The idea for this post came during my sister-in-law’s baby shower, when some of the women in my life shared their experience with birth. While I am not an expecting mamma, I found the stories and the information fascinating. Afterwards, I asked my mother-in-law if she could write down her story and some of her advice to future mothers.
Grace has been an RN for over 30 years, has given birth to four babies at home, and has attended about 30 other births, some as midwife, some as doula, and some as friend, in both the home and hospital setting.
I started my journey of motherhood in 1976, when I was expecting my first baby. I was 21, and had no idea about the mysteries of birth. Birth was a well-hidden and taboo subject in my home of origin, so I pretty much assumed it must just be too awful to discuss. Popular media, such as movies and television, reinforced this message, usually with the death of the mother, the baby, or both. Certainly, no American woman of my mother’s generation was willing to talk about it. I thought this was because it was way too mysterious; it would take me months of investigation to finally realize that many, if not most, of the women of my mother’s generation had never really experienced birth, nor had they ever held a newborn. For them, breastfeeding was associated with general ignorance and low socioeconomic status and was heartily discouraged. Better living through chemistry, along with an aggressively patriarchal medical culture, had hijacked the birth experience and left my mother’s generation with a vacuum in this area. They did not own their own bodies, and many of them did not even remember the birth of their children, thanks to the use of twilight sleep, a type of anesthesia popular with the overwhelmingly male medical community in the 50s and 60s, to spare women the “horrors of childbirth”. Overall, this generation of American women did not give birth; they were, instead, “delivered”. They were not, on the whole, a robust resource for me.
During the early months of my pregnancy, I inadvertently picked up a copy of the classic book Immaculate Deception by Suzanne Arms. Two books have irrevocably altered the course of my life; this was one of them. (The other, if you are interested, was A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren.) After devouring this book, I knew that I wanted something different from what my mother’s generation had experienced, and something different than what the women of my own generation appeared to be embracing. I wanted to give birth on my own terms, bringing a well-educated and informed mind along with a well-nourished and prepared body to the labor experience, so that neither my baby nor I would have any regrets. I wanted to give birth on purpose, as a prelude to mothering on purpose. I did not need “experts” to do this; I was a pregnant woman who could read—I would become the expert. Never in my life had I uttered the words, ”I don’t know…I just do what other people tell me” about anything, and I wasn’t going to start doing so with something as important as the birth of my firstborn.
In 1976, there was no internet, and I had no support system beyond my husband. Everyone, even dear friends and family, thought I was nuts. I found Ina Mae and the Farm midwives in Tennessee through a 1st edition copy of the book “Spiritual Midwifery” and learned that I was not completely alone in desiring to give birth without medical intervention of any kind, but I also learned that no one I knew believed this was possible; certainly not the doctor whom I was seeing for prenatal care. My first pregnancy took me on a journey from Maine to the Azores (primitive Portuguese islands located far off the Iberian Peninsula), a six hour plane ride over the Atlantic back to New Jersey on a US Air Force cargo plane two weeks prior to my due date (at the vocal insistence of a U.S. Air Force physician with whom I did not see eye-to-eye, and who was very offended that I had contracted with a Portuguese midwife to attend my birth), to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where my little one was finally born in my in-laws home with the help of an 80 year old retired physician who was one of the most laid back and cool women I have ever met.
My other babies would follow, attended by a variety of hippies, certified nurse midwives and lay midwives. Together, we dealt calmly and successfully with cords around the neck, posterior presentation and 9 to 10 pound babies. Each birth was glorious, challenging and memorable, and each baby was blessed with radiant good health and a lusty set of lungs.
I really do believe that trusting the birth process can be self-fulfilling prophecy. There was never a shortage of people (primarily other women) who were anxious to tell me that what I was doing (not once, not twice, not three times, but four times!) was not reasonable, responsible or even possible. I even had a pediatrician tell me that I had abused my babies by birthing them outside of a hospital! But I had learned the facts and had considered them carefully. Both history and nature validated my decisions. For me, home birth, free from medical intervention of any kind, was the most reasonable and safest course of action, the course which would provide my child with the best start in life. So this was my personal birth journey. By being true to my own choices, I believe I helped to pioneer some changes in the medical and birthing industry (yes, it is an industry), and I find that satisfying. But I also learned that each woman must make choices that are right for her and her baby, and I learned to respect those choices, even when they are very different from my own. Here is a brief summary of what I have learned about birth in general and about home birth specifically. I hope these words bring peace of mind and encouragement.
First and foremost, your body is strong, beautiful, elegant and determined. Listen to your body and cooperate with it.
You are strong of heart, and much more courageous than you think. You will be amazed at what you can do.
Get prepared and understand what your body will be asking of you.
Center yourself and set your intention. Focus on giving birth rather than being delivered.
Get great prenatal care from someone whom you trust; someone who is knowledgeable and who believes in the ability of a woman’s body to deliver a baby with minimal interference.
Seek out people with joyous birth stories. Have positive, kind, generous people at your birth—people who know how to use their energy to be a force for good. Embrace and enjoy conversations that include statements such as:
- I felt the strongest I have ever felt
- It was the most creative thing I have ever done
- I never knew how strong and resourceful my body was until I gave birth
- I was surrounded by people who love me
- I never felt out of control or afraid; my choices were respected
- The contractions were challenging, but manageable
- It was primal, and I learned what I am capable of
Avoid negative birth stories, and do not have negative people at your birth. Graciously and respectfully walk away from conversations about birth that center on the following types of comments:
- I almost died
- My baby almost died
- I actually did die, but they brought me back to life
- They had to induce me; it was horrible
- My water didn’t break so they had to break it
- The pain was unbearable
- They made me do this, that, or whatever… (Who is “they” anyway….wouldn’t that be the people the mother put in charge of her birthing experience? Choose wisely, in accordance with your own values)
I frequently hear women talk about “natural childbirth”. (Is there such a thing as un-natural childbirth?) People say someone “went natural.” I am not sure what this means. I assume most people mean “drug-free” when they say “natural.” For me, the definition of natural extends way beyond drug-free. Decide what is natural for you, and ignore everyone else’s definition.
Don’t let anyone place expectations on you regarding your birth experience. Own it, take responsibility for it, and make your own decisions. It is no one else’s body, and no one else can ultimately be held responsible for your experience or your baby’s.
Believe in Your Body
Birth is not a medical process any more that eating or elimination. It is the most primal act of living.
Remember that 99.9% of the “but what if something goes wrong?” possibilities have been eliminated by the time you start labor. People assume that nothing can go wrong in the hospital, or that “complications“ can be handled more effectively in a medical setting. In the United States, 1 out of every 3 babies born in a hospital is born by Cesarean section (according to the CDC). No more needs to be said.
If anything is not proceeding normally, you will have time to get appropriate medical attention. If you choose well and plan thoughtfully, you will be surrounded by wise and experienced women who will accurately read your situation and advocate for your well-being and that of your baby.
Your body was amazingly designed by your creator to shelter and grow a baby, and to bring that baby into the world with minimal fuss.
You may be amazed by what is happening to you, but your incredible body pretty much takes it for granted.
If you have nourished your body with real food from clean sources, your baby will be gorgeous and you will very likely give birth as your body was designed to do.
Maintain a Grateful Spirit
Giving birth is a privilege; maintain a grateful spirit throughout your birth remembering that each contraction is a signal that your body knows what to do and is serving you faithfully. Each contraction brings you closer to having your child in your arms.
Cooperate With Your Body
The tremendous surge of energy that characterizes each contraction needs to be focused on allowing your body to open down and out—the natural trajectory of your baby.
Remember not to pull that energy back into your body by drawing it up into your shoulders, neck and face. Help all that energy to travel down and out so your baby can ride it out of your body and into your arms.
Let each contraction have its way with you…yield to it; don’t fight with it.
Labor is not about “getting through it.” It is about preparing for and managing only the next contraction. You will be able to rest and relax between each contraction so you can prepare to manage the next one.
It is likely you will only do this a few times in your life. Be present in the moment and fully engage in the experience.
Change Your Mind About Pain
Because of our amazing brains, we get to make some decisions about what we interpret as pain. Pain that is destructive to our bodies is almost universally interpreted as unbearable. However, the deep, strong sensations of child birth are the opposite of destructive. The powerful muscles that have held your baby snuggly in place for nine months are now preparing to use their strength to push your child out into the world you have created for him. That’s the opposite of destructive pain. It is primal ultra-productive activity that allows you to participate in the act of creation. Now that’s unique and powerful!
Remember How Unique You Are
Only women get to do this. In my humble opinion, giving birth is the ultimate feminist act. If you choose to bear children, it is your birthright as a woman.
The manner in which you give birth will be unique. No two births are alike. Whatever your journey looks like, it is yours, and it will be a part of you forever. Even at 60 years of age, I sometimes take a few minutes to recall each of my baby’s births, to remember each sweet, strong moment and to recall each amazing emotion. The birth of our children never leaves us.
Some Additional Thoughts
I do need to add that, for a variety of reasons not discussed here, some births do require medical intervention and Cesarean birth can be a blessing of untold merit, sparing both mother and child from tragic consequences. Living fully is risky business, and birthing is no exception. If you find yourself in a circumstance where a Cesarean section is the wisest choice for you and/or your baby, then embrace the miracle of modern medicine and be thankful for your access to such miracles. I sometimes meet mothers who have given birth by Cesarean, and they feel somehow that they have missed the experience of giving birth. They sometimes even experience guilt and depression over their birth experience. But I have seen over and over again that a necessary Cesarean requires a depth of love and courage on the part of a mother that few can comprehend. To be sure, a Cesarean is a different kind of birth experience, but it is, nonetheless, a journey of amazing courage and fortitude, and it is, without a doubt, “giving birth”.
As women, we need to be generous to one another regarding this sacred, timeless experience of birthing a child. We also need to be mindful to be encouraging as we speak with our pregnant sisters, remembering that they are at their strongest and wildest, yet also at their most vulnerable and fragile. No horror stories, please. Usually, the telling of these stories lack context, and do little more than frighten a vulnerable sister unnecessarily. Be charitable; choose your words to encourage and bring ease. Regardless of your birth experiences, find the joy, and share that with your pregnant sister.
If you are privileged to be invited to attend a birth, please leave all of your unmet needs at home. Bring all of your wisdom and goodness to the birth; support the mother by giving her all of your energy. Be intuitive so you will know when to speak, when to touch, when to laugh, when to cry, and, especially, when to remain silently and supportively by her side. Most importantly, please remember that being part of another woman’s birth experience will involve all of your strength and all of your emotion, but that is never about you.
I hope these words will help you if you are preparing to birth your first babe, or your tenth. Know that you are amazingly in tune with nature, and at your most beautiful. Blessings on you and on your baby!