A few days after having my second child I brought him to the small group Bible study I’d been attending for many weeks. While my eldest played downstairs in the (excellent!) childcare setup the group had provided, my group of ladyfriends – about six in all – passed around my new baby and congratulated me and were very sweet to me. I’m not a big baby-lovin’ mama, but new babies are pretty interesting – just another amazing facet in life’s mysteries. Fathers and (especially) mothers of little kids were pretty damned awesome to be around when I had a new kid; usually they really got it, they were there for me in an elemental and so wonderful way.
The women in my group asked me about my birth experience, preparing to sympathize or laugh or pity or shake their heads or hear something harrowing. I can’t remember what exactly I said but I know that in those first few (days/weeks/months/years) whenever I opened my mouth about Nels’ birth it felt less like a coherent account than like flowers, blooms falling from my lips. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it had been: powerful, amazing, very quick (I was in hard labor with Nels from 10 PM to 1 AM – Sophie’s birth at the hospital two years prior had taken 18 very rough hours), unmessy, entirely dignified (it felt to me), no bother, non-disruptive (our oldest slept through the whole thing), pretty mellow all in all. And no one saw my vagina while I pushed out a baby, which is actually pretty cool for me. On Nels’ birth night an hour after having him he was nursing and the house was clean and calm and there was home-cooked food and juice and champagne (oh my gosh… I swear I would re-pregnate this instant just to have my nursing baby appetite back! Food and drink never tasted so good!). There was so much to my birth that had astounded me, and I know now part of my incredulity had been the many, many years growing up in a culture where birth is, take your pick: scary, silly, high-tech, messy, ridiculous, dangerous, in need of instruments and experts or it wouldn’t happen, mysterious because it was gross so it was draped in shitty hospital gowns and pricked with needles and catheters and instruments and took place in sterile rooms where in your shame you suffered but if you had a (more or less) healthy baby at the end of all that then everything else didn’t matter and you should feel grateful!
So if I ever wax on about my second birth, it’s not just that it was a good one: it’s that it was the exact opposite of everything I’d been brought up to expect and, to some extent, experienced in my first birth experience.
So I don’t remember what I said in this Bible study, but I remember words flowing and just so much gladness and joy and I couldn’t suppress it. And after I spoke there was a silence. The women were clearly pleased and happy for me, but they were just damned confused. “I’ve never heard of a birth like that before,” one of them finally murmured, and the rest agreed. My honesty and happiness and giddiness (and post-birth hormones!) shone through and I was evidence that it was real, yet they didn’t know how to frame what I’d just purported.
In the above video I particularly appreciated the following:
1. The description Dr. Declercq (from the Boston University School of Public Health) gave of the “cascade of interventions” (04:08 in the film) is apt and so relevant to many women I know. In my first birth I went to the hospital believing I’d have a natural birth, but I was unaware of just how unlikely this would be; unaware of how much self-advocacy I’d have had to employ – while birthing for the first time! – in order to avoid a huge amount of interventions. Birth professionals told me, “You’re taking a long time, take this medicine, it will help with the contractions”. One thing the drugs helped with was creating more agony: Pitocin-induced contractions are painful and intense but not necessarily effective. Let me tell you, I was begging (or broadly hinting, rather) for an epidural after having that drug (fortunately, I managed to avoid one). Compared to the Pitocin contractions with my first birth, my second birth work was so much easier I remember telling my midwives they were lying when they told me I was almost done. In my first birth I labored a long time and avoided a C-section, for which I’m grateful – knowing what I know now. I’m less grateful I was advised to have drugs, and I’m sad I was raised to believe doctors know best and thus had more or less put the whole business in their hands without being willing to do the work of making my own decisions.
2. Judy Norsigian, the Executive Director of Our Bodies Ourselves (06:42 in the film) delineates the fact that the vast majority of those who choose homebirth aren’t fringe or “hedonistic” or wanting a “spa-like experience” – they have carefully reviewed safety concerns. Oh my goodness. Every time I read or hear this sort of thing, that homebirthers are silly hippies – and lots of people profess this stuff – it makes me crazy. Ralph and I (mostly me) read up like you wouldn’t believe when pregnant with Nels, and homebirth seemed the safest and most appropriate choice (interestingly, many people think of hospital as “normal” and anything else being a weird choice departing from normal; but of course, once you and/or your partner is pregnant, you do make a choice, wherever you end up). The reality is as an American woman in good health, all my choices were pretty safe. But homebirth was the safest choice (and seemed easiest on me and the baby) of all – based on facts available to us. We didn’t choose this route because all I cared about was a frou-frou or spa-like or mystical fly-up-the-arse experience and that makes me Crazy Angry to think anyone who knows me (or doesn’t) would assume those kind of superficial concerns would comprise my primary motives for one of the most important events in my life.
While we’re at this “spa experience” bullshit, let me point out it isn’t homebirthers or “natural” birth proponents who barf out the “spa” birth crap. Pick up any mainstream parenting magazine (homebirth isn’t mainstream – last I checked it represented 0.6% of births in this country) and you see all sorts of, “buy this candle or this aromatherapy pillow or this birth mix CD or this-or-that to make your experience all fluffy and frilly”. The “special snowflake spa birth” mystique is a product of marketing much, much more than single-minded pursuits of individual women.
3. I remember being surprised at how inexpensive my homebirth was – the statistics on Massachusetts indicate a home or birth center birth is 7 times less expensive than the C-sections (which were 34% of the state’s births in 2007!). Even should a couple avoid a C-section, the way we’re doing birth in this country is expensive. When it comes to the healthcare debate and individual choices, many in our culture like to pick on some people (fat people! poor people! smokers!) for costing us in health dollars spent but wouldn’t dream of spouting their ire on you know – most people who breed – for participating in normalized (and as it turns out, overly expensive) birth practices.
Our country has the birth-crazies. That is, our culture currently reports birth as dangerous – a medical event (in reality, no offense, birth is like taking a shit. Normally things go pretty well and it is rare – but not unheard of – to need help). Many people believe doctors are needed to make the decisions and any C-section by virtue of being performed proves it saved the mother and/or baby from something horrid. Forceps and EFM and inductions and epidurals and IVs and ticking clocks and repeated vaginal checks are necessary and God (or whoever) designed women totally different than other mammals – our pelvises are too small, our blood isn’t right, blah blah.
Yet with our experts and technology our country still has poor neonatal outcomes amongst industrialized nations (infant mortality rate ranks in the twenties), and even if you don’t stop and think Wow, why is birth outcome so dismal in our country? it isn’t all about if a baby lives or not: women are hurt and made to feel defective and wrong, men absent themselves from the discussion – I heard two pretty nice guys, husbands of my girlfriends, in private conversation basically saying, “I don’t know why she cares so much about this stuff, all I care about is that she and the baby are safe” – as if passive do-nothing-hope-for-the-best wasn’t the exact crucial factor keeping our status quo in effect. Women make the best choices they can in the circumstances (I truly believe this to be the case most of the time) then feel defensive about their choices if they are in any way referenced or called into question. Women who were smart and did their homework and did what was right for them and were fortunate to have good outcomes (like me) pick on the women who had more birth intervention, often villifying those women (not like me) and again – give male partners a total out on the conversation. There is an emotionalism in the subject (discussed briefly by an MD at 03:38 in the above film) that prohibits honest, logical discussion – that is, to admit our C-section rate (in the low thirties) is way, way too high can’t be discussed without individual women feeling angry, hurt, defensive, and often attacking other women’s choices (again, giving the male of the species a total out).
And maybe the thing I’m most disappointed about: men are failing us when it comes to birth. Most men don’t talk about birth (or rape, or women’s health, or cultural and institutional sexism), leaving the status quo to go on – leaving women to suffer. Sure, everyone suffers when we have poor birth culture and poor practices; but women suffer more. Our current state of things leaves women feeling grateful to just have a baby and glad they are more or less unscathed (although many women are more scathed than you might think and sadly those who aren’t happy with their birth experiences are often ignored, ridiculed, or worse).
So yeah, I don’t talk about birth too often. I post my homebirth story every year at Nels’ birth (and if I’d thought to write down Sophie’s hospital birth story I would post hers – I’m sad I did not document it. Funny how I had so much less energy after being put through the drug-wringer); and I write about it now and then, and I’m passionate. Because it really does matter – but only if you think women, families, human beings matter. If you don’t, no worries.