I recently rediscovered the joys of the library, which is pretty ridiculous of me because my husband is a librarian. I’ve always been an avid book collector, meaning that I have essentially just purchased every book I’ve read or been interested in reading for the past ten years. However, when I started teaching again this summer and needed to run to my local branch for some favorite picture books, I found myself once again enthralled with having so many books at my disposal for free. And, because I am a baby-crazy nutcase, I wandered into the Pregnancy/Childbirth section “just to look around.” Right. This is where I decided I had to read the Jenny McCarthy book I mentioned here. I also picked up a book called “Childbirth Without Fear,” both because its terrifying cover intrigued me and because I am very into having as little fear as possible. And because the author’s name was Grantly Dick-Read and I just had to.
So, I checked this book out mostly on a whim. And as a joke, because I wanted to show my husband the pregnancy book written by the guy with the words “dick” and “read” in his name.
And then I started reading and my mind was blown. This book is by far the best, most comprehensive, most reassuring thing I’ve ever read about childbirth. Grantly (and yes, I will be referring to him by his first name, as uncouth as that is, because I do not have the maturity to type Dick-Read over and over again without laughing so much my tears blind me and prevent me from being able to operate a keyboard) examines pregnancy and childbirth as a bodily function and completely dismisses the notion that pain must be associated with the process: “No other natural bodily function is painful and childbirth should not be an exception.” As ridiculous as this sounds, this one very simple sentence produced a very large lightbulb moment for me. You know what, Grantly? That’s a very keen observation.
He goes on to say that while there should be nothing inherently painful about childbirth, women do experience very real, very torturous pain during labor due to the mechanism of a pain and fear feedback cycle. Fear, Grantly explains, causes the innermost muscle layer in the uterus to contract up at the same time that the outermost layer is contracting down in an attempt to expel the baby during labor. These two competing muscle contractions cause very real discomfort, much like one would expect from any other kind of muscle spasm. This very real pain then goes on to justify a laboring woman’s fear of the pain of childbirth and the cycle is perpetuated.
Grantly spends a lot of time discussing the psychological components of fear and pain in childbirth and often refers to the pity and horror first-time mothers are confronted with when talking about labor with their mothers, grandmothers or friends who have already experienced it. He believes it is this societal portrayal of birth as being the most horrific experience a woman will ever have serves to plant seeds of doubt and fear, which in turn contribute to real pain in labor due to the cycle described above. I found this analysis especially compelling considering “Childbirth Without Fear” was first published in 1959, before we had depictions of terrifying labor on television, in movies and in novels. Before I started really researching pregnancy and birth about five years ago, I envisioned that all births were meant to be like Julianne Moore screaming her face off in terror during the birth of her child in “Nine Months.” Thanks to Grantly Dick-Read, I am now dedicated to removing all that frightening imagery from my subconscious before I experience labor myself.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a wimp and a realist. My only attempts at self-actualization and mediation have been 1) when I cut myself as a child and tried to trick myself out of crying hysterically by asking myself such deep thoughts, “What is pain?” and 2) when I took a yoga classes with a coworker twice a week for five months before realizing that I felt like a fake and an idiot saying “Namaste” to a room full of entitled West LA weirdoes. Therefore, I was not expecting this book’s mystical approach to resonate so deeply with me. However, I buy it. I am actually excited to see if this works. Approaching things positively tends to work out for the best in every other aspect of the universe – I want to start assuming it could work in childbirth too.