You might have noticed that I did not suggest taking a childbirth class to prepare.
In her book, Misconceptions, Naomi Wolf writes about how many childbirth instructors are actually employed by hospitals. If they aren’t being paid directly (as many of them are), they are getting their clients through hospital referrals.
Instead of giving true information and really empowering first-time moms, these instructors are often regurgitating hospital policy, showing videos of women being docile and obedient in labor instead of teaching real pain management techniques.
Hint: breathing and panting and staring soulfully into your partner’s eyes all fly out the window when contractions slam your body. Primal noises, animal sounds, shrieks, cussing (”You f——g a—–e WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME?”), and deep moans like the ones you made while you were enjoying yourself getting the baby in there in the first place all tend to work much better.
But, as Wolf points out in her book, these fierce and empowering screams to get you through contractions are not “socially acceptable” or “publicly acceptable.”
When you’re in hospital you’re in a quasi public place. The nurses on staff, the other laboring moms and their partners and families, the doctors, the janitors, and everyone else at the hospital (like expectant couples touring the ward) will hear you if you’re managing your pain loudly.
Loud pain management = good for mom to release tension and enjoy labor.
Loud pain management = social embarrassment for all the non-laboring people who would be much happier if you would just. shut. up.
More to the point, a hospital makes much less money if you manage your own pain.
I will write that sentence again in case you were sipping your coffee and skimming: A hospital makes much less money if you manage your own pain.
Almost everyone in the hospital has a vested interest in shooting you and your emerging baby up with pain medication in the form of narcotics or an epidural. What’s wrong with that? Once you’re doped up, you’re tied down, tethered by an IV or an epidural. Which means you can’t walk around anymore, or squat, or get on all fours, or hug your helpers, or hang from their arms. But movement during labor not only helps you open up and birth your baby, it helps you manage what can otherwise feel unbearable.
Once you’re quiet and docile, chatting with your partner instead of working with your body, your baby, and your hormones, the deck is stacked against you. You’re so wired to the bed that you might as well be tethered there, as women of my mother’s generation were. Gravity is no longer on your side. A baby needs to slip under your pelvic bone but the space is now constricted because you’re lying on your back or are semi-recumbent in bed.
Some well-meaning friends gifted us a childbirth class when we were pregnant for the first time eleven years ago.
I remember the instructor’s voice often caught when she talked about her oldest child’s birth.
Since her labor wasn’t “progressing fast enough,” the hospital midwives made her stimulate her own nipples.
Rub-rub-rub. Stop. Rub-rub-rub. Stop.
But the instructor never honestly explained how she felt about that birth. Instead, she presented all the “options” that the hospital presents to laboring women. Hanging off the doctor for dear life during transition is not one of those options.
Now that I’m reading Wolf’s book as part of my larger research on how corporations and private interests are skewing the way we treat babies in utero and through the first year of life, I’m beginning to understand better why our childbirth instructor wasn’t being honest. In the hospitals in Atlanta, which is where we lived at the time, there is very little room for women to have the births they want. Instead of psychological support, I was treated with impatience and scorn during labor (Nurse who checked my dilation after more than 12 hours of excruciating active labor: “Nothing. Not even a dimple.”)
Suzanne Arms, writing in her now classic 1975 book Immaculate Deception (a book which launched a home birth movement in the United States), talks about how childbirth instructors are often part of the problem, part of a complicity of silence that keeps women transitioning into motherhood literally flat on their backs.
Unfortunately, I fear that Arms’ insight is still true today.
There are exceptions, of course. But most childbirth instructors have to be aware that they are navigating a political and financial minefield and they have to be very careful about what they say and how they say it. (This is true for midwives as well. Especially hospital midwives. Sadly, many of the midwives quoted in Naomi Wolf’s book would only talk to her off the record because they didn’t want their names to be used for fear of losing their jobs or angering their colleagues by telling the truth of how laboring women are being treated in hospitals today.)
In the community in southern Oregon where I live people pride themselves on being progressive and forward thinking. When a public panel was being put together to inform pregnant women about birthing options, one of the panel organizers wanted to invite me to speak about my unassisted childbirth. The panel included women telling the stories of Cesarean hospital births, medicated hospital births, natural hospital births, and home births with certified midwives present. I was one of three women who had unassisted births in our city in less than a year. But the committee balked. “We would not want to be seen as presenting that as an option,” a committee member said to my friend when her proposal to invite me was rejected.
One of the reasons I recommended some of the more radical books in my post on how to have an empowered birth is because if you read those books a simple home birth with trained midwives starts to seem like a straight and narrow option. It’s certainly much less radical than an unassisted home birth VBAC after three hospital C-sections (which is one of the amazing stories told in Simply Give Birth.)
You don’t need an childbirth “expert” or a panel to tell you how to have your first baby. You may get more honest answers and be better off in the long run if you do your own research.