Having a baby is stressful. There's so much going on during your labor and delivery, you often don't know which end is up or where to go. You can prepare for childbirth through classes and meditations and even watch graphic videos, but nothing can prepare you for the actual emotions and mechanics of the process until you're in it. Your feelings are huge, and they're even more important than you think. It turns out, they can change how your labor progresses — a form of dystocia. Emotional dystocia is dangerous for new moms, and here's what you need to know.
According to American Family Physician, "Dystocia refers to prolonged or slowly progressing labor." Emotional dystocia is a prolonged labor that stems from heightened levels of maternal emotional stress experienced during labor, noted the Labor Progress Handbook, 4th Edition. It's not just the emotional trauma of labor, but also remembered trauma, new emotions surfacing during the course of labor, and general unease of impending new motherhood. While this doesn't always result in extended labor or the discontinuation of progress, it can impede forward motion, noted a study of mothers giving birth post-9/11, who were dealing with their very specific trauma.
According to the study, it's possibly down to the way that women react to stress. "Instead of a fight-or-flight response," which the study noted is common in the stress responses of biological men, "women respond to stress with a pattern called 'tend and befriend.'” It's not that we're nurturing our stress, more that we find ways to work within it. Normally, this is a good thing, but during labor, it challenges the process. Researchers wrote that "studies of the neuroendocrine system in humans and in animals suggest that the core of this mechanism may be oxytocin, in conjunction with female reproductive hormones and other body chemicals." And an imbalance in the oxytocin is what stalls the progression of labor.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the effects of emotional dystocia. Namely through the use of different calming mechanisms and the employment of doulas. They noted that "the tend-and-befriend stress response might be one reason that female companionship (doulas and other supporting women) during labor and birth has had such a profound effect throughout history on labor, as well as on women's perceptions of the birth experience."
There is almost something magical in the relationships between women, especially during labor and childbirth. The offerings of strength and empathy are so much different coming from someone with first-hand knowledge of the experience, and women have been relying on this for centuries. It's only in recent history that we've eschewed this bond during labor.
But I know that if I ever have another, I want my ladies with me.
Because emotional dystocia is dangerous for new moms, and we know support can mean all the difference, I spoke with certified doula Angie Bee Hotz to find out about how doulas can help. She tells Romper, "Some of the most important work that doulas do with clients is the preparation prenatally. Getting to know the client and discovering through conversation how she moves through stress and big feelings." In this, doulas aren't just preparing the mother, they're also arming themselves with the knowledge of what might come up.
"As a doula, I don't need to know history of trauma. We all have trauma, but speaking with the client about the potential for feelings that come up to have an affect on labor is quite common," Hotz says. I will tell you that no one did this for me during either of my labors, and while I didn't experience dystocia, I did experience quite a lot of post-traumatic stress about my first labor and delivery because of the unexpected emotions that arose during my birth. I feel like this would've helped immensely.
She goes on to note that "if emotional dystocia is suspected, asking the birthing person if they are feeling things that might be holding up labor can be helpful. Sometimes the mother or birthing person is in touch with it and sometimes they don't realize until the doula asks. Once it's recognized it can be set down and moved past."
Having support means feeling recognized throughout the process. Even if it's not your doula, if it's your birth partner or your husband, it's the notion that someone is there watching you and advocating for you. You deserve to feel supported through this. "A doula who is perceptive, watchful, adaptable, and who has a really solid understanding of how labor and birth works biologically to be able to see when things are a bit sideways can be helpful with clients who are experiencing emotional dystocia," Hotz says.
If you're not planning on having a doula (and honestly, not all of us can afford one), talk to your partner throughout the process. Feel your feelings and let them flow through you. It's scary, but it can be done. Talk to your provider about what you're feeling. Demand what you need. After all, you're your own best advocate.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.