Why Uncertainty is Your Best Friend (Not Your Enemy) in Birth

Take gold. To change pure gold from solid to liquid, you need a crucible. It’s a container, usually made of graphite carbon or clay, with a higher melting point than the object being melted. When I say birth is a crucible, I mean it’s a container that can hold and transform a valuable asset, changing it from one type of thing to another. In case it still isn’t clear—you’re the gold, and birth is going to transform you.

Why is birth a crucible?

The process of pregnancy, birth and becoming a parent (or a parent again) is the “container” within which you (the gold) are transformed. Birth will undoubtedly heat you up, press on you and transform you!

The challenges of birth in the lead-up to becoming a parent (or becoming a parent, again) heat you up. The heat of trials is all it takes to change, strengthen and mature.

Scripture says we can rejoice when we run into problems and trials because they are like seeds that grow to produce endurance, character and hope. And this hope doesn’t put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is with us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Things heat up in pregnancy! The container analogy is a way of talking about birth and the inevitable changes that happen in childbirth. When you’re taken to your limits, that’s when you stretch and grow.

Challenges also surface around choices you make (or avoid making) with other topics like sex, intimacy, money, parenting and in-laws. These are the things that seem to take us to our limits, stretch us. It can take the humbling of getting to the end of our abilities and willpower, to realise we’re being sustained by God (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The issue is that, sometimes, this process of maturing catches us off guard. When we feel the heat of metamorphosis, we can think something’s going wrong instead of realising it’s maturing-in-action. Childbirth is often a mechanism for transformation for everyone involved in a birth—the woman, her partner and the care providers involved.

This transformation can be uncomfortable, but nothing is going wrong.

As I’m sure you are intimately acquainted, our culture is both excited by and terrified by childbirth. In addition to the loving celebration, you’ve probably experienced anxious-excited energy and fearful energy coming at you in pregnancy, from well-meaning strangers and close connections alike.

Why is our culture excited-terrified by birth? At present, 96% of Australian women give birth in hospital maternity wards. In the United States over 98% of women birth in hospitals. In other higher-income countries like the UK, it’s similar.

In lots of people’s minds, hospital birth is birth.

When we talk about childbirth, we have to acknowledge the difference between birth (as we were designed to experience it) and birth (as it is often experienced).

Every system has a set of rules, including the hospital system. They govern how the system works (i.e. what’s deemed acceptable and unacceptable, or what’s considered safe and unsafe). As you may remember, your family system growing up had a set of rules—spoken and unspoken. When you could and couldn’t watch television. What you would get in trouble for watching and what your parents would be okay with. Words you should and shouldn’t say. You get the picture.

Hospitals have a set of “this is how it’s done” too.

It has to deal with a lot of chaotic situations. The emergency department, which has nothing to do with birth, but is usually housed in the same building, has to literally anticipate and provide a solution for any bad thing possible, and immediately. That’s an impressive commitment to our community.

But as I’ve said before, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”. Unfortunately, in the case of hospital birth, the statistics aren’t usually in line with our original design.

Because birth is synonymous with hospital birth for many people we need better understand the hospital system’s macro beliefs and how partnering with them have produced the birth culture and outcomes we have today.

Most women choose to birth in a hospital by default. They don’t realise that, for this short but life-altering moment in time, they are “getting into bed” with their care provider. They are choosing to (i) trust the staff, (ii) submit to the culture, policies and procedures, and (iii) enter the physical space and atmosphere of the place. And vice versa: the hospital is committing to this woman, her baby and her partner.

What I want to highlight in this next section is a macro belief in the hospital system. It’s so overarching that it’s sometimes hard to even see. That may seem unlikely, but it’s just because we’re so familiar with it.

What I’m leading to is this: hospitals are founded on an uncertainty reduction model that believes birth is an emergency waiting to happen. Typical hospital birth management approaches try to make birth as predictable as possible.

Many care providers now realise this model has limitations. Unfortunately, we have many other flow-on effects of this founding principle. Many pregnancy treatments are based on this uncertainty reduction model including prenatal ultrasounds, inductions, internal examinations, episiotomies, continuous monitoring, etc.

The desire to make things as certain as possible shows up in approaches that rely heavily on technology at the expense of intuition and intergenerational experience/wisdom. The end result is often preventable birth trauma. The statement “at least you have a healthy baby” is so common.

But the hospital culture didn’t just happen. It’s a collection of people with their own belief

What I want us to work towards, however, is uncertainty tolerance, not simply uncertainty reduction. I want us to become more comfortable trusting, surrendering and letting go of control.

Letting go is key.

Now let’s connect birth to the way sex works because there are lots of parallels.

For example, if I ask a woman, “Think of the best sex you’ve ever had”, and then wait until she smiles. Then, I might ask, “Were you certain?” What would her response be? Nope! She wasn’t completely certain or in control in a calculated sense.

Uncertainty is often part of great sex and it’s the same with great birthing experiences. But if you believe birth is an emergency waiting to happen, then you won’t allow space for it to be a little uncertain and potentially life-changing. That’d create too much anxiety. “Shut it down. Shut it down.” But if you can learn to settle down into who you are and trust that you know what needs to happen, then the magic can start to really show up.

Letting go and learning to tolerate uncertainty in birth requires:

  • Emotional regulation to not overreact when you feel unsure,
  • Courage to be honest when you don’t know how those close to you will react, and
  • Conviction to do what you know is right, even when people disagree.

Instead of teaching women to overcome feelings of uncertainty and grow beyond them, our culture normalises women having mediocre, even traumatic, births with as little uncertainty as possible.

In contrast, uncertainty makes us pay attention to what’s going on. Think about the first time you had sex with your partner. There’s a bit of risk, which is why some people say, “Let’s just do it and get it over with”,—but the newness and uncertainty also make us pay attention because we don’t know what’s going to happen next!

Think of the stereotypical middle-aged couple. They’ve been married for 20 years, and they display sad evidence of trying to cram too much certainty (control) into their marriage. If there’s no uncertainty left in sex, for example, then the couple either never have sex anymore or it’s so lacklustre that they might as well not be having it.

It’s the same with birth. I believe women want connected, vibrant birth experiences. They’re okay with challenges if they’re able to stay in control (in a good way) of the process and if they believe the process is working for them.

There’s a basic amount of uncertainty is built into life. We don’t know how our birth is going to go, step by step. But we can trust and have faith it will go well. But how it will unfold remains a mystery.

If we try to use rigid control, then we’ll force the majestic potentially life-altering power of birth into a predictable box. Some couples demand certainty in childbirth and then wonder why they’re dissatisfied with their birth experience without realising that’s how they caused it. I don’t want that for you.

This uncertainty reduction model our culture buys into is why 9 out of 10 women in Australia have at least one medical intervention while giving birth, and many women have multiple layers-upon layers of interventions.

Remember: A bit of uncertainty is part of giving birth, as it is with life. This is the essence of faith and trust.