The innocent maiden and the warrior are both valid and beautiful and part of our individual and collective consciousness.

I hope you can embrace all these protective aspects and honour them in yourself.

And if you are having any more babies, I wish you a happy awakening to the warrior within for your future births!

I will gladly see you there in the field of possibilities, of awakened power, of vulnerable learning, and self-responsibility.

May you rise ever onwards, and upwards.