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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.