Birth options from an exercise in our Enlightened Mama Lamaze class, August 2011
It’s been seven and a half weeks since I gave birth to Nora. I’m still reliving the story of her birth over and over in my head, pausing and replaying the good parts. I’m still amazed at what she and I, along with her dad and our birth team, were able to accomplish over the course of her birth.
I’m also new enough as a mom to have people ask how the birth went. In fact, on Friday, I’m heading into work to show off the baby and I know that will be one of the main questions that my colleagues ask me. Even after seven weeks of living with this story, I don’t exactly know how to answer the question.
I want to balance my pride of being able to deliver Nora naturally with the knowledge that not every woman chooses (or is able) to birth in the same way. I don’t want to invalidate another mother’s birth experience with my own. But no matter how gently, humbly and briefly I tell our story, I know the reactions that I will likely get, because I’ve already heard them. Just as I felt that the way others reacted to my pregnant body was a Rorschach test for how they view women’s bodies in general, a person’s reaction to our birth choices tells me a lot about how they feel about the medical establishment and women’s role in it. I’ve been called a Superhero, Frontier Woman, Martyr and, most challenging for me, a “Real” Mom.
When someone calls me a superhero (or the alternate Rock Star), it means that I have done something extraordinary in their eyes. I have given birth to a live human being without mortal aides like anesthesia or narcotics. I agree that a natural birth can be an extraordinary experience. After all, it’s not something any one woman does every day. Many women, both in the U.S. and around the world, give birth without pain medication. In the U.S., it is more rare than in countries that have higher uses of midwives and what we would deem “alternative” care.
By calling me a superhero for doing something millions of women do every year, these folks are putting natural childbirth out of reach of “ordinary” people. Since this has been my most common reaction, I think that this is the most common belief about natural childbirth: only special people can do it. I know it’s not in the cards for everyone, but I believe that more women could do it if they wanted to, with enough mental and physical preparation.
One of my colleagues and her husband visited us in the hospital. It was a day after Nora’s birth and I was still high on adrenaline from the experience. When my colleague asked about our birth, I explained that it was drug-free. She and her husband prodded me, trying to find how we achieved this. I explained that we stayed at home for the majority of our birth and only spent the last 6 hours of labor in the hospital. Her husband said, “Wow, you are like a real frontier woman!” He meant it as a compliment, of course.
It’s true that these days, going to the hospital early in labor is the norm. I was lucky to have spent 26 out of my 32 hours of labor at home. If my water had broken during labor, I would have had to go to the hospital much earlier. I chose to labor primarily at home because I knew that is where I was most comfortable. I also think it was one of the main factors in keeping my birth unmedicated. I know that if I had gone to the hospital early, I would have been more likely to receive interventions such as Pitocin to speed labor. I would have had a much different outcome in that case.
Still, I understand that I seem a little anachronistic for choosing to stay home. Most of the women I know rush to the hospital at the earliest sign of labor, because that’s what we know. It’s what is depicted in media, it’s what our doctors tell us to do. But, if the truth be told, I think a lot more women could choose to stay at home longer during labor, if we framed labor differently for women. Labor isn’t a disease or an emergency, in most cases. It’s a natural process that your body directs over a period of time. There is little need, in low-risk pregnancies, for medical intervention, if you don’t want it.
On the weekend before Halloween, Aaron, Nora and I went to a party at a friend’s house. His wife had just learned that she was pregnant, so I was looking forward to seeing her and congratulating her. While I was there, I met another one of their friends, who had a seven week old baby at home, along with a toddler.
When this woman saw my newborn, she began grilling me about my birth and postnatal experience. Now, I will admit that I found her a bit obnoxious. For instance, when she learned I was breastfeeding, she asked loud enough for the whole room to hear, “How sore are your tits?” Not something I am keen on sharing with a stranger, although they are sore, thank you. When we got to the actual birth experience and she found out that I did it without an epidural, she scoffed. “Not me. I had them hook me up right away. Then, I sat in the hospital bed and Facebooked for my entire labor. When it was time to push, they told me what to do and I did it. I didn’t want to feel anything.” I replied that for me, it really wasn’t that bad. She then turned to my newly pregnant friend. “There’s no need for you to do that, you know, natural labor. You don’t need to be a martyr.” My pregnant friend looked a little green and said, “Sorry, Jessica, I think I’m going to get an epidural.”
There were so many wrong elements to this transaction. First of all, we had two different discourses going on. This woman’s discourse was the standard discourse about labor: It’s an awful experience that no one can or should endure without the use of drugs. Anyone who does it without drugs is making some inhuman sacrifice for no reason. My discourse is different: It’s not that bad. It’s painful, yes. It’s intense, absolutely. But it isn’t unmanageable. That’s my standard line because, for me, it’s true.
When you’re pregnant, you get to hear a lot of birth stories. Most of them are harrowing: 48 hours of labor, puking, crying for drugs, blood everywhere! Most intense pain you’ll ever feel, until the epidural! But….it’s worth it for the child. Why do we do this to other women? To prepare them? To toughen them up? Or is it because this is the story we always tell, the one where birth is painful and awful? In all of the birth stories I heard from the various mothers I knew, I only heard two that framed it in a more empowering light. For these women, two very close friends of mine who don’t know each other, their births were funny, intense, extraordinary experiences that included pain, but were not dominated by it. They were also empowering experiences that included intimacy with their partners and the births of their new families. When a pregnant woman asks me about my birth experience, that’s the kind of story I want to tell her, not that I sacrificed medication and endured pain for the child. I want to tell her that I learned what I am capable of, with preparation and patience.
The other element of the Halloween party conversation that went so wrong is that my friend felt she needed to apologize to me, because she wanted an epidural. Clearly, she felt that I had a stake in her birth experience. Of course, like any friend, I want what is best for her. But ultimately, whether or not to medicate during labor is her choice. It shouldn’t be up to me, or anyone else, what she chooses to do.
As soon as I got pregnant, my mom was invested in the experience. She got to relive her two pregnancies and births by experiencing mine. Her experiences were vastly different than mine. She gave birth in 1977 and 1979 respectively. In those days, they gave automatic enemas to every pregnant woman. They shaved every woman when they got to the hospital. They didn’t encourage breastfeeding, as much as they do today. My mother’s births included medication and formula feeding. I can’t know for sure, but they didn’t seem like really positive experiences.
When I told my mom, early in my pregnancy, that we were planning for a natural birth, she didn’t believe me. She told me to get the epidural, that the pain is incredibly hard. Even with the epidural, she felt that the pain would be too much for me to manage. I didn’t want to discount her experience, but I also wanted to see for myself. I wanted to know if a natural labor was something that I could handle on my own.
After my daughter was born, I called my mother and talked to her about the labor. When I told her that I did it without medication, she said, “Well, you did something that I couldn’t do.” The first time that she visited us after Nora’s birth, I showed her pictures from the delivery. She also watched me as I breastfed Nora multiple times. Throughout her visit, she made comments like, “I’m glad that you’re having the ‘real’ motherhood experience,” or “You’re more of a real mother than I was.”
Hearing this from my mom was very difficult. I’ve been a mother for all of seven weeks and not all of them have been good weeks. She raised two children, successfully, in the face of single parenthood. I cannot possibly begin to compare myself to her. Yet, she felt like I was more of a real mother than her, because I made different choices than her. Throughout her visit, I validated her experience. She had the real motherhood experience too, even if it was different from my own.
Where does this leave us, as women, this framing of the childbirth experience? I don’t know.
I spent the afternoon today in a new mothers class, listening to women telling their birth stories. Of the five women who shared, four had epidurals and one had a planned c-section. While they all struggled with their experiences as they happened, they also all had positive experiences. They birthed healthy babies and they birthed their children in the way that they needed to be born. As all of us new moms listened to these birth stories, we murmured in agreement, we laughed, and we teared up. Even though we all had different details to our stories, we were bound together by our shared experiences of enduring labor and coming out on the other side.