I remember it like it was yesterday: I was 18 weeks into my first pregnancy. A little slower, but still…
However, for a large number of women, birthing a baby is one of the most transformative moments of their life: it is when a new part of their identity is revealed, that of becoming someone’s mother.
Birth itself is a process that can be physically demanding, exhilarating, unnerving, joyous, heartbreaking, life-changing, frustrating, happy, unpredictable, empowering, and so much more! There are as many descriptions of birth as there are mothers on the planet.
Women make up to 75 percent of all training clients and, in the U.S. alone, 85 percent of all women will be pregnant at some point in their lives.
As a coach and trainer, if you work with women, it is extremely likely you will have at least a few women clients who have given birth.
One aspect of being a mother that isn’t as readily discussed yet in Western society is how the act of birth itself can impact a woman.
Birth story refers to the recounting a woman does of the birth of her child. In this narrative she may describe not only the medical and physical processes, but also her feelings, her thoughts, the challenges she faced, from her own unique perspective.
Some birth stories are hilarious! Others are heart-wrenching. There is no right or wrong birth story — they each serve a multitude of purposes, out of which the most important might be helping the mother contemplate and make sense of the experience she has gone through.
Storytelling has been an essential thread in the fabric of humanity for as long as humanity has existed.
Across millennia, through stories, humans have passed on teachings, lessons and cultural identity, and fostered community, bonding, communication, and survival. This may explain why many women volunteer their birth stories as soon as they found out their friend is pregnant, or why birth stories abound each time mothers of young children unite, such as in infant playgroups.
Community, bonding, communication, survival — the very fabric of humanity at work!
If you tend to compartmentalize clients’ lives and assume that other areas of their life do not directly impact the training and coaching you do with them… we’ve got news for you!
Let’s flesh out some of the ways in which her birthing experience may be impacting your client’s training experience. The following points are equally applicable to brand-new moms as well as women who had their children years or even decades ago:
Ideally every woman client who has been pregnant or has given birth should visit a pelvic health physiotherapist and be cleared for exercise.
If existent, the factors above will come into play as you design a program for your client, and will need to be taken into consideration during training sessions.
If so, you can probably imagine this will directly impact the work you do together.
Think of a client who perceives themselves as a failure. Now think of one who holds a can-do attitude. How she thinks of herself will surely have an impact on how your training experience goes, and birth can be one reason why this self-perception is altered, either positively or negatively.
Similar to the point above, the experience of giving birth and how a woman internalizes the process can play a big part in how she views what her body is capable of accomplishing.
If there are follow up appointments, physical therapy to pursue, how is she managing the follow-up work with a newborn (or, potentially, with the grief of loss) in tow?
It is often said “At least you have a healthy baby!” in response to a woman’s difficult emotions toward how the birth played out. This is dismissive and reduces her entire person to one outcome.
Of course women want healthy babies, that goes without saying! But this doesn’t mean your client doesn’t get the right to voice and work through any feelings of anger, frustration, disrespect, sadness, or despair that may have arose as a result of her birth experience.
Some births are traumatic: scary life or death situations in which the woman or her baby’s life are in danger. However, a birth doesn’t have to be a medical life-threatening emergency in order to be traumatic — many factors and each woman’s unique lense will make it out to be the experience it is for each.
Obstetric violence is a term coming to light recently, and it encompasses a number of human rights violations women can encounter during pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum. It is considered an intersection between violence against women and institutionalized violence, and it manifests in a number of ways:
Each of the above represent a violation of human rights, including right to freedom from discrimination, right to information, right to reproductive autonomy, etc.
It is very possible that some of your clients will have encountered instances of obstetric violence. By being informed that such a phenomenon exists you are already helping in some way.
For some women it can be very helpful and comforting to know they are understood in the pain they have endured and that others believe and grasp the gravity of the situation. You may not be able to take away the pain of how your client was treated, but by understanding this term and what it means you may help lessen her suffering.
The work starts with you, coach: before you even think about asking a woman about her birth experiences, check in with yourself and make sure you are ready to receive all that may come your way.
Some of the things they will describe may conflict with your own personal values and beliefs; but this isn’t about you and what you would have done in their situation. This is about them and their story.
Your only role as a coach is to honor the information shared and find the best ways to help your client in the measures available to you.
What we are looking for are clues and insights. This includes physical symptoms that may impact her training, of course, but also mental state around the event and emotional processing of what happened, since all of it could play a role in how she relates to her body now.
We cannot say this enough: when going down the path of something as deeply personal and potentially triggering as childbirth, you must first and foremost come equipped with your utmost empathy and compassion.
Do your best to tap into what your client is feeling as she describes her story. Voice back some of her key statements so she understands you are listening attentively. If her story is mired with difficulty and complicated emotions, seek to connect:
Tears may flow as these narratives take over; some will be happy tears, others will not.
Don’t be afraid of being human and letting your own feelings show — often this display of shared humanity is exactly what our clients need in order to feel seen and heard.
Talking with our women clients about their births can shed light into important physical, mental and emotional insights about them, which are very valuable to us as wellness professionals.
Aside from how this knowledge can be applied in our practice for her benefit, by giving them a space where to share their birth stories, which are often intimate and deeply personal, we are also fostering profound connection and meaningful, long-lasting relationships.