Fawning In Birth: A Sign Of Self-Protection
Laura is thirty-seven and has just had her first baby. Up until now, she had been immersed in her career of eighteen years, and from the outside looking in, people regard her as ‘successful.’ But on the inside, she feels utterly broken. Sadly, the birth of her baby was not the experience she had prepared for. It has completely undone her sense of confidence, self-worth and excitement about becoming a parent.
Laura and her partner had prepared joyfully and diligently for their baby’s birth. They read all the recommended pregnancy and birth books, attended independent childbirth classes, Laura practised birth hypnosis and prenatal yoga, engaged a team of holistic practitioners to prepare her for birth and motherhood in body, mind and spirit. While she had chosen to give birth in a hospital, she was determined to do so without obstetric intervention and had felt reassured that her birth team was on the same page. Laura’s partner was also new to birth and essentially wanted what was best for her and their baby. They had created an outline of their birth preferences together and had discussed these at length with their birth team.
As thirty-eight weeks of her pregnancy drew closer, Laura began to field murmurs from the hospital about not going too long past baby’s so-called due date. They suggested that an induction may be the safest option given her “advanced maternal age” and the added risks that it supposedly presented. The seeds of doubt that were planted in her mind were beginning to erode Laura’s confidence and create anxiety and confusion. The obstetrician at her review appointment at forty weeks and two days strongly recommended an induction of labour, stating that it would avoid complications for baby and her.
As Laura’s anxiety had increased, she felt herself wedged between a rock and a hard place. She and her partner were after all dependent on the care of the team to usher their baby into the world. Laura felt reluctant to be labelled “that difficult patient” and she finally succumbed to the views of the obstetric team. So, before she knew it, the dream of an undisturbed, intervention-free birth had vanished and she found herself hooked up to IV lines and monitors. As labour contractions grew strong and swift, she was offered pain relief in the form of an epidural. She struggled to find her centre and apply the labour tools she had practised with her partner. Laura became emotionally reliant instead on the midwife caring for her. So, once again, against all her prior intentions, she immediately concurred. A familiar cascade followed with concerning changes in baby’s heart rate, an emergency C-section, and baby needing to be resuscitated at birth. While relieved to hold her little son in her arms, Laura has been feeling devastated by the turn of events and the pressure she felt had been brought to bear upon her. Worse still, she is ashamed of the way in which she had caved in to the opinions of the obstetric staff against her better judgement, no questions asked.
What had gone wrong for Laura and her family?
We commonly hear of the Fight, Flight and Freeze protective survival responses in relation to a threat or challenge, whether real or perceived, physical or psycho-emotional. These responses are hard-wired within our mammalian physiology and are not conscious choices. At the bottom of all of these is fear and the imperative to survive at all costs.
And then there’s the Fawn or Appease response which is similar to these and typically has its origins in childhood dynamics of relating. The Fawning person often has a history of being a ‘model child’ who is compliant and diligent. They are overly involved in ‘tending’ and befriending’ such that they abandon themselves and override emotional needs in order to keep in connection and favour with their parent and ensure their basic survival. There is often a reversal of roles where the child becomes the parent’s caretaker of sorts and at their beck and call. This situation may be symptomatic of the parent or parents’ own stresses, psycho-emotional challenges or unresolved trauma.
The Fawning person becomes conditioned to attune closely to other people’s needs and to comply with persons in power rather than express their own opinions and preferences. They tend to down-play their strengths, have wobbly boundaries, and rarely say No to anyone.
The Fawn response is seen mostly but not exclusively in females, and it appears that both the hormones estrogen and oxytocin predispose them to this co-dependent behaviour. It also manifests at the more extreme end of the continuum as the Stockholm Syndrome or trauma bonding, for example between a victim and perpetrator, or hostage and their captor as witnessed in an actual event in 1973.
So, how is this relevant to birth?
Given that the vast majority of birthing persons in the first world give birth in hospitals where there are systems, protocols, hierarchies and figures of assumed authority to be reckoned with, they often find themselves entangled in a power dynamic which in itself can feel like a threat to their nervous system. As they see themselves to be dependent on the goodwill of the obstetric team to support the birth of their baby, they will often take the path of least resistance and acquiesce to the directives of the team. Added to that, they may experience fear and challenge around the process of birth itself, not helped by the highly medicalized and risk-averse environment in which they chose to birth. The messages received by their primal body is that birth is inherently risky business. And so, their physiology enters a protective survival mode. In this ‘captive’ situation, the two most likely responses are Freeze and Fawn, depending on their default patterning and the level of perceived threat to their survival. Regardless of how assertive they may be outside of birth, finding themselves in this apparent no-win situation, they will give up their inner authority and give in to the whims of others.
How Fawning may show up in birth is:
- allowing others e.g. partners or other family members to dictate birth choices in order to keep the peace – type of birth preparation, if any; where to birth; who will be there; birth preferences around level of intervention that may be acceptable in a non-emergency situation
- returning to the same maternity care provider such as obstetrician or hospital despite a prior traumatic experience which involved them
- handing over all decisions to the obstetric team in pregnancy, birth and post-natally, with few if any questions asked
- abandoning birth preferences (e.g. agreeing to obstetric intervention) as soon as a challenge arises in birth so as to not get any of the team offside
- agreeing to a specific family member being at their baby’s birth even if they are clear that it would not be helpful
- acquiescing to early visitors post-natally and playing the good hostess role
- being unable to say No to visitors staying in her home post-natally
- complying with popular trends in parenting e.g. imposing a ‘routine’ or topping up with baby formula above instinctual ways of mothering in order to avoid conflict with authority figures and family members
In order to minimize the possibility of Fawning in birth, education around stress physiology, trauma prevention and personal default patterns would be useful starting points. Some specific work with a therapist in relation to establishing one’s agency, tuning in to instinctual boundaries and practising these before birth, and dismantling old triggers and patterns of responding would be further options for using the primordial energy of birth to get beyond their early patterning and create powerful new ways of being in life.
In forty years of working in the fields of health and wellbeing, there is little that I’ve found more mesmerizing than to witness a woman begin her pregnancy journey with a whimper and emerge from birth with an undeniable roar.
And there is little that can set her up more fully for her years of mothering than the experience of her sovereignty through birth, where she can be soft as well as fierce, and where she is not activated into a Fawn state out of feelings of fear and overwhelming challenge.
Nisha Gill is a Melbourne-based practitioner who works in-person and online at the intersection of trauma, birth, bodywork and women’s sexual embodiment.