I promised more from my experience with hearing Ina May Gaskin speak recently in downtown Toronto, so here it is…
I learned something that was kind of revolutionary for me this past weekend – and that is that pregnancy and birth are not inevitably something to fear.
You may have already come to that conclusion, but it was sure news to me!
When I was pregnant with my daughter I was very drawn to the idea of home birth, but didn’t even consider it as an option for my first child. My thought process was:
- I don’t have any actual idea of what birth is like.
- I want to be at the hospital just in case something goes wrong.
- If everything goes well the first time, I’ll probably go with home births for any upcoming pregnancies.
The most overwhelming feeling for me was the fear – what if something terrible happens?
I had high levels of anxiety throughout most of my pregnancy. They were feelings I generally kept to myself, but they were always there gnawing at my mind. What if I miscarry again? What if she stops moving? What if I’m not eating healthy enough? What if she is stillborn? What if I have to have a c-section? What if I don’t get any milk?
On and on and on…and that’s only a small sample!
I know it sounds super morbid, but my mind was frequently consumed with thoughts like this. And I have to wonder, where did it all come from?
The miscarriage fears I feel are somewhat justifiable…that experience is something I am still coming to terms with to this day. But the rest of it…it seems pretty unhealthy to be so scared of such a normal and natural process, doesn’t it?
(I wanted to mention, I had the chance to shout out a question to Ina May, which was how do you help a woman deal when she actually has experienced terrible things, rather than just imagined scenarios? Her response – talk it through. Figure out what’s bothering her and let her discuss it – don’t underestimate the importance of talk therapy).
From many of the things Ina May was discussing, those of us here in North America have higher fear of giving birth than many other cultures and time periods – and we’ve been made to feel that way.
It goes like this – back when doctors wanted to figure out a way to get in on the birth scene (something that had previously for hundreds of years been the sole propriety of women), they decided the easiest way to do it would be to make women afraid, thus convincing them that giving birth in a hospital with a trained doctor present was the ‘safest’ option.
From Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta (p.59):
“Can a function so perilous that, in spite of the best care, it kills thousands of women every year, that leaves a quarter of the women more or less invalided, and a majority with permanent anatomic changes of structure, that is always attended by severe pain and tearing of tissues, and that kills 3 to 5 percent of children – can such a function be called normal: Much depends on what should be defined as “normal” for the human. Among insects it is the rule for females to die soon after reproduction. The salmon invariably dies after spawning.”
This was from a Dr. Joseph B. DeLee, who was writing medical textbooks filled with such observances. (Ina May goes on to point out in the book that as we are absolutely nothing like fish or insects, those are incredibly faulty comparisons).
She discussed how these are the things that the medical professionals are taught – what they see is everything that can go wrong, and often rarely have the chance to experience a normal birth.
Watch animals giving birth.
During the conference we watched videos on YouTube of an elephant giving birth, a giraffe, a chimpanzee, and a whale. All were beautiful sites to behold, particularly the elephant, and it was fascinating to see how totally natural it was…it was cathartic!
She had several points to make in regards to animals and birth:
- Doctors used to have a lot of experience with animals giving birth, and it taught them manners when dealing with a laboring mama (she commented, if only we could grow horns or hooves when we get pregnant! It might cause a doc to be a little more sensitive before just shoving his hand up there without asking )
- You know who knows how to give birth? ALL animals. So why on earth would we be the only mammals in the entirety of the world who are unable to give birth without being surrounded by and assisted by technology?
- It’s not a bad idea to pretend you are an animal when you’re in labor (with Ina May’s first delivery, pretending she was a mountain lion saw her through a lot). Again, the assumption seems to be that we are inferior to animals, but the reality is that nature gets it right most of the time.
- We have become separated from nature and from the earth, and for doctors in particular, they have often seen only the worse that can happen. When you feel so very disconnected, it can be truly helpful to go out in nature and watch some insects get it on (her words! ) or at least look at some videos of birthing animals.
- The biggest lesson of all? Animals don’t trick themselves with their minds. We can be fooled by our own culture into splitting ourselves in two, to the point where the head can be disgusted by the rest of the body. It’s gone to such an extent that there is a TV show now about women who didn’t even know they were pregnant – they have turned their minds off that much to what is occurring down below. If you’re disgusted by the idea of pooping while you’re pushing or terrified that you’ll be torn apart, you are not helping yourself open up down there!
Aside from normal birth not being an experience for doctors, it is rarely an experience for any of us. Did you ever see an actual birth before you gave birth?
I never saw any birth until a month or so before I gave birth, when I watched a few YouTube videos while I peeked between my fingers. And one of those great fears was, “How the heck am I gonna push this thing out??” Well Ina May deals with that in her lessons on sphincter law, but I think I’ll save that for another post.
Birth is not something many of us feel free even to discuss openly…even today.
Is it any wonder we’re afraid?
And the reality is, we are still being told to fear birth. We are being told that our bodies are faulty – that we can’t do it without help (and technological help at that). And one of the biggest drives behind that is the same as it was back when old DeLee was writing textbooks, and that is money.
Here’s a quote from Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, by (p. 36):
“…Behind the routine push for testing on the part of the medical establishment there is an unspoken agenda. Screening tests and amniocenteses account for much of the total birth revenue. As one presentation in the Second World Congress on Controversies in Obstetrics, Gynecology and Infertility…baldly put it, ‘Fetal Malformations. Capsule: The cost of fetal screening for anomalies is not optimized yet…Screening: Can We Still Increase Cost to Diagnose Down Syndrome?“”
This is in regards to the high levels of testing that are being done as routine course to check for fetal anomaly, in spite of the fact that a high volume of these tests come back with false positives, carrying the risk of extremely heightened fear and anxiety in the mother (sometimes to the extent that it can interfere with bonding), as well as physical risk to mother and child during certain tests, like amniocentesis.
More reasons to make us afraid…more reasons to make us turn to hospitals, surgeries, painkillers, inductions…all as a matter of course (and not only for the assumed ‘safety’ but as an assuage to the very high fear of pain, which for many of us is to be avoided at all costs).
I wish to make it clear, I was induced at 10 days past my ‘due date’, and I did accept pain medication during my labor. It was against my instinct to be induced, but I was scared, and I also wanted my mom to be there with me.
Looking back, I continue to wonder why I had reason to be so terrified. I had zero complications during my pregnancy. I was very ill, but it wasn’t hurting the baby. What seemed like a multitude of prenatal tests (and I even declined the 6 week genetic ones) all came back with positive outcomes.
The truth is, more births than not turn out fine. More babies than not turn out fine. For those who experience actual issues, we do desperately need the obstetricians and the hospitals and the surgeries, and I am very thankful for them.
But how much intervention do we actually need as a matter of course? How much are we just adding flame to the fire of our fears? How much better might it be to surround ourselves with positive birth stories, watch animals being born, and realize that birth can be a normal, lovely process?
And even as I’m writing this, I continue to think, but what if…?
And it’s unanswerable. I can’t go through life thinking that way…I can’t go through life wondering if I should get in a car because I might be in an accident…it would bring me to the point where I wouldn’t even want to walk out my door. And if we shouldn’t think this way about other normal life occurrences, why has birth been so highly taken over with that kind of focus?
What do you think? Did you fear birth? If you didn’t, what helped you get to that point of security?