The Watched Pot Syndrome

Waiting.... by Jeff Golden PhotoI recently got over a bad cold. It was miserable. I had headaches, dry irritated eyes, and trouble breathing, and lots of other not-so-fun symptoms. But what really started annoying me was my daughter. She was very sweet, watching over me constantly, rubbing my back, giving me kisses, bringing me drinks, etc. But I just wanted to be left alone. The attention was just too much!

Everything she did was Well intentioned, done with love, appreciated, but really just needed some time alone. I couldn’t sleep when she was feeling my forehead for fever. I couldn’t rest when she was smothering me with kisses. I needed quiet and rest to heal!

There is a similar thing that can happen in labor, particularly early in labor. I’ve started calling it the “watched pot syndrome” and it has many variations. I’ll open with some stories:

1. A friend of mine, and fellow doula, flew out to another state to be there for the birth of her grandchild. She was staying in the parent’s home, and after several days of start and stop labor she reached out to me for ideas. I told her to “stop watching the pot” and leave the parents alone for a while. Go see a movie alone, go to the zoo, do some shopping, whatever she wanted as long as she was away from the parents. She took my advice and her grandson was born that afternoon!

2. The parents had planned a natural birth, hired a doula, and also invited every single relative who lived in the area. She had sixteen people in attendance at her hospital birth – on top of her husband and doula! There was a large circle of folding chairs around the labor bed, and mom felt awkward about getting out of bed and moving because of it. It was made worse when the audience started a pool. Everyone put in $5 to guess the time of birth. As the times came and went, the spectators started making comments encouraging mom to “speed it up!” or blaming her for their loss. All the guessed times passed with no baby. So they started a second round and the process repeated, with all the times passing and no baby. Eventually the nurse kicked out the majority of the family, and labor picked up again shortly afterward.

3. I was attending a peaceful home birth with a midwife and another doula. It soon became apparent that labor was tapering off. At the midwife’s suggestion, all three of us stepped away and spent a good hour chatting on the front steps of the house, giving mom some time alone with the baby’s father. Eventually, he summoned us to come back and we found mom laboring nicely again.

Sometimes it isn’t the mere presence of a person, but instead their behavior!

Contraction Timer Screenshot4. One dad had written a program on his computer to time contractions and display the results in many different ways. When I arrived, he was following mom around the house with his laptop, recording every single contraction. After each contraction, he wanted to show her the various kinds of charts and graphs his program created. Mom was seriously annoyed, and things were spacing out again. This story happened before the advent of smart phones with apps for timing contractions, but it is a familiar story I’ve seen play out much more often now that smart phones are everywhere.

5. One mom was planning a home birth, and her mother had come to town to care for the older children after the birth. However, grandma was not comfortable with the idea of a home birth, and spent lots of time and energy trying to talk the pregnant mom out of it. This mom went quite a bit overdue, and only delivered after her mother had needed to return to her own home.

Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that some doulas take the “continuous” in “continuous support” a little too much and make a similar mistake with their doula clients. The minute labor begins, they rush to the mom. And wait for things to move faster. But they don’t! It’s important to realize that the very presence of the doula can be an intervention, very much like the well-documented phenomena of labor stopping when mom moves to the hospital.

To avoid the watched pot syndrome, I recommend that parents keep the number of people at the birth to a minimum. Every person at your birth should have a specific job to do, beyond just being a spectator. Don’t bring in the troops until labor is well established, and don’t be afraid to send support people out for a bit if you need some space.

For birth professionals, help parents understand the value of privacy in labor and help them carefully evaluate who they will invite to their birth. During the labor process, keep in mind the possibility that doing nothing or backing off may be the best way to support the mom. If you do back away, stay close and available, but respect mom’s need for time alone.

Top Image by Jeff Golden Photography, licensed under Creative Commons.

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