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We Must Do More to Honor Birth as a Peak Life Experience

by Molly Wales, CCE(BWI)

Excerpts from a talk given on Labor Day Weekend, 2012, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, Ohio.

Molly with her newborn daughter
 My name is Molly Wales.  I am the director of The Birth Circle (a consumer birth group) in Athens, Ohio, and am a BirthWorks childbirth educator.  I’m here today to talk to you about why I believe that we aren’t doing enough in our country to honor birth as a peak life experience.  Perfect for Labor Day!
A short review of where I stand:  I believe that all people are deserving of equal treatment and opportunity.  I believe that a woman is born with the knowledge of how to give birth, and that if Mom can give birth with people who make her feel safe and secure, she’ll be able to follow her instincts and her body and her baby will know just how to work together.  I believe that a woman should have the right to give birth wherever she pleases, with whomever she pleases.  And I believe that birth is a hugely pivotal moment in life, and that the birth experience has a life-long impact on the mother, the child, and on their relationship.
These views do not represent the norm in our society.  Americans, in general, are taught not to trust birth.  Many, if not most, fear it.  And so we keep developing new ways to manipulate and change what already works. And as we force our control like this, the effects are disastrous.
According to a recent Amnesty International report, “The USA spends more than any other country on health care, and more on maternal health than any other type of hospital care. Despite this, women in the USA have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than those in 49 other countries, including Kuwait, Bulgaria, and South Korea.”  What?!  WHAT?!  Why is this happening?  What has gone wrong with maternity care in our country?
Imagine a mom has her first visit with her care provider, be it an OB or midwife.  She’s told, “You are capable of having this baby without drugs.  And if that’s what you choose, we will support you in that.  If you or baby needs medical attention, we’ll be here.  But otherwise our job is to let your body do what it was created to do.”  If that were that norm, we wouldn’t be in such a crisis.  Rates of intervention would drop substantially, and our moms and babies would be healthier.
But that isn’t the kind of support that moms in our country generally receive, unless they choose a home birth assisted by a midwife.  Because OBs and hospital-based midwives work under protocol and deadlines that rush the process and place little to no value on the emotional importance of the experience.  Now I don’t mean to say that the OBs and midwives themselves don’t value the experience, necessarily, but rather that they are put under restraints that severely limit what they can do to honor birth as normal and natural, and to work with a mother on her body’s own timeline.
For example:  One of my students recalled going in for her very first visit with her OB, to talk about her exciting new pregnancy.  The doctor told her, “You’ll go into labor, you’ll come to the hospital, and we’ll get you an epidural.”  Notice the commands.  Notice the lack of choice.  Notice the complete failure to acknowledge this mom’s innate ability to give birth to her baby on her own.  In one short sentence, her power was robbed from her.
Or another student, who, while having a perfectly normal labor at the hospital, noticed that everyone in the room kept their eyes fixed on the monitor, telling her when a contraction was coming, telling her how hard it was…when all she wanted, needed, was some eye contact, someone to acknowledge that SHE was doing the work here, and that she was a healthy human mother, not just another illness hooked up to a machine.
And so most moms, at least in our country, never get that chance to realize their own power, that chance to feel accomplished as a mother, right from the very start, those sensations of labor that combine intense vulnerability with unimaginable atomic power.  When a woman gives birth naturally, she has to open up, physically and emotionally, to greet her baby.  It is an incredible start to the mother-child relationship, one of deep bonding, as mom and baby work together through one of life’s greatest challenges.  If we in the U.S., this world power, honored birth as the baby’s start to life-long mental health, and as the mother’s chance to untap her human potential, just think of how we could empower whole generations of women and children.  I remember saying to my little Lola, six short months ago, as I held her there on my living room floor in the darkness of the morning, “We did it, honey, we did it!”  So she was born into that joy, that total soul bearing, that pride.  What an advantage for us both. And I am no extraordinary woman.  Most healthy women are capable of having their babies without medical intervention.  Now certainly homebirth isn’t the right choice for every woman, but imagine what a difference that would make, in our country and in the overall state of our planet, if the majority of mother-baby pairs were trusted, unrushed, and just given a chance to let their bodies work in their own way.
But they aren’t.  Instead most pregnant women in the U.S. are highly uninformed.  They are treated as if their pregnancies are an illness. In labor, they are offered drugs when they should be offered emotional encouragement.  And yes, of course, a healthy baby and healthy mom are the most important things.  But they aren’t the ONLY important things.  There is a chance there for a peak life experience, for both mom and baby, a chance for that relationship to begin with a surge of strength, hormonally and emotionally, that fortifies them for years to come, if not for their whole lives.
In the end, it’s all about creating a peaceful world, isn’t it?  And where better to start, than our barest beginning.
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GET IT ON VIDEO

By Myriah C. Boudreaux

I am Wonder Woman. My friends say so. This status is earned because I have birthed all my babies, including a ten-pounder, drug free. My fifth time around, I wanted my labor and delivery, a homebirth, on video. Would this dispel or confirm my growing legend? I wasn’t sure. But I wanted the option of later experiencing the event objectively, or at least with my eyes open.
Video-taping kept me at my best.
1. It encouraged me to look great. I bought a turquoise knee-length Greek goddess style dress for the occasion, which I wore until my Tarzan cries convinced me to strip and forego the Jane look.
2. It discouraged me from doing anything regrettable, such as biting my husband’s shoulder when my vocalizations had gone from “mmm” to “AWWW” to “O God, O-God, O-GOD!”
As pushing time arrived near the end of my three-hour labor, I leapt onto the bed and with a mighty cry single-handedly delivered my nearly-nine-pound baby while in lunge position, and sporting a gleaming smile.
Wait. The video tells another story.
Kneeling on the bed on one knee, nuzzling my forehead against my husband’s neck, clinging onto him, I yelled, “Catch it, catch it, CATCHIT!” – whereupon my husband single-handedly received the baby – and I shouted “Praise God!”
The video did confirm the following:
1. My sons are always impressed by warrior cries.
2. My daughters appreciate that mothers willingly sacrifice for great rewards.
3. I am Wonder Woman, even if not quite a legend.
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Not So Safe

By Mali Schwartz, BirthWorks International Board of Director-Secretary

I was 23 when I had my first child, my first and only son. He was born in the summer of 1975, at the very height of the natural childbirth movement. I remember being diligent about going to my Lamaze classes, accompanied by my husband. I really enjoyed the nurse who gave the training; she was very personable, and I felt that she really cared about each individual class member.
This training helped me in certain ways. I went into early labor in the late evening, around 9:00p.m. My water breaking alerted me to the fact that something would happen momentarily. Remembering that I had to count the amount of time that passed in between each and every contraction, I walked the hallway near our bedroom, pacing back and fourth and feeling increasingly sensitive to the pain.
Finally I roused my husband from his deep sleep and we rushed to the hospital, getting there at midnight-a bewitching hour. As my contractions grew closer together, I practiced my breathing exercises, my husband coaching me at all times. I was interrupted by a medical intern who insisted that he had to do an internal in the middle of a contraction. That’s when I lost it big time.
The minute he started poking around, I couldn’t handle the intensity of the sensation, and I instinctively reached my arm out and gave him a strong punch in his stomach. He was quite taken aback, but at that point in time, I truly didn’t care about social conformity’s. My husband apologized for me, and the intern made a quick exit.
I felt violated by this procedure and had a very strong negative reaction. I didn’t feel like abiding by the rules, and reacted from a different part of my psyche-a part I wasn’t even aware that I had. This was standard procedure of this hospital and could potentially create sensations in the mother of feeling exposed, when most mammals, including human beings, yearn for privacy and seclusion.
I guess the internal examination was the last straw for me. Being hooked up to a monitor, unable to move around, staring at the glaring white walls that reflected the harsh florescent lighting and finally my feelings of vulnerability were stretched to the limit. Looking back on this experience and knowing what I know now about birthing, it was not the ideal enviroment to encourage feelings of being safe and protected.
Although I have never attended a home birth, the idea of a women laboring in an enviroment that she is so familiar in, surrounded by the people she loves, having the lights turned down low, is the type of scene that lets the woman open to the sensations of birthing her baby. She is able to access the part of the brain that is responsible for our emotions, sensations and feelings, called the limbic system. According to Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova, a mid-wife and pioneer of Conscious Birth in Russia, “limbic imprinting happens in the part of the brain which is not directly connected with the cortex. …That memory lives in the body throughout the rest of our life whether we know it or not.”
While the woman is giving birth, the limbic part of the brain is reactivated and is extremely sensitive to stimuli from outside sources. And the baby also is imprinted, based on the type of birth he or she experiences. While most of us would not contemplate the idea of giving birth outside in nature, Elena created a film “Birth As We Know It” featuring 11 natural births-several including women who birthed their babies in warm shallow lagoons, part of the black sea.
According to Dr. Michel Odent, Elena’s film prompts us to re-examine basic features of human nature. “Her film explains why millions of women all over the world dream of giving birth in the sea among dolphins.” Elena’s role as a midwife is to help women eliminate their own birth trauma. She feels that a woman may give birth the way she, herself, was born.
According to a 1995 study by Dr. William Emerson, a pioneer of prenatal psychology, 95 percent of all births in the United States are considered traumatic, 50 percent rated as “severely” traumatic. In expressing her personally deep and beautiful healing experience in helping women and their babies experience being birthed in Love, Elena states, “Healing of one’s birth trauma allows one to enjoy the delicious, juicy experience of comfortably owning a body, being fully engaged in life and loving it.”
She goes on to then say “by reprogramming our limbic imprint and transmuting our suffering and helplessness during birth into the love and joy of being born on this planet, we can regain our authentic power, clear the pain of our ancestors from our system and set the stage for our children to step into their lives as peaceful, empowered guardians of Earth.”