Reclaiming Birth for Our Daughters
Since the beginning of time, women have been the traditional custodians of birth. We have possessed all the innate knowledge, power and wisdom necessary to bring our babies into this world. We would rise to the challenge, face our fears and even look death squarely in the eye to birth our babies. Each and every one of us had to trust our bodies and our ability to give birth. It was what nature demanded of us, and our lives depended on it. Our only choice was to be strong. We could summon the aid of other women, but ultimately our babies could only be born under our own steam. And for tens of thousands of years, that's exactly what we did; we gave birth.
In the space of three short generations, birth has been stolen from women, sanitized of emotion and spirituality, and repackaged as a medical procedure. What the witch hunts of the Middle Ages failed to do, when midwives were burned at the stake, the medical profession has achieved in less than a century. Power, knowledge and choice have been taken from us and placed firmly in the hands of the patriarchy. Birth is now the domain of the medical system and doctors, the new custodians of this knowledge.
Giving birth has been reduced to a one-dimensional physical act. It has been quantified, timed and regulated. Mothers with their "unpredictable" uteri have almost become a hindrance to the efficient production of a baby. Medicine has claimed the lead role in this production, and we have acquiesced control to become bit players in this passive act of delivery.
We would not contemplate relinquishing our autonomy under any other circumstances. In this modern age we are loath to see ourselves as helpless creatures in need of protection or rescue. Yet we fail to recognize our own complicity in this drama when we willingly subject our bodies to the confines of medical protocol. It is even more incredulous that we would place our trust in a model openly contemptuous of the female body, one that views it as a poorly designed machine in need of improvement and apt to falter at any moment. We place ourselves at the mercy of a system that does not trust us and does not trust birth. Yet we continue to trust it more than ourselves. We willingly accept the absurdity of a masculine definition of birthing that fails to honor and even deprecates emotional and spiritual experience in one of the most significant moments of our lives.
A live baby is now the benchmark of a good birth. What was once the lowest common denominator has been prescribed as our ultimate goal. Unscrupulous practitioners even use it to induce guilt in mothers who have the audacity to ask for more. "What do you want, a lovely experience or a live baby?" We have been manipulated into believing that the two are mutually exclusive.
Yet in any other momentous occasion in our lives we honor the richness of our human needs and experience. A funeral reduced to the mere clinical disposal of a body would offend our sensibilities. Yet we accept these terms for a new soul entering the world? Is it reasonable to ask us to deny our needs for choice, dignity, ritual and respect, to ignore our instincts, individuality, hopes and dreams? Must we reduce the birth of our child to a procedure that occurs in isolation from the rest of our lives?
When we declare birth a medical procedure, we wreak untold damage. Obstetrics is a godsend for the minority of women who need it. However, being meddlesome creatures, we have been unable to limit ourselves to selective and appropriate use of technology. Instead we have allowed it to seep into the realm of normal birth where it has flourished as a virulent virus. Here it harms far more women and babies than it can ever aid. Each of the interventions employed have side effects, many serious and some life threatening. Yet they are given no more than perfunctory airing. Fortunately, however, information is readily available for women motivated enough to search for it.
But some damage is not so well documented. Our collective loss of confidence in our ability to give birth is the most obvious. So many women, perhaps even the majority, now doubt they have the strength to cope with the demands of labor and are especially terrified of the pain. Doctors have come to the rescue and offered to release us from this fear. Once again, the power shifts from our hands when we accept. This pain relief requires specialized knowledge and is out of our control; we cannot even administer it ourselves.
It is ironic that we will accept it so readily when our bodies produce something far superior. An intricate dance between hormones occurs during labor. When we are anxious or frightened, adrenaline is released into the blood stream, hindering and sometimes halting the process, leading to unnecessary interventions. Yet when we feel supported and secure, high concentrations of endorphins (natural pain relievers) are released into our bloodstream, not only easing and sometimes erasing pain, but, combined with natural oxytocins, are also capable of inducing a state of ecstasy. We are being robbed not only of our confidence but of a peak experience in our lives.
The damage is even more insidious. Visit any postnatal ward and you are unlikely to find the euphoria that comes with an empowering birth, but see women shuffling like ancient crones, cautiously nursing tender perineums and bellies violated by the surgeon's knife. Listen to their stories, and you will discover that beneath the thin veneer of smiles, women are limping from birth with vacant eyes and deep soul wounds. They are emerging confused, disappointed, degraded, shocked, bruised, betrayed, and numbed by their experience. At best relieved, at worst raped.
"But you have a beautiful baby,"" is the cry that greets any attempt to express her emotions. Invalidated, she is left to console herself with a precious baby wrapped in the torment of irreconcilable emotions. "How could something so wonderful have hurt me so much?"
Our practices have created the archetypal wounded mother. We all know her. She is the woman who fuels the labor story horror competitions, the woman who initiates newly pregnant friends into fear with the tales of her own birthing ordeal, the woman who uses humor to deny her pain, the woman so terrified of birth she opts for "epidural at first contraction," and the woman caught in the silent depths of depression. She is everywhere and she is crying out to be heard, to be healed. Yet the experience is so well entrenched as the norm, she goes unnoticed.
Her experience confirms birth as the frightening and dangerous process she was told to expect, and in her need she pledges loyalty to the very system that failed her. With no validity for the emotions she feels, her only avenue is to turn the blame in on herself or project it out in anger at other women who escaped this ordeal. Women become pitted against each other, forced to "take sides," the exponents of natural birth versus the supporters of medicalized birth. As with any repressed group, divide and conquer becomes the rule.
We need to reclaim birth for the next generation of women and their babies. Each of us holds that responsibility. Our stories are powerful tools. We can honor them by discarding medical talk of centimeters dilation and timed contractions and return to the feminine language of birth. By expressing our feelings with courageous honesty, telling tales of instincts abided by and instincts ignored, we can uncover the wisdom in our stories. Our rekindled confidence will allow us to unearth our innate birthing tools, and more women will once again know the empowerment and transformation of euphoric birth. We will initiate our daughters, sisters and friends into the knowledge that birth is the most challenging, rewarding and exquisitely beautiful experience in life.
Lesley Smyth is a Melbourne mother with a passion for birth. The gentle births of her own two children sent her on a quest for answers. Why was the euphoria and empowerment she experienced so different from the norm? Lesley tells us that this article peels back just a couple of the layers to give a glimpse at those answers. There is more, much more. She would love to hear your stories and can be contacted at email@example.com. More information is available at http://www.birthlove.com/