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Ask a Local / Karen McClay

Calmbirth. The very idea may sound like an oxymoron, but since it was started in Mittagong by one of Australia’s first male midwives, 26,000 couples have taken part in this program to learn how to remain calm during birth. Karen McClay, local midwife, daughter of founding father Peter Jackson and now driving force behind Calmbirth talks birth, babies and the gift of life.

What is Calmbirth?  

It’s a program that provides expecting couples with the knowledge and tools to move past any fears or anxieties to birth their babies confidently and positively. When you understand the physiology of childbirth you realise just how important it is for the birthing woman to remain calm and trust in her body. When she does, birth becomes much more manageable and positive.

How long have you been delivering babies and how many?

I’ve been a midwife for nearly 10 years and it would be more than 400 babies I’ve assisted into the world.

Did you grow up in the Highlands?

I finished high school here, then my husband and I lived in various places in Australia and Papua New Guinea. We came home six years ago to be close to our parents.

Your dad Peter was the founder of Calmbirth. What was his idea? Dad trained as a midwife in 1974, when birth was still considered a mechanical process. He went on to work in mental health and returned to midwifery in 1989 with a new understanding that giving birth is as much an emotional journey as a physical one for women, and the system was not supporting them emotionally. He saw birth was feared, and that women and their partners were walking away traumatised instead of empowered. In 2004 he set out to change that.

As a mother and a midwife, what have your birthing experiences been like? I became a midwife after having had my own children. All my birth experiences were empowering in their own way. Do I wish I’d known what I do now? Absolutely! Which is why I am so passionate about educating couples to prepare for birth.

Are we too pampered? Hasn’t the female body been giving birth for thousands of years?

Yes, although in a lot of countries pregnancy and motherhood are celebrated and cherished, something our culture doesn’t seem to do very well. I think our culture tends to like to stay in our comfort zone, rather than what I call our courage zone. Childbirth is all about moving into our courage zone; it is challenging and at times uncomfortable and intense. When a woman has the tools, knowledge and belief to move into her courage zone, with an educated partner and support team holding space for her, she is able to discover a strength that lays a good foundation for her to transition into motherhood.

Do you think there is still a code of silence and lack of information about childbirth, given many women report they are truly shocked by their first experience?

Absolutely. Our culture doesn’t value the importance of preparing for birth and parenting, so many couples don’t put the necessary preparation in. One of my favourite authors and midwives, Ina May Gaskin, says, ‘Humans are the only mammal with the intelligence to convince ourselves that we can’t give birth.’ We also have the intelligence to empower ourselves to trust in birth.

What do you hope you equip couples with when they attend your  workshops?

To embrace this time and to have confidence knowing they have the tools and knowledge to rise to the challenges of labour, birth and beyond.

Is it true to say Australia is increasingly becoming a nation where women choose a caesarean over a natural birth? Are we too posh or too entitled to push?

I don’t believe that we are too posh too push, but rather decisions around this are based on fear, ill informed decision making and misinformation. I do feel that the majority of women would still prefer a vaginal birth.

Many partners say they felt like a spare wheel during childbirth. What does Calmbirth encourage partners to do while their child is being born?

The role that partners can play in labour and birth is huge! Women need to feel calm and safe for birth to unfold as it should, and who better to hold that space for her than her partner? But without the proper education and toolbox, partners can feel out of their depth and even traumatised by the experience. When a partner has the confidence to support the mother in birth, not only does she manage labour and birth better but the bonds between the parents and their newborn are enhanced.

And finally, does seeing a baby born feel like the ultimate gift?

It is amazing! I learn something new from every mother and every birth.

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