Everybody has opinions. Everybody has biases. I’m no different. Lets just get that out of the way right here.
Something else to get out of the way: I am a birth junkie. It’s what I geek out on. When I had my two babies, I had not one second of doubt about whether I would be able to give birth at home without drugs. Don’t ask me why. I just…knew. But I’m not on some high horse. It’s just a little insight into what was important to me.
And the key word here is “me.” I did what was important to me. And my choices, unique to me, don’t belong in anyone else’s birth.
Most women have huge doubts about whether they can achieve a drug-free birth and, more importantly, whether they want to. This is a perfectly valid question to have: “Do I want to have a pain-medication-free birth?”
While I never waffled about what I wanted for my own births, and always respected the decisions of others, I was really able to understand this on a personal level through an activity that I’m far less confident in. Bicycling.
My husband loves bicycling. I, on the other hand, rode a bike when I was, like, 8 and then never again until I was in my 20s. Riding in traffic scared the pants off of me and I was so out of shape that I thought I would collapse after just short trips. I’ve come a looooooong way, but I still wouldn’t identify myself as a cyclist. So when my husband and a friend hatched a plan to ride 40 miles (with children) to camp in cabins, I was leery. Very leery. The saving grace was that other friends would be driving a car that could carry the cargo and they could ‘rescue’ anyone who needed to quit. So I committed. And we did training rides. And I felt pretty confident. But I knew that if push came to shove I could opt for the ride. And if I did I wouldn’t feel disappointed or like I’d failed. My identity just wasn’t all that tied up in whether I made it all the way on my own power.*
People, this is more than fine.
Maybe I don’t need to be an accomplished bicyclist in order to feel like my life is complete. Many women out there feel the same way about birth. Like, it’d be kinda cool to have a drug-free birth, but they’re not willing to be pushed to the limits of what they can endure for the sake of a drug-free birth. I get it.
I work with lots of women that want to try for a drug-free labor, but they have a threshold after which they would want medication. Some women know they want an epidural, but they want a doula for emotional support, information and lots physical support during labor prior to an epidural (and the massages don’t have to stop when the epidural arrives, for sure!). Some women really, really do not want an epidural, but end up getting one because they desperately need rest after several days of labor. And let me tell you, it can be incredibly empowering to stand up and say, “This is what I need right now, even though it doesn’t fit the plan I had for my labor.” Some women know that they don’t want drugs in labor and they do it–sometimes with ease and sometimes with a lot of effort and resolve.
When I’m with a woman/couple in labor, I stay flexible and responsive, checking-in as things morph and change. There are no absolutes when it comes to labor. And there is just no room for judgment. When my clients come to me, they are safe (emotionally speaking). There are no “right” answers. They’ve entered the “Judgment Free Zone” where making choices isn’t easy, but it’s free.
*For those that are curious, we made it almost the whole way, but the last 3/4 of a mile was a steep uphill, so I took my kids (sparing my exhausted husband from hauling their dead weight up the hill) in the car.
It’s kind of a funny story.
I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR on the way to pick up my daughter from school and Terry Gross was talking with Jimmy Fallon about how he came to be on Saturday Night Live. It turns out that Jimmy Fallon wanted to be on SNL almost as far back as he can remember. He said that when he would blow out birthday candles, he would wish to one day be on SNL. I was thinking, “How crazy is that?” that such an unlikely wish would come true…
And that made me think about my own crazy childhood wish, which was–get this–to be Wonder Woman. I wished that on a lot of stars before my age made me cynical. I knew the wish would never come true.
But while I never donned a patriotic swimsuit-like uniform with tall red boots and I never swung the Golden Lasso around anyone’s torso and I never, ever drove an invisible, flying jet, I did sorta get my wish.
I gave birth at home with my first child (it was a planned home birth) and while I didn’t know what to expect any more than anyone else, I felt confident and prepared for this particular challenge. I was excited for my baby and my birth. It wasn’t particularly easy or hard. It was labor. It was scary in parts–I was afraid I would tear–but I surrendered to the process. I let my primal brain take over and once my daughter emerged I felt that I was the strongest, most capable woman in the world.
I felt like Wonder Woman.
It wasn’t that I felt physically strong. Heck no! I was laid up in bed for a week having lost more blood than is usual. But I felt, as many other women have described before, that if I could do that I could do anything. I know it was the hormones talking, but what wonderful hormones they were! Over time the feeling faded away, but I was glad to experience it all over again when I had my son 4 years later. (And that birth was downright lovely. I would have done it all over again the next day if you asked me.)
But I’m well aware that not everyone has the desire or opportunity to birth the way I did. That’s not really what I’m getting at. What I’m getting at is that every woman deserves to feel this way at some point in her life. Birth (in all its forms) can be wonderfully empowering and exhilarating, but so can skydiving. So birth may or may not be your portal into the super hero world but, gosh, it wouldn’t be so bad if every new mom could start off motherhood feeling like Wonder Woman for a day.
Life is about decision-making. Some decisions are small (Do I wear the rainbow-striped socks or the green argyle ones?). And, of course, some decisions are BIG, like, “Where should I have my baby?” And you would never make that kind of decision based on a child’s game like ‘Eeny, meeny, miney, mo,’ right?
Or would you?
It seems ridiculous. And yet… there are times when all the research is done. The pro and con charts have been made. You’ve chatted with all your friends and you still can’t decide. This happened to a friend of mine when she was trying to decide whether to have a home birth or a hospital birth.
Growing up, she didn’t know you could have a home birth. But then she’d encountered friends and relatives who had had home births. She was intrigued, but still preoccupied with the question of: “What if something happens?”
I told her that I’d seen plenty of people have great birth experiences in the hospital–it makes sense for a lot of people. Having had home births myself, I also told her what I’d learned about that, namely that though complications do happen, most often they happen slowly. There is generally plenty of time for an experienced midwife to make an assessment that things are not going well and have time to transfer to the hospital.
She still wasn’t sure. So I told her something that I probably wouldn’t remember telling her if she hadn’t reminded me. I said, “Just do ‘eeny meeny miney mo’. If you land on the “wrong” one you’ll know, because your heart will sink a little as you realize you’d actually been ‘rooting’ for the other one.
Of course, you don’t have to do what the ‘eeny meeny’ tells you to. But it’s a surprisingly effective way of deciphering what your gut is telling you. When you realize you’re pulling for one answer over the other, you know that you’re not as undecided as you thought you were.
My friend did the ‘eeny meeny’ trick and it’s what helped her settle on what she really wanted for her birth.
Don’t expect it to solve all your decision-making woes, but pull it out in a time of real indecision. “…My best friend told me to pick the very best one and you are it!”
You probably already know what the “right” answer is.
I’m kind of picky about my birth literature.
Weeell… I’m maybe I’m not that picky about what I read, but I’m super, über nit-picky about what I’ll recommend. I’m a Virgo. I’m critical. What can I say?
The list of ‘can’ts’ is long. It can’t be too preachy, too fluffy, too scary, too bland, too rigid, too slanted or too, uh, new-agey, let’s say. I know, I know, what’s left? Not much, unfortunately.
Certainly not the most ubiquitous pregnancy book on the market. I don’t know whether I’m proud or embarrassed to admitted that I’ve never cracked a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It seems unthinkable but, well, I’m not really sorry about it. Everyone I know who has read it said that it gave them anxiety attacks. And does anyone really think that what pregnant women really need is another dose of anxiety?
And then there are the books that I actually like, like The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth by Henci Goer. It is an incredible book with research-backed information, but… it comes down pretty hard on hospitals. It’s just not that approachable if you think hospitals are pretty okay–and most people do. And then there’s the fact that it doesn’t do much to bolster your confidence about giving birth. Instead it gives you something else to worry about, not Big Bad Listeria that’s lurking in delicious soft cheeses, but the care providers themselves and the often routine hospital procedures. More anxiety! Not helpful.
Also I devoured The Baby Catcher, written by midwife Peggy Vincent about her many years of catching babies, but I’m not going to hand it to a pregnant lady. Vincent chose all the most memorably dramatic births (translation: fast and scary) to write about, which is great for the purposes of the book, but too skewed of a picture to be considered solidly educational.
Nope. I’m not going to pile those books into your arms when you come over just to borrow a cup of sugar for your zucchini bread.
Instead I’m going to meaningfully press a copy of Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth into your palms. I want all pregnant women to read this book. It’s an engaging read. You can read it cover to cover without getting bored. It uses birth stories to illustrate the wide range of ‘normal’ in a labor and birth. It describes how each woman passed her own hurdles of labor (or whether labor was easy and enjoyable) to powerfully deliver her baby. Ina May Gaskin boils down her 30+ years of witnessing normal labor and gives her insights into how birth works (you have to read it to get all the little gems, like one of my favorites, a chapter called “Sphincter Law”). All in all, it’s pretty radical stuff, but she doesn’t jam it down your throat. She’s not out to judge anyone or tell you there’s a right or wrong way to give birth. But she knows that birth works and she wants to make sure that you know it too. If we let mainstream media tell the story, birth is very dangerous and usually needs lots and lots of intervention. Ina May’s Guide tells us another story–one that doesn’t get much press. After reading all those birth stories, its hard not to think “Well, if they could do it, so can I!”
Labor and birth are filled with unknowns. Without being scary, this book helps you feel prepared to expect the unexpected. Forget What to Expect; be prepared to be surprised.
Does every woman need a doula?
I’m a doula, so I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to answer this question with an unequivocal “yes.” But that wouldn’t be quite honest, would it? Because, like most things, it’s more complicated than that.
I can’t answer “yes” to that question because here’s my little confession: I had two children and I didn’t have a doula, nor did I feel like I needed one at any point in my labors. And that little tidbit is why I occasionally feel a little guilty about hocking my services to expecting parents. What if they don’t *really* need me? I think at them: ‘You’re good enough! You’re strong enough! And gosh darnit, deep down you already know how to give birth!’
And it’s true!
But then I remember. Usually while laboring, even if deep down you know how to give birth, you still need a lot of reminders. A lot of reminders. And patience. And warm, soothing touch. And the feeling that everyone around you cares about you and they are giving you all the support you need.
That’s compassionate care.
Sometimes you can get it without a doula. For my first birth, I had a homebirth midwife, my sweetie, my mom and my two sisters around me and no shortage of calm, compassionate care. My second birth had fewer relatives, but still plenty of love and support.
But often times, a doula is just what you need to complete the circle of care. You have a midwife or an OB to provide medical care, you have a supportive partner or family member that you love and who loves you and you have a doula that knows you and supports you and your partner, helps explain procedures and options, offers warm, soothing touch and massage and calmly guides you into trusting yourself.
The birth will be what it will be: wild and unpredictable. I’m never attached to a particulars when it comes to the birth, because who are we kidding? Nobody can control all the aspects of labor. If the parents come through their experience feeling compassionately cared for and supported, then I’ve done my job. Everyone deserves that for their birth. Do you need a doula? Maybe not, but it’s one great way to increase your chances of having a happily memorable birth day.