“Labor’s not exactly a breeze,” she had said.
What she couldn’t know, having delivered both of her children vaginally, was the disappointment I had felt after Elle was born. She had been breech, and so I felt I had little choice but to follow my doctor’s instructions and schedule a c-section. With Elle’s birth, I hadn’t felt the burning pulse of a contraction. I hadn’t experienced the wholly consuming mission of pushing a baby into the world. I hadn’t, in other words, discovered what my body was capable of.
Instead, I was wheeled into an operating room where the only sensation I felt during the birth of my firstborn child was an unsettling yanking apart of my insides. After she was born, I didn’t hold or nurse her; I laid flat on my back staring into stark bright lights while the incision bisecting my abdomen was stitched back together.
In her book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, midwife Ina May Gaskin begins by writing about the “true capacities of the female body” during labor and birth.
“I’m not talking about a summary of current medical knowledge translated from technical to popular language,” she writes. “What I mean by true capacities of the female body are those that are experienced by real women, whether or not these abilities are recognized by medical authorities. The way I see it, the most trustworthy knowledge about women’s bodies combines the best of what medical science has offered… with what women have always been able to learn about themselves before birth moved into hospitals.”
Women’s faith in their bodies’ inherent ability to deliver a child has been diminished over the last many decades; a time in which medical interventions such as epidurals for pain management, pitocin to accelerate labor, forceps and vacuum extractors to hurry birth along, and an ever-increasing rate of c-section, have become the expected standard of childbirth.
With so many hospital births “requiring” these interventions, the contemporary medical establishment has lead women to believe that fear is a normal part of childbirth. That pain is distressing and must be alleviated. That childbirth is a medical procedure as opposed to a natural process. So although our bodies may possess some intrinsic knowledge about delivering babies, our brains are usually not so well prepared.
The average American woman’s birth experience has been so diluted by what we’ve been lead to believe is “normal” childbirth (drugged, in a hospital, surrounded by strangers) that I believe we’ve lost touch with a very fundamental element of childbirth: The spiritual side of labor and delivery.
In Gaskin’s book, she talks about the powerful “mind/body connection.” Western medicine, she argues, assumes a total separation between these two things. Yet in her three decades of experience delivering babies, Gaskin has observed the powerful effects fear and anxiety can have on a laboring woman, both physically and mentally.
I have also observed this, in my own birth experience.
The contractions woke me up just after midnight. I lay in bed, watching the clock and wondering if this could, really, be the start of what we had been waiting for the last nine months. I eventually got out of bed and spent the rest of those dark hours reading, relaxing in the bath, and otherwise making myself comfortable. By sunrise the contractions were stronger and closer together, so I woke Craig. A flurry of activity ensued – packing the car, calling Grandma to come stay with Elle, making sure the dog would be taken care of. Meanwhile, the contractions that had been ramping up all night suddenly stalled. Once I was finally settled in the car and on the way to Grand Junction, they were back to ten minutes apart. I swore they had been closer to seven minutes apart at sunrise.
The drive was gorgeous. I relaxed, watching the just-green trees and still snow-capped peaks flutter past the window. We stopped often, allowing me to get out and feel the sun on my arms and the breeze across my cheeks. I anticipated each contraction, envisioning all the good work it was doing to bring the baby closer to being here. By the time we arrived in Grand Junction, my contractions were stronger and back to seven minutes apart.
Hospitals have always made me feel a little queasy, but I tried to quell that sensation, taking deep breaths and telling myself to relax and get excited – we’d be meeting our new baby today! But I couldn’t fully shake my nervousness. After settling into our room, donning a hospital gown, and getting hooked up to a fetal monitor, my contractions were (you guessed it) back to ten minutes apart.
“You might consider leaving for the day,” the midwife suggested. She knew I was determined to have a vaginal birth, and she and I both knew that the longer I stayed in the early stages of labor in the hospital, the better my chances would be of having a repeat cesarean.
“Go sit on a sunny patio somewhere and we’ll see you back here tonight,” she said.
As it turned out, Lena Emmeline didn’t arrive until 24 hours later – close to 30 hours after my contractions began. In that time, I learned incredible things about my body. I also experienced first-hand that commanding mind/body connection Gaskin speaks of in her book – a connection that, I believe, is so influential it can either obstruct or make possible a birth without fear.
Find the conclusion of Emme’s birth story in next week’s Raising Elle.