As I researched for this series, I was struck by Fisher’s (2006) paper on the social context of fear. The thesis of this study was the social context of childbirth influences how women understand childbirth, and this impacts how they experience it on an individual level. In the discussion of prospective fear, Fisher discusses prior research on first time mothers and their fear of the unknown. Without prior experience, these mothers do not know what to ask.
But at the same time they are told their bodies were designed to give birth, that they ‘should’ be able to do this. While this provides courage for some mothers, others are left feeling that they somehow missed something important — that they are different because they fear. This leaves them feeling inadequate and actually increases the fear.
So she felt afraid, and now she feels like something is wrong with her because she was afraid. All this before she even begins labor.
But this goes further than fear. This puts the mother in the position where she was unable to behave like a “good” mother. It is here, in this link between societal expectations and the woman’s fear of the unknown that fear can become guilt.
We know social expectations around childbirth vary across cultures, so I won’t talk about any in particular. But as you read this, think about the social expectations in your culture and how they might be perceived by first time mothers.
How do cultural taboos affect women? What does it say to her about her ability to be a mother if she does not avoid certain foods, habits, locations?
What about cultural prescriptions for pregnant women? What things are women expected to do while pregnant because they are in a direct role of responsibility for the baby?
I don’t have answers, I’m not sure how anyone could have general answers to such a multi-layered and complex phenomenon. But I do have compassion for mothers, and I’m sure you do as well. It makes me wonder how best to navigate this experience with women.
Fisher’s research suggests two factors that make a difference for women. The first is the interactions with the midwife. If the midwife is confident and respectful to the woman, the woman’s experience is improved even though she has fear. The second is what Fisher calls continuity of care — having a safe space to enter discussions about birth.
So maybe women need the time and encouragement it takes to accept that they are normal even with their fears and inexperience. What do you think?