I once ran a marathon and gave birth to a baby in the same year, and found them to be, mentally, very similar events. In both cases it doesn’t hurt too much in the beginning, but you know you have to save your strength. You will hit a point where you feel your body can go no further, and yet there is still further to go. And you can never truly predict what will happen in the end.
Nothing can truly prepare you for either experience. Childbirth classes try, but they aren’t everyone’s style. I do not care to breathe in specific ways while I am in pain. Envisioning a happy place does nothing for me. Massages are out—don’t even touch me.
And that’s why I loved Serena Solomon’s New York Times piece on using sports psychology techniques for childbirth. (To be clear, this is for any type of labour, not just “natural” birth. Even if you are 100 per cent sure you will ask for an epidural, you have to get through a few hours of contractions at home and in the car first.) Some of the strategies that sports psychologists recommended to her:
Challenge unhelpful beliefs. Solomon was afraid of a caesarian section, so she collected positive stories from people who had undergone c-sections. It turns out some of her fears were unfounded, and helped to see that people could go through the experience and be ok.
Identify what the hardest parts might be, and plan a visualisation for each. For athletes, it might be a tough stretch of the competition. For Solomon, that was the cab ride to the hospital.
Have an action you can use as a reset button, something that connects mind and body. Solomon linked her breathing with her hand position.
I came up with a similar move during labour: I would curl my toes as hard as I could during each contraction. The rest of my body stayed relaxed, but I focused all my stress and pain into my toes.
If you’ve had experience working through pain (athletic or otherwise), recognise that you probably already have some strategies to cope. Know what you’re getting into, visualise the hard parts, and react to the situation in whatever way your own brain and body feel are best.