thoughts on natural childbirth

This is an update/edit on a Facebook note I wrote in February of 2011. I superstitiously refrained from posting it before Petra was born because I figured that I would be all “natural childbirth is totally achievable and also awesome” and then end up having to have an emergency C-section for some reason that I previously considered to be iatrogenic. But hey, she’s born now! And I think I’m probably not going to have any more babies, so here we go.

I keep meeting women who want a natural childbirth, or ones who had a (medicated) birth and told me that there was no way I–or anyone–would be able to handle it without medication. But they seem to just think that “natural” means “no drugs.” That it means sticking it out and gritting your teeth, and bearing it. They don’t seem to know that certain kinds of preparation could increase their odds of doing what they want to do.

Now, I know I’m all the way on the other end of the spectrum. The year that I was pregnant with Silas, I read 65 books–and literally 25 of them were on birth, babies, or pregnancy! This may have been a bit overboard. And truly, Silas’ birth wasn’t anything like what the books (or my hypnobirthing class) had led me to expect. It was more like “Early labor? What early labor?” BUT having done all that reading, I had a lot of resources in my head. When I didn’t have those nice pauses between contractions to go to my selfhypnosis happy place, I had other things to try. I had read a book on different positions in labor, and I really used that a lot, especially early on. JC had read a book on being a birth partner and so he had a few different things to try to help me through the contractions. I had read LOTS AND LOTS of books describing how my body was designed for this, and that let me trust it when it counted. And those who know me know that I’m a very much in-my-head person, and turning everything over to my body is not my kind of thing. But I did it, because I knew that that was the only way. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t read Childbirth Without Fear, and other books.

Before Silas’ labor even started, I had read a lot about the baby’s position and different things I could do–stretches and ways of sitting–to help him move into an optimal position. I practiced spending time in different positions. I trained for labor like my friend Jack trains for triathlons.

Even choosing to have my children at home was the result of lots of research, most notably Henci Goer’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth. In the moments before Misty arrived at my house during my first labor, I was thinking of that book, and reminding myself that HOME REALLY IS SAFER and also AREN’T YOU GLAD NO ONE IS TRYING TO CONVINCE YOU TO LIE DOWN IN A BED RIGHT NOW. Those thoughts got me through A LOT.

There’s also a certain amount of psychological preparation that can help. In our society, we’re trained to think of labor as an emergency. It makes for good television this way–the mom’s eyes widen, her water breaks in a gush on the floor (at a fancy restaurant, in a business meeting, on stage), and suddenly we cut to the hospital, where she’s flying through the halls in a gurney, panting and screaming at her husband. The fact is, that’s not remotely how it happens, most of the time. Labor starts slowly for most people. It’s pretty rarely all that urgent to get to the hospital. It usually takes  a while. Not everyone says to her husband, “You did this to me!” I think it’s important, in the months leading up to a birth, for the mother and for the people who will be with her to avoid these kinds of images, and also all the horror stories people want to tell her. (An aside here: What compels total strangers, upon learning that a woman is planning a natural birth, to pull out the worst birth stories they have ever heard, and share them?) 

In her recent book, Birth Matters, Ina May Gaskin makes an interesting observation about the women who were children on The Farm and are now grown and starting their own families. Almost without exception, she reports, these women had very short and relatively easy labors. She speculates that this might have something to do with the fact that they grew up in a community where birth was an exciting, but non-emergency, event. They knew women who had had natural births; they heard these positive and beautiful stories; they attended births themselves. Their upbringing normalized their understanding of birth in a way that is very rare in our society.

I’ve thought about this a lot recently. I grew up among hippies who decided to “farm out” to rural West Virginia. Practically every kid I grew up with was born at home or at a birth center. When I was three, I saw my brother enter the world in my parents’ bedroom. My mom did some photography for other home births, and I know I saw birth videos long before YouTube brought them to everybody’s living room. I have memories of being present for at least one other birth, although my mom says she doesn’t remember if she took me to any. I grew up knowing dozens of women who had safe and natural labors. I knew first-hand what birth looked like (and sounded like!), and I wasn’t afraid of it. My labors were very short. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as an “easy” labor, but they weren’t especially hard, as these things go. I wonder if this is because of the way I grew up. I believe it might well be.

My mom tells this story about how, when she was about 15, she decided she wanted to be a vegetarian. She told her parents, and that night at dinner….there was a big empty spot on her plate. She had the same vegetable and starch as everyone else, and where they had a cutlet or something, she had…a blank. That vegetarian phase didn’t last long. When she was older, she learned how to be a vegetarian FOR REAL. How to modify her diet and find other ways of getting adequate protiens. She was a pretty successful vegetarian or mostly-vegetarian for a long time, when she learned how to do it right.

Thinking “natural birth” just means “birth without drugs” is like thinking “vegetarian” just means “like what I was eating, but without the meat.”

I think that natural childbirth is awesome, for mother and baby, and I highly recommend it. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it can hurt (some people apparently don’t experience that—and good for them! But I won’t lie, there were parts of it that really hurt). Yes, it’s exhausting.

But you know what? It’s worth it, it really is.

Of course, I’ve never done it the other way, so I can’t compare–and if that’s what you chose, then GREAT. It’s your body.

I just want people to know that if you go into labor thinking that all there is to it is saying, “No drugs”…you might end up needing those drugs after all.

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