“Your body is not a lemon.”
“She believed she could, so she did.”
“Your body will not grow a baby it cannot birth.”
I would imagine that reading these quotes, you will have one of two reactions. Either you’re vigorously nodding your head in agreement, or your blood pressure is rising in anger. Either way, I hope you’ll stay with me, hear me out.
In “the birth world” (primarily the natural childbirth world), we hear these “affirmations” all the time. We decorate our lives and minds with them, as if they’re pretty wildflowers, making everything seem a little bit more beautiful, while they roll off the tongue, or keyboard, as it may be. We know that these words have power behind them, so we toss out as many affirmations as we can, hoping that the right ones will be there when needed. But what we don’t realize, both as mothers and even birth workers, is that our words are so extremely powerful that they can be either beneficial, or damaging.
Let’s first start at the beginning, with the term “affirmation.” The very definition means, “an act of saying or showing that something is true.” Perhaps I’m being a bit too technical here, but I think this can provide some insight into how these phrases can be detrimental, especially post birth.
So let’s start with a simple one,“Your body will not grow a baby it cannot birth.” This is pretty popular, and most people agree with it. Often, it is the truth. However, 1 in 4 women struggle from loss, and more women yet are unable to “grow a baby” at all. Already, we can see how this “affirmation” could be exclusive, or even cringe-worthy. Far from the definition of something that is true. This “affirmation” is very popular because many OB’s in our society use “big baby” as an excuse to jump to a cesarean, so I can see why women might need to be reminded that chances are high that they will be able to fit their baby. But is it the truth? Always? Do we sometimes need additional help to conceive, carry, or to birth a baby? Absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that our bodies are capable of amazing things. Most of the time, our bodies are perfectly designed to give birth with little to no interventions. Women and birth are designed with this “perfect” design that is awe-inspiring and nothing short of a miracle! However, when we break it down, birth isn’t perfect. If it’s one thing, it’s unpredictable. On an individual level, many women do need help for a variety of reasons and complications. (“Complications”: something that introduces, usually unexpectedly, some difficulty, problem, change, etc.) That’s right, complications aren’t usually expected, and… they’re difficult.
No matter how much we physically and mentally prepare for birth, we can have complications. “I am doing this exactly right, and exactly as nature intended!”
No matter how much we have cleared our mind, concentrated on positive outcomes, prayed, and believed in ourselves and the process, problems can arise without notice. “She believed she could, so she did.”
No matter how much support we have, or how exceptional the quality of care, we may still need a medically assisted birth. “Absolutely nothing is impossible for a strong minded woman. Impossible is just a word.”
No matter how healthy you are, how much you weigh, how your pelvis is shaped, how much energy you have, or what your hormones do, we can not control all things. “Your body is not a lemon.”
Even if your mother, sister, best friend, co-worker, client, and millions of women before have given birth without issue, there are still so many that we don’t speak about- those women who have died giving birth. “Millions of women have gone before you; if they can do it, so can you.”
Oh, crap. I went there. I mentioned the unmentionable. Ok, so pretend that I didn’t mention that women and babies die during childbirth in America. Let’s just stick to the adverse effects of these affirmations to mothers who have less than their ideal birth. After all, what I’m really talking about here is how we can speak to our clients and our own hearts, so that our birth experience is empowering and healthy. It may not seem like it, but we’re all on the same page for what our goal is- a healthy and empowering birth!
Unfortunately, the women who are often hurt by these phrases feel too broken to speak out. When they do, the birth community usually shushes them. If you’ve ever listened to a group of women who have had a poor birth experience, you’d find that it’s incredibly common that they have many of the same pain points. Well-meaning “encouragements” such as, “All that matters is a healthy mom, and healthy baby,”are the natural next step for a society that is hung up on pretty quotes. But please, stop and ponder how these words might feel for women who gave everything they had and fell short. After believing in these affirmations with their whole hearts, I can tell you with certainty that these women often feel invalidated. Dismissed. Guilty. Inadequate. Broken. Faulty. (As a side note, how do you think this feels to mothers, who don’t have a heathy baby?)
Belief in yourself is necessary, but not sufficient.
Here’s the process: Women believe these affirmations with their entire being. They put their whole heart and soul into visualizing the birth they want, and often work harder than you’d ever imagine to get there. But it doesn’t happen, for one reason or another. They end up making huge sacrifices for their baby, which are typically dismissed. They’re unrecognized warriors. So how is it destructive? They question everything. “Did I not believe it enough? Did I not try hard enough? Did I not have enough support, or education? Didn’t I prep well enough?” Sometimes this internal struggle becomes so intense that it bleeds into other aspects of life, starting with religious beliefs. “Did I not pray hard enough; did I not have enough faith?” This sort of questioning of themselves, their bodies, their religion, their…. everything… leads to an inner turmoil that leaves the mother feeling alone and disempowered. It’s common that she questions everything she has ever known, not only about birth and mothering, but of her entire existence. Obviously, this is the very opposite of the initial goal.
So, we’ve learned that our words are powerful. Now we need to step back and learn how to use that power. What words do we choose? What is our guide on this? Personally, I want to make sure that every mother, with any possible birth outcome, feels empowered, safe, strong, and uplifted. I often use loss as a measuring stick. Hold this affirmation up, take a good look, and ask yourself, “Could I say this to a mother who is giving birth to baby who isn’t living? Would it comfort someone who is battling infertility?” No? Ok, don’t worry! Words are abundant and we have lots of positive, encouraging things to say! The real truth is we never know the outcome. We don’t have a crystal ball. If you do, and you can see that this particular birth is going to end on a perfect note, say whatever you want. But if you don’t, choose wisely.
I’m listing some suggested quotes below. Remember that birth is individual and each mother may need encouragement in her own way. Some quotes may still be unhelpful or inappropriate, so it’s important that we always take a step back, and assess. Try to stick with words that are open ended and can mean anything the mother needs them to mean: “power, connect, breathe, I have a voice, I am heard, I am sustained, I am strong, I am supported.” Of course, sometimes what a laboring person needs is just someone to be there, holding space. No words necessary.
Possible non-damaging affirmations:
~I can do anything for 60 seconds.
~I am doing amazing!
~I can do hard things.
~I am not alone in this.
~I am birthing like a badass.
~I am strong. I am brave.
~I am doing the best I can with what I know.
~I’ll be meeting my sweet baby soon!
~I am prepared for whatever birth my body and my baby need!
~This too shall pass.
~Breathe in relaxation, breathe out tension.
~There is no need for us to hurry.
~Through pain, find your strength!
~My courage is stronger than my fear.
~I’m stronger than I think.
~God didn’t give me a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind.
~I am strong. I am brave.
~I am working hard.
~I am giving all I can.
~I am a wonderful mother.
~Rejoice at the miracle of birth – no matter how it happens.
~This is really difficult AND I am handling it beautifully.
~My baby will be birthed in LOVE.
~Life is like the ocean. It can be calm and still or rough and rigid, but in the end, it is always beautiful.
“In the real world, some women’s bodies are not able to give birth. So instead of focusing on the adage “Trust your body,” trust that you can meet whatever challenges come your way.” -Pam England, Ancient Map for Modern Birth
Because these affirmations have taken away so much from so many parents, I hope these words may provide some of the validation they need, or perhaps prevent another mother from experiencing this pain. May we all continue learn, love, support, and empower each other, every day.
Ashley Short is a Certified Birth & Bereavement Doula, as well as a Professional Birth Photographer, based out of Northwest Ohio.