As we reach hump day of Empowered Birth Awareness Week, how fitting that Step 4 of my Parenting for Peace roadmap is actually entitled “Empowered Birth”! The book is based on 7 principles, applied through 7 steps in time — beginning pre-conception and going through adolescence. In honor of EBAW, here is a collection (in 2 parts) of practical ideas of how to engage each of the 7 Parenting for Peace principles in specific ways to up your odds of having an empowered birth.
Principles for Empowered Birth: Part I
Presence – I can think of few more potent opportunities to discover and practice advanced dimensions of this principle than during labor and birth. Birth anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd, in describing how she charted a new rapport with presence during her second labor (a home VBAC), compares it to swimming a marathon, noting that the champions “don’t count the distance. They enter a timeless dimension, where this stroke is all there is. This stroke, and this one, and then this one. I am in that timeless world. I quit wondering eons ago when the baby will come out. There is only this contraction, and this push, and this pause, and then this contraction, and this push, and — then the midwife’s Voice, summoning forth my consciousness from its burial in the depths of sensation.”
- Fathers, see if you can find the space within yourself to be present with your laboring partner in a way that resonates with where she is. Find the aspect of you that allows without doing or fixing (those wonderfully masculine impulses without which we wouldn’t have skyscrapers or spaceships). Let your strength be devoted toward simply sheltering your partner’s authentic process, which may be intense and raw, and may include pain, noise, and general upheaval. She needs you to shelter her, not save her.
- While you’re laboring you can be present to your new little one through your welcoming, encouraging thoughts: Baby, we’re here working together — we’re almost in each other’s arms! Let the anticipation of our togetherness be for joy — this adventure is about to come to fruition. Sweet baby, this is a crazy world, but let’s make it better together.
- To the laboring woman and her partner: know that through the power of presence, you can bring any place or situation under your dominion. Even if you end up headed to the OR for a c-section, there is a component of surrender you can engage in that is very powerful: forget who you “are”—the collection of thoughts, plans, and what some call ego. Open up a silence within; tell yourself this is your place and your moment. Own it, and go inside. Focus inside your story of graceful surrender, and of welcoming your child into the world.
Awareness – Perhaps the most important awareness to hold during this step is that a woman’s body is elegantly and intricately designed to birth on its own, providing that a few basic mammalian environmental requirements are met: safety, privacy, lack of verbal and mental stimulation.
- Know that if you’re hungry during labor, you’re not yet in active labor, and you should eat. Eating lowers the adrenaline, for one thing, which helps labor to proceed. Birth is physiologically programmed to happen in an oxytocin-saturated state, and oxytocin accompanies digestion, so eating a little helps coax this along. So yes, eat a bit if you like, but not for the commonly accepted reason that you’re preparing for a marathon and will need so many calories for energy. It’s actually the reverse—you are preparing for an extended series of episodes of deep relaxation, in which, ideally, you even fall asleep between contractions.
- Water immersion can work seeming miracles for labor, but it is important to be aware of the role of timing: women who enter the pool too soon can hinder rather than ease their labor. Obstetrics physician Michel Odent explains that “a laboring woman shouldn’t enter the water before her cervix has dilated to five centimeters, as the common response to immersion is a redistribution of blood volume that stimulates the release atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP). The inhibitory effect of this peptide on the activity of the posterior pituitary gland is slow—in the region of one to two hours.” What this means is that nature offers us a window of time—one to two hours—during which the water provides relaxation and pain relief, and the synergy between oxytocin production and blood distribution produces a spectacular progress in cervical dilation. But if the woman remains in the pool for more than two hours, exceeding this ideal window, labor is likely to stall. Essentially, the body’s intelligence says, “We’ve now been in water long enough and other aspects of physiology require attention; we cannot keep producing oxytocin any longer!” In fact, in light of sheer birth physiology principles and his almost fifty years of attending births, Odent suggests such immersion can be seen as a reliable test of whether a cesarean is called for: “If the already well-advanced [five centimeters or more] dilation remains stable in spite of water immersion, privacy (no cameras!), and dim light, one can conclude that there is a major obstacle. There is no reason for procrastination. It is wiser to perform an in-labor non-emergency caesarean immediately.”[i]
Rhythm – During birth, rhythm reigns — or at least it should. Women, to the extent that you are willing to give yourself over to the mighty rhythms of your body’s birthing wisdom — to surrender to the mystery — you will have an empowering experience.
- Early labor offers you the opportunity to acquaint yourself more directly with your body’s gathering birthing rhythms, and to befriend them. One is the time-honored way of noting the time between contractions (or what uber-midwife Ina May Gaskin prefers to call “rushes”). Honor the relaxed rhythm of these early hours. A commonly endorsed calculus for determining the onset of true labor is: one contraction lasting for one minute occurring every five minutes.
Example – Realize that you are joining a sacred living history, a stream of women who through the eons have made this journey and charted the way for you. In the wake of this noble lineage of birthing women, you’re able to enrich their past knowledge with new resources and perhaps even have a better birthing experience. This brings healing and joy to the lineage.
- It is always good to have a woman in the room with you who has birthed in a way that you consider successful. She serves as a subliminal guiding model, through body-to-body, brain-to-brain resonance—in the same way that it is easier to meditate in a room with another who is meditating, or how we find we’re suddenly more intelligent in proximity to a brilliant person.
- Made popular by the Lamaze method, the use of a focal point can be seen as harnessing the example principle: as I gaze on this singular point, I echo within me its symmetry, organization, and simplicity. You can also use sound in this way, by choosing music, chant, or kirtan that is repetitive, like a mantra. It must be monotonous so as to not stimulate your brain’s cortical sensors for novelty; it should be something you’re very familiar with, that feels like home to you.
Childbirth at its optimum is a profound initiation, a rite of passage, a sacred doorway into a new level of experience. I believe that all women, consciously or not, participate in a collective knowing about the transformative potential that childbirth offers us, a faint and haunting collective memory of the empowerment and profound initiation we might claim in the birthing of our babies.
[i] Odent, Michel. The Caesarean. London: Free Association Books, 2004, pg. 103-104.
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