Pregnancy & Birth: Tend & Befriend vs Fight or Flight

This past weekend I was the holistic birth Doula for my daughter’s birthing of her daughter, Aria Rue. As with most births, it was miraculous and wondrous. She had her baby naturally in a hospital setting. No drugs, no medical intervention. They thought she was crazy not to take the drugs. She was all the buzz on the 3rd floor of labor & delivery for the next 2 days.

At home, on Sunday, in the wee morning hours, my daughter had been bouncing on the exercise ball, getting low back massages, and warm showers as her contractions became closer and closer together and stronger and stronger. Her husband has been helping her to visualize peaceful places and soothing thoughts, eye-to-eye, cheek-to-cheek, creating a parasympathetic, hypnotic rhythm and state. She drank fluid. She ate small snacks and rested in between contractions. She timed her contractions on the app on her cell phone. She called me. I gave her one of many homeopathic birth remedies specific to her, to calm her and help her to have an easy birth. I let nature take its course and directed her to move and let gravity help her to move the baby down and out. Contractions are her friend. They help squeeze the pituitary, the Mother gland of the body, in the brain, to download more oxytocin hormone to open up her body and help her baby to move into the world. Movement, gravity and keeping relaxed are the key. When the contractions became more prolonged and 3 minutes apart we decided to depart for the hospital that was 30 minutes away. We wanted to make sure that the baby was not in distress with contractions so close together.

Medical institutions make it near impossible to maintain the same calm parasympathetic state as home. With monitors, beeping lights and cords, measuring everything from temperature to dilation every ½ hour it is like watching a pot boil and every bubble gets measured.

When she walked onto the maternity ward to be admitted, the nurses were sure she would be sent home with contractions of false labor, as many first time mothers are. But when my daughter arrived she was 4cm dilated and 100% effaced with contractions happening every 3 minutes documented on her phone’s pregnancy contraction app. They could not believe that she was not complaining of pain and doubled over in distress. A nurse Zola, who had worked in labor and delivery for over 24 years was impressed with my daughters calm. She started the intake plugging data into the hospital computer. During the intake, when my daughter tried to share her written birth plan, Zola condescendingly looked my daughter in the eye, and stuffed her birth plan into a file without a glance and typed away on a computer, asking her all the questions that had been answered on her birth plan. My daughter said, “ We plan to have my baby girl naturally and without medical intervention. “ The heavy silence of the unsaid filled the room, but I could hear the message loud and clear, “Honey, all you new age Westside Moms read the books and look on ‘You Tube’ wanting to have that perfect natural birth. But you will be the first to beg for pain relief once those contractions start coming fast and furious. Birth Plans are nice on paper, but not worth the paper they are typed on in real life. You are young. You don’t have the guts, stamina or courage. You’ll learn. You’ll see. Labor is intense.”

Even then an IV was inserted into my daughter’s arm, “just in case” she needed drug intervention. Little by little, the calming opening parasympathetic state she came in with started to degrade. They reluctantly inserted the IV into her arm versus her hand because my daughter wanted to hold her newborn without pain or interference. They complied with an eye roll. I gave my daughter a homeopathic remedy that opens up the orifices and readies a woman for birth. I then inserted the acupuncture needles into my daughter that support opening and a painless labor. I had to wait until the nurse went out of the room to get the consent forms that relieve the hospital of liability for our holistic interventional choices.

I wonder why pregnancy and now fertility is considered a ‘burden’ for women instead of a wonder, blessing or miracle? So often attention is paid to fear, anxiety, pain or discomfort which can cause a woman to interpret pregnancy and labor in a distressful, medical emergency pessimistic or negative way. Getting fat or impeding a woman from drinking, traveling or doing what one wants is given center stage. Protecting the unborn has become nuisance and impediment to many pregnant women. This is not only true during pregnancy but labor as well.

The ideal seems to be zero tolerance for a mother-to-be’s discomfort, transitory symptoms of body changes and accommodations for her growing baby inside her. The ideal is to be able to carry on with life as if there are no tradeoffs, compensations and compromises made to house another human being inside one’s body. Stress and anxiety follow suit when the ideal of a pregnant body being the same as non-pregnant body. High levels of stress-induced catecholamines prevent the pregnant woman from entering into an instinctual mental state often called ‘the zone’. This ‘zone’ can occur from conception to post birth if a woman can alter the often negative perception of  pregnancy and birth. The contrast of societal ideals and the reality of pregnancy accommodations crash together and create a domino effect of symptoms and medical interventions when fear and anxiety and unrealistic ideals drive the pregnancy. The sympathetic fight, flight or flee become the options for a pregnant woman that is fight or flight and stress based.

Although the fight or flight response is similar in men and women physically, there are behavioral differences in pregnancy and labor. Fight or flight is the primary response to stress, behaviorally in males. They want to fight to protect self, family, village or country against dangerous attackers, or flee from danger if the odds are too great.

But females have a different behavioral response to stress that is characterized by ‘tend and befriend’. It refers to protecting their young from harm and reaching out or getting help by affiliating with others to reduce the risks to themselves and their offspring. Women want and need supportive people around them during pregnancy and labor. In fact, the absence of this kind of support is one of the most frequently mentioned reasons for later dissatisfaction with pregnancy and childbirth. A woman’s protectiveness toward her child is evident when she is told that her baby is in danger. She will agree to whatever treatment is suggested, even if it does not fit with her prior preferences for her birth. On the other hand, if she does not trust her caregiver, she may try to protect her child by resisting suggested treatments, even if life saving. It is important to suggest and enhance a woman’s feelings of security and trust and reduce the likelihood of emotional stress. It is imperative in pregnancy, but especially at labor and delivery to surround the birthing mother with people she trusts that will tend and befriend her by giving her positive, hopeful, encouraging and problem solving suggestions and support. This must come from loved ones as well as medical personnel. When the jaded nurses surrounded my daughter in pregnancy, I watched the easy progression of birth she came into the hospital with begin to slow, and the fear and anxiety began to rise. Her blood pressure rose, her pupils dilated and rate of breath increased. These are signs of a sympathetic response of fight or flight.

Many other mammals, especially matriarchal societies of animals, like elephants and dolphins use the ‘tend and befriend’ method of keeping new lives safe and protected. How often do we women do it for others? How has this skill been translated into modern times? Do we tend and befriend our girlfriends? Do we tend and befriend that female side of ourselves as we enter a new phase and close the previous one? Tending and befriending is a time when, as a supporter, you put your own needs last and those of the mother-to-be, the birther, and her newborn first. You listen. You watch her responses and protect her environment for her. You help her to solve problems, stay calm and open, never victimized and in danger. It is easier for you to see for her in the highly focused moment. At the moment of birth we all become midwifes, bearing the gifts of help, healing, acceptance, merging with her and her baby’s pace, intensity, and give her permission to do it her way. It is an act of love for both Mother and baby. It is an act of certainty that our species has reproduced and will continue in the name of love. What a way to enter the world! It is an energetic bouquet of love and focus. As an unexpected surprise for the tending and befriending midwives that are present, the joy flows right over those who are present. We all feel the power of the overflow of the oxytocin bond that happens physically, emotionally and spiritually between Mother, Father and Baby. It is the glory and power of tending and befriending. Everyone wins!

We all would be wise to use tending and befriending on an everyday basis with ourselves and those we love who are going through a life transition, crisis, adversity or disease, just like birth. We can help our precious ones by midwifing their obstruction and stagnation by letting it pass, birthing it, using the tend and befriend method.


  • Talk softly
  • Listen
  • Repeat back what you thought you heard. She must feel understood
  • Slow down to her pace, intensity & breathing rate
  • Encourage positively
  • Accept her way
  • Share appreciation and gratitude
  • Protect the space and surrounding environment for her
  • Advocate on her behalf making her feel safety & trust
  • Be kind and generous
  • Help her to open up and receive your welcoming gift of love

One Comment on “Pregnancy & Birth: Tend & Befriend vs Fight or Flight

  1. What a beautifully written piece! You brought me right into that delivery room to share such a wonderful, exciting moment of welcoming this new life into the world. Through your words I felt the calm, trust, and love…..I can only imagine how strong those feelings were felt at that moment to help your daughter deliver and the family connect. How fortunate for her, dad and your new granddaughter to have you. Thank you so much for sharing such a personal moment and teaching us all of the “tend and befriend” method that shall forever be a part of my everyday life. Congratulations to you and your family!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.