Birth=Improv? Yes, and… No

Recently, I took part in an “Intro to Improv” class with about 25 other nervous-but-willing adults — none of whom had ever done improv before in their lives! Nevertheless, we all showed up, ready to fully engage with one another in this new experience.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar, the wiki definition of Improv is this: “Improvisational theatre, often called improvisation or improv, is the form of theatre, often comedy, in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted: created spontaneously by the performers. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without use of an already prepared, written script.” (emphasis added)

Now if you’ve ever read anything that I’ve written before, it takes very little time before my brain starts to connect the dots of any of my lived experience with the work that I love — helping expecting and new families navigate pregnancy, birth and new parenting. 

So I started thinking… 

“What if I re-wrote some of the “Rules of Improv” to show how they might relate to birth? Is there something to this that my families might find helpful in moving through this uncharted territory of pregnancy, birth and new parenting?”

The short answer is, “Yes, and…No.” 

“Yes, and” is considered to be the “Golden Rule” of improv. With this rule, you’re supposed to agree with whatever reality gets created in the moment, and build on it from there. Your birth reality may be quite different from your expectations. I’m not sure you ever have to agree with the disappointment of unmet expectations, but being able to accept your birth reality as it unfolds can be very helpful.

But not ALL of the rules of improv can be applied to birth, so first let me share a couple of exceptions.

Play for the group, not for yourself. Ummmmm, no. This is NOT the time to be concerned about how anyone else has given birth before you. It doesn’t matter what your Mom, sister, BFF, or co-worker did when they gave birth. You are not them, they are not you. You have your own thoughts about how you want to give birth — so honor them.

There really is no “right” or “wrong” way to have a baby. Before your birth is over you’ll have to make a lot of decisions in real time about things that no one could have predicted. At the end of the day, this birth is about you, your birth partner and team, and your baby. And the story you’ll tell will be yours, alone. But if you can, try NOT to…

Follow the fear. In improv, fear can be a good thing, because it means that you’re really pushing yourself to the edge and that whatever you’re going to do next will be worth it. But fear in labor and birth has a direct and negative impact on the entire process.

When you’re afraid, your body triggers the “Stress Response” — you might know this better as “Fight or Flight.” It’s an ancient autonomic nervous system response that helps us respond to danger and keeps us alive. But it’s not at all helpful when we’re trying to have a baby! Your uterus is made of smooth muscle tissue — similar to other organs like your esophagus and stomach — so it will contract when it’s time to have a baby, because that is what it’s “programmed” to do.

But here’s the deal… your uterus is the largest muscle in your entire body at the time of birth, and it requires a HUGE amount of blood flow to do its job well. But if you’re afraid, and you respond with “Fight or Flight” blood flow gets diverted from the center of your body (away from the uterus) to fuel your brain, arms and legs — the organs and muscles necessary to determine, “Do I punch this dude or run away?” You don’t want to follow fear in labor. Instead, you want to learn to tame it. How is this possible?

Find an in-person Childbirth Preparation Class that offers current, evidence-based information and the space to ask questions in real-time.

Knowledge is power and knowing what to expect and how to work with whatever birth throws at you can be huge in helping to lessen that fear. Learning what your options are for relaxation and pain relief in labor can also go a long way. Making sure your birth team consists of people whom you trust to support you, encourage you, care for you, love you and listen to you will allow you to enter into this experience with confidence and excitement — the two antidotes to fear.

Now, here are a handful of rules of improv that I think CAN be applied to the birth experience.

Stay in the moment. When you’re in the midst of labor, it can be hard to not break down and cry thinking, “Why is this taking so long? How many more contractions will I have to go through? When will this whole thing be over?”

Being mindful in the midst of intense labor is not an easy task, but it’s so worthwhile! If you’re handling any individual contraction well then, “Keep On Keepin’ On!” If not? Don’t worry… You have LOTS more contractions coming your way to continue your mindfulness practice. So, stay in the moment…

But don’t forget about the future entirely. For partners, especially, it’s important to remember that the brain is wanting to be in control of this experience. But you can “trick” the brain into thinking things are going all right — as long as you’re about three contractions ahead of the brain. You can use something called, “The Gate Control Theory” to help you get ahead.

As an example, by using effleurage* on the laboring woman’s belly, the pleasurable sensations from this *light massage using circular strokes shoot up to the brain faster than the not-so-lovely sensations of a contraction. And the brain settles down a bit, it retreats, it takes a little nap from its usual guard-dog status… until it’s no longer distracted.

You’ve got about three contractions with any added, pleasurable stimuli before the brain says, “Is that all you got?! You better step up your game. I’m starting to think I need to take control of this situation.” Add something new, and it gets the message, “Stand down!” Maybe you change positions, or get in the shower or tub, maybe your partner provides added words of encouragement, or a foot massage, etc. There are lots of choices! But remember…

Your choices should be conscious — whenever possible. Where you plan to give birth, who the members of your birth team will be — these are decisions that can have an important impact on how your birth progresses… or not. But there will be many decisions that need to be made in the moment, as your birth unfolds, in real time.

So, do you know where you stand on the shared decision-making model?

There’s no right or wrong place to stand, but wherever you land, you need to share this with all the members of your birth team so that they can meet you wherever you are. If you feel like you need to be included in ALL decisions as they’re happening in your birth, then you’ll need to remember to:
Ask questions and get those questions answered to your satisfaction…
Use your B.R.A.I.N. while making those decisions (Benefits, Risks, Alternatives, Intuition, and No Thanks, or Not Now)…
And then make the best, most informed decision that you can in the moment!
But, then it will be important for you to…

Let go of the outcome. There are no shoulda, coulda, wouldas in birth. If your choices were truly conscious and you were a decision maker (to your own, personal level of comfort) then understand that there really are no mistakes in birth.

You could do everything “perfectly” and birth sometimes unfolds how it does without your ability to control it. And if you’re able to be flexible and continue to work with your birth as it happens in real time, you might find that…

Sometimes the best moments are unscripted. Birth is just too big to plan, really. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t create a birth plan. In fact, birth plans can be the best starting point to manifest the kind of birth you’re hoping for.

But — birth happens, and then you tell the story about it.

And those things that you might want to guard against so badly may, in the end, be when and where you felt most strong, most supported, and most loved. Because, laboring people need to know that…

Sometimes it’s okay to lean on others! We’ve grown up in a culture that prizes individuality over most things and that’s great when we’re talking about creating a new start-up, or wanting to love what makes each of of us unique. But when we’re talking about giving birth? Rely on the people around you to help make that happen! Birth is an intensely challenging experience and one where you’ll HAVE to lean on your partner and all the other members of your birth team to get you through the process because during birth, it’s a good thing to…

Try to get outside of your comfort zone. Birth is unlike anything you’ve ever done before. It will challenge you physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Birth is a full-human-being experience.

This means you’ll be living in the zone of uncertainty and vulnerability. And this is where all the magic happens! When you embrace all that you cannot control in this experience and instead surrender to whatever happens by responding — not reacting— to your ever-changing reality, amazing transformations can happen!

Birth = Improv? It’s not an exact comparison, but I feel like the premise of bringing a whole new human being through your body is already mind-blowing enough and requires a certain level of “letting go” so that the experience can unfold, as it will, without the need to control everything that happens from start to finish. 

And, just like my experience with the “Intro to Improv” class, once I let go and just went with it, I realized that as my nervousness and fear went away, I ended up having an experience that I’ll never forget. 

Yep, that sounds a lot like birth.

BONUS: While the focus on this post was birth, these “Rules of Improv” can easily be applied to pregnancy and new parenting as well. Just adjust accordingly to wherever you find yourself on your parenting journey!

I want to give a nod to this article by Kelly Quindlen. It provided me with a template for my own riff on the rules of improv as they apply to birth.

I hope you find this helpful. Comments and shares are always appreciated!


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