(this is crossposted from my new blog at http://birthodyssey.blogspot.com )
Somewhere in my boxes of books, I have a copy of the pregnancy/childbirth classic, "A Child Is Born." It's inscribed, "With love to our future obstetrician on her ninth birthday." The book has been read so much that I know every illustration and picture, from the crystallized testosterone to the surprised looks on the faces of the women in the hospital.
When other kids wanted to be astronauts, firefighters, or the President of the United States, I was firmly set in my desire to become an obstetrician. But that book was actually also the first thing that clued me in to the fact that something was rotten in the state of obstetrics.
In the edition of the book I owned, there was a photograph of a very, very pregnant woman, who was having her abdomen poked and prodded at to determine the position of the baby. That is all well and good. But the memory that sticks with me is her face. It is blank, a mask, like she's not really there in the room at all. The doctor is there with a baby -- a baby encased in irrelevant flesh. The woman, understanding that she has no place there, has simply...gone away.
As I was ten and eleven years old, I mimicked that face sometimes, thinking about the photograph. What kind of emotions would leave a person so blank at a time that was so important and -- I would imagine -- exciting? Birth seemed like such an expressive, emotional time that the images of sometimes sedated women giving birth also troubled me. The book seemed to take it for granted that pain in birth was unnecessary and could be gotten rid of with minimal trouble. Epidurals and TENS units were mentioned as pain relief measures, and the idea seemed to be that being in pain during birth was troubling, and possibly a little gauche.
Other books I read at the time reinforced my obstetric ambitions. Women who gave birth before the 20th century were always dying in childbirth, bleeding out, having babies get stuck. One of the Sweet Valley Saga books (which, as an avid young fan of the Sweet Valley High books, I read the month it came out) even reinforced this trope, with one of the characters bleeding to death slowly after birthing a healthy infant. Very rarely were there positive portrayals of birth, especially in literature for young people -- childbirth was punishment, blood, death. Birth was so tied up in sex, the sex that our society wants to shield children from at all costs, that it became something terrifying, a medical emergency.
At age thirteen, I had another experience that would change my views on pregnancy and birth. I watched the MGM movie Moll Flanders, which is a reasonably good movie for a bunch of other reasons, too. In that movie, the protagonist's husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her pregnant and alone. Rather than trust the doctors to deliver her baby, fearing that they might try to take it away from her for being poor and without a man, when she goes into labor, she gathers around the things that hold memories of him around her bed, and clings to the bedposts, changing positions, birthing her baby by candlelight without anyone else around. It's a very powerful, intense scene, and it left a lasting impression on me. For the film's protagonist, birth wasn't just an exercise in getting a baby out as quickly as possible. It was catharsis, healing, bringing the experience of life around full circle. This was a turning point. I had once thought of myself as very in favor of the medical advances that brought us sterilized childbirth. I was no longer so sure of myself.
The medical model of childbirth began to seem increasingly destructive and bad as I grew older. I found out that the rate of death in childbirth was actually quite low (though not as low as today, it is true) at most points in history, and actually only spiked when women started going to lying-in hospitals to birth. These hospitals had inadequate or nonexistent sanitation and ventilation, making them a breeding ground for the dangerous "childbed fever," which killed women a week or so after giving birth. Much of this was stopped when a few brave doctors decided to advocate -- of all things -- handwashing. But the sort of childbirth as immediate, horrible risk I had seen portrayed in every book, magazine, television show, and movie didn't exist. Birth wasn't that.
When I realized this, when I read more, I made a decision. Not only would I not go into obstetrics, I wouldn't have children. After all, the whole situation was wrong: babies coming into the world being immediately whisked away from mothers, mothers being ignored in the birth process. Why go through it? I didn't know there was an alternative. I thought, perhaps having a doctor come to my home, the way my grandfather and his generation were born, that might be okay. But no doctors perform housecalls now, and it's not like you could just stay in your home and have a baby -- right?
It took the internet to change what I thought about pregnancy and birth again. I read about babies being born in water, something which immediately appealed to my water-loving self (I often feel more at home in a swimming pool than out in the air!). Researching this led me to find out about the ongoing practice of midwifery, the natural birth movement, and the idea of homebirth. Reading further revealed more: birth centers that looked like homes, The Farm's midwifery and hippie ways, the hospitals trying to seem more homelike by adding big tubs to the L&D ward.
And then I saw it. Unassisted birth. It called to me, like very few things ever have. I'm not a "called to" type of person. I remembered the impact the movie I'd watched long ago had on me, remembered how the entire idea of giving birth in that way seemed somehow right. I read the stories of women who had given birth alone or with their partner and a few close friends, and I thought: yes. Yes, that is how it should be.
I'm not the kind of person to go in without research, though. So I researched everything. Complications, needed supplies, everything -- long before I had even given serious thought to getting pregnant. This year, when I decided I wanted to become pregnant, I reviewed it all. I will probably do so even more. My housemate and I are even seeking certification as childbirth educators, something which will probably relieve our respective husbands, who don't necessarily know much about birth other than the things we babble about incessantly.
So, unassisted birth it is. But as I was on my journey, my suspicious mind kept thinking: what if all these women telling these unassisted birth stories (which run the gamut from "that was great and also painless" to "it was agonizing but totally worth it") were really looking at their birth through rose colored glasses? What is birth like in the moment? These aren't questions we, as a society, even pay very much attention to, and it's hard to, anyhow. But they are the questions I wanted answered. I feel like, given the hormonal rush following an unmedicated birth, the recalled emotions of the mother may not be the actual emotions felt at that time. That is why, when I decided to get pregnant, I decided at the same time that, as much as I possibly could, I would liveblog the birth. Whether I type it myself (which is probable in early labor) or tell someone else to do it for me, I will provide updates as long as I can, as often as I can. I will be interested, as well, to see if my recalled feelings are the same as my actual, recorded feelings. Birth is real. I want my birth story to be as real as possible. I want to make it easier, maybe, for the next woman to say "I can do this."