If you’re as old as me, you probably recognize this as the movie “Nine Months.” As much as I enjoyed this movie when it came out, I really didn’t know at the time how detrimental movies and images like this can be in a society where birth is increasingly privatized, not talked about, or just said to be an experience that hurts really badly and the pain should be avoided at all costs (or else, you might end up looking like this!) Birth, in our culture, is thought of as a “means to an end.” We are told over and over that it’s just something to endure and if we are lucky, we can get out pretty unscathed with an epidural and a healthy new baby. We are fed this lie through the movies and TV shows that we watch that depict labor and birth as a horrible, out of control experience that no woman in her right mind should want to do “the old fashioned way.” We are also told birth horror story after horror story from friends, family, the internet, our doctors, and even strangers. Some of us may even have our own horror stories to add to those. And if we haven’t been convinced that it doesn’t have to be that way, we’ll go into our next labor with the same feelings.
But I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way!!! Birth is NOT just a means to an end. Yes, we want a healthy baby. Of course we do. But anyone who tries to tell you that that’s the only thing that matters is fooling themselves and whomever they are telling. Most women remember their birth experiences for decades afterward. I’m pretty sure most never forget. When I was in doula training there was a lady in my class who was in her late 60′s. She had only had one child. When we were talking about birth experiences, she got up and left. When she came back, she shared with us. She sobbed as she relayed her feelings during labor and birth–that she was belittled and objectified. She grieved, for probably the first time, the fact that she was made to feel that SHE didn’t matter in the process. She just went along and did what the doctor told her to do: lie down, get strapped to the table, be a good girl and not cause too much trouble for the nurses. Then she remembered the cold, sterile, unfriendly delivery room where she worked against gravity with her feet in stir-ups feeling completely invisible (except for her vagina, of course) being ignored by everyone–except if she got too loud. Then her baby was whisked away not to be seen again until the next day. Sadly, this birth story is not uncommon of women in their 60′s and 70′s today.
I tell that story to let you know (if you need convincing) that your birth story does matter and will stick with you forever. And there really is a way to be able to have the experience you want even if you’ve tried before and been made to feel a failure. You’re NOT a failure–no matter what happened. But just know that if you’re looking for something better, it can be achieved, and there are people out there who want to help you get exactly the birth that YOU deserve.
The first step to a better birth (or even the best birth) is to get rid of the fear. Like I said before, this comes from many places–media, stories, our own thoughts. This generation of moms doesn’t have the wonderful heritage of naturally birthing mothers that so many for thousands of generations had. Personally, my own mother had two births without pain relief (although she was induced with me) and was probably treated much more respectfully than most seeing as how her brother was her doctor! I’ve often wondered if my own positive feelings about birth stemmed from this. I knew that my grandmother had four homebirths before they forced her to have her fifth at the hospital. She went, but not happily, determined to get out of there as soon as possible. And she made some waves doing it. Maybe I got some of her in me! But in a time when most of my peers don’t have mothers or grandmothers with great birth stories, most people don’t have anywhere to turn to hear anything positive about the experience of birth. Instead, they hear things like, “You don’t get any medals for having a natural birth.” I’ve heard my share of that one from friends, strangers and plenty of doctors! And they are right. You don’t get any medals.
So the fear creeps in….
Maybe they’re all right. Maybe I can’t do it. Maybe it’s just too hard. Maybe my pelvis is too small for this baby. Maybe I’ll pass out from the pain. Maybe I’ll be too tired out to push right. Maybe my body won’t dilate again. Maybe my body just doesn’t know how to go into labor on it’s own. Maybe….maybe….maybe….
I’ve heard it’s painful. I’ve heard it’s hard. I’ve heard I’m not going to be able to stand it. Last time when I got to 7 cm I just stalled for hours until the doctor told me it was time for a c section. What if the same thing happens?
The scary scenarios are endless. We’ve all heard them or thought them. And I’ve seen this play out in some of my own doula clients. (This is not a particular client but stories put together.)
I get a call from a dad that a mom is in early labor. She just started, but she already can hardly handle the pain. Now, I’m not making judgement calls. Every woman has their own pain threshold and their own experience with pain in birth. But usually labor starts relatively slowly, painlessly, even….building and building. But this woman is in dire pain. I go to their house. This lasts through the night and by the next morning I suggest that we go to the birth center because it seems that things are progressing. We find out she is 3 cm. She is devastated. Her confidence is down. Her endurance is down. How could this be? It’s been so painful. And she’s exhausted already. She ends up staying at the birth center because she’s already unpacked all of her stuff. She gets in the bathtub a little while later and writhes in pain. She stays in for quite awhile. After feeling like she needs to push, she gets out and gets checked again only to find she is only 6 cm. This is over 24 hours after they first called. She gives up, goes to the hospital and gets an epidural. This relaxes her enough to send her straight to 10 cm in the next 2 hours. Looks great!! She starts to push but can’t figure out exactly how to push. She can’t feel anything so after 2 hours, the baby’s heart rate doesn’t look good. C-section.
As I left these births I started thinking, “What went wrong?” The answer was a resounding….FEAR! These women believed the stories that birth HAD to be painful and that pain was bad. She was fighting the pain. She was tense. She couldn’t relax. She couldn’t allow herself to open up. From the first tightening contraction she assumed she should be in writhing pain. She had heard this from society, from friends, from her family, from everywhere. She wanted a different kind of birth–that’s why she was at a birth center with a midwife, but she couldn’t get past the cultural idea that birth is painful and it’s something to fear.
I’ve also seen this play out differently. I’ve seen moms who may have been a bit fearful and not making much progress just noticeably relax when I walked in the room. Their doula was there. In their minds, they could have this baby now–and they did. I’ve had midwives tell me that they couldn’t believe how much more relaxed a mom got just from me being there. I’m not tooting my own horn. I’m saying this about doulas everywhere! There’s a connection, and if a mom thinks that she can relax with her doula–she will!
Ina May Gaskin, in all of her books, talks about “Sphincter Law.” The cervix isn’t exactly a sphincter, as she explains. But it works similar to one. Sphincters are shy. They don’t work well when there are people around who shouldn’t be or who make you feel fearful or nervous. That’s why we have bathroom doors–so we don’t have to poop in front of strangers! (or even in front of family members) The cervix is the same. When someone is in the room who is making the mom feel uncomfortable or nervous, the cervix doesn’t work well. It may stop opening, or it even may shrink. In Ina May’s book, “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth” she tells all sorts of birth stories using this example. And what’s fascinating is looking at the birth stories from journals of doctors in the 18th and 19th centuries–when rich women had started having actual doctors come to their births because it was more civilized than using a midwife. Before the invention of pitocin, when doctors just had to actually wait on a woman to go into labor and stay that way, there were several stories of women who were progressing just fine–6, 7, even 8 cm along and then the doctor walked into the room and everything stopped. You see, he presented some sort of threat to her. Now, I’m sure they were nice enough men, and I’m sure these women didn’t consciously know that this was what happened (or maybe some did, who knows?) But subconsciously, he presented some sort of danger. He wasn’t welcome, but she couldn’t make him leave. In most of these instances, labor resumed in a few hours. But I remember one story where she was at 7 cm and she went back to 4cm and didn’t start contractions again for TWO WEEKS! Incredible.
It makes plenty of sense really when you think about the animal world. If an animal feels that she is in danger, she will not have her babies. She will only deliver when she knows she is safe. That’s one of those primal traits of all mammals that we do share.
Only now, modern science has given us pitocin. So we don’t have to worry about our pesky little instincts anymore. We don’t give women the chance to resume labor on her own anymore. There are actually plenty of things we can do with a “stalled” labor to increase natural oxytocin, but in a doctor’s mind, there’s usually only one answer–hook up the synthetic pitocin, and let it do its job.
I’m really not trying to make doctors out to be the bad guys here even if it seems I might be. I’m just saying that most of them haven’t taken the time to study old journals, look back at documents to a time before modern medicine saved the day (and everyone’s schedule.) And that’s probably because they don’t have the time. I know that!! I just think that sometimes the scariest person in the room is the one who thinks he needs to be there most. And moms need to realize that before they go into labor. Deal with your fears and anxieties. Think about what worries you most about labor and birth. Think carefully about who you want with you and how much privacy you want. Think about how much education you need about exactly what you body will be doing. That is HUGE! Knowing what’s going on with your body and what is normal can be the best way to relax your fears. Make sure you take a good, informative childbirth class. And remember that having someone with you who can assure you of what is normal can go a long way.