Fear As Sacred Visitor

As birthworkers we are the protectors of the psycho-neuro-endorcine experience of the birthing people we serve and work with. So it makes sense there is a strong message in the birth culture that fear in the birth space is bad. That fear is dangerous. And maybe even a sign that we are not doing our job as birthworkers if our clients are saying or showing that they are scared. But does fear really deserve such vilification in birth?

As birthworkers we are the protectors of the psycho-neuro-endorcine experience of the birthing people we serve and work with. So it makes sense there is a strong message in the birth culture that fear in the birth space is bad.  That fear is dangerous.  And maybe even a sign that we are not doing our job as birthworkers if our clients are saying or showing that they are scared. But does fear really deserve such vilification in birth?

I remember learning early in my doula days, I believe after reading Dick-Read’s Childbirth without Fear, that hormones of stress and fear turn the uterus white from redirected circulation.  Whenever my clients would express fear, I would panic and imagine their non-functioning uterus clamping down, and frantically try and shift my client’s state with whatever light dimming, soothing massage, encouraging words, or position change I could come up with to rescue us both from this unwanted state.

But is that really what is happening when our clients are scared in labor?

Physiologically a fear or stress response is more complex than just fear = adrenalin = white uterus. The body actually dumps oxytocin at the same time that adrenalin is released in a moment of fear or stress - to motivate us to reach out and seek support, to stay connected, to take action. This oxytocin is also highly protective of our tissues that might otherwise be affected by adrenalin’s power.   It is not fear that slows or stops the birth process, but how we process and move through that fearful moment, the story we tell ourselves about the fear, that influences the physiology of birth.  

What if, instead of moments of fear in the labor being avoided and shunned we actually were to welcome them?  The psycho-spiritual experience of fear and doubt in birth can be like the Thirteenth Fairy showing up to wreak havoc because she didn’t receive and invitation to the Princess’s blessing, or Beowulf’s monster Grendel, knocking at the door of the party and being ignored only to tear down the house.  

What if instead of banning fear from the party of birth we were to soften to that fear, leave the door cracked open so it could enter at will? Invite the mess? What if fear and terror and doubt are the potential sparks that stoke the fire of transformation in birth?  Might fear be the catalyst that carries us across thresholds of new ways of being and knowing?

By closing the door to fear’s entry and holding it closed tightly we are likely bringing even more rigidity and tension to the moment. How might fear actually be an ally?  How might it mobilize inner resources, maybe even encourage a new movement or position change that shifts physiology? How might it even mobilize the qualities that a new parent will need as they navigate early parenting?

What might our support look like if we valued those fearful moments in labor as powerful opportunities for transformation? Imagine someone in labor looking at you with terror in their eyes screaming “I’m scared!” Sometimes responding with “We’ve got you, you’re safe, your baby is safe” can be helpful, especially if it is medically true, but if said as a habit response or because we want to rescue someone from their fear it effectively conveys that they shouldn’t be scared. Likewise “You’ve got this!” may fit the energy of the moment, but sometimes it simply ignores and negates their actual experience of the moment.

What if we truly validated this intense moment, depending on the circumstances, with something like:  

“Birth can be really scary.”

“I see that this is f*cking hard and scary.”


“It is scary to let your old self die.”

“How do you keep going even when you are scared?”  

With this kind of validation and questioning we do not make their fear wrong, we are helping to shift their relationship to the fear that will be there regardless of if we try and push it away or release it. By validating their fear they may also feel held enough to communicate when they genuinely feel something is wrong with them or their baby, and that additional support may be needed.

It takes courage to respond in this way to the fears of those giving birth. We ourselves as birth workers can also meet our fears in the birth space with this same self-compassion and validation. I think we are worth it, and our birthing clients are worth it.

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