My first birth didn't feel very empowered. My OB seemed distinctly uninterested in having an empowered birthing patient. I felt meek and under his power. I evolved, my power grew, I switched OBs, and by Baby #2, I had what felt like a very empowered birth. Details in a moment.
When a baby is born, a mother is born. Even if she already has children, each birth experience unfolds new facets of a woman's being, having to do with feeling powerful, capable, supported -- or helpless, incompetent, insignificant. These primal feelings will weave their way through her ongoing life and her relationships -- with her children, her partner, herself. Indeed, a mother’s experience of giving birth -- whether it's an empowered birth or not -- leaves its indelible imprint, a faint yet distinct watermark on her soul.
The Power of Stories
Telling her story helps a new mother integrate the intensity of her birth experience into everyday life and into her own consciousness. It also introduces her experiences into the community, where the next generation of young women can develop a healthy understanding of pregnancy, labor pain, birth and motherhood. We have abandoned these kinds of postpartum rituals; in our culture, virtually all authentic expressions about the noble endeavor of childbirth are deformed into standard-issue sitcom punch lines.
Western civilization is notoriously cavalier about childbirth stories; as long as it results in a healthy baby, the birthing experience itself is seen as insignificant, a means to an end, nothing to dwell upon. (“Oh, come on honey, Brad and Audrey don’t need to see the video...”). Any detours from a woman’s childbirth expectations become largely irrelevant once a "good outcome" has been achieved.
But new research suggests that we shouldn’t be so quick to sweep birth bygones under the rug: negative emotions linked to childbirth may be pushed back by conscious cognitive processing (“Oh, it wasn’t so bad, and look how beautiful she is!”) and framed into a “wordless and unelaborated realm of experience” that can get in the way of the mother-baby relationship.
In one brilliant little study, women were simply supported in taking just fifteen minutes to write or speak aloud a narrative account of their child’s birth -- including all of their associated emotions and worries, without denying, "prettying up" or minimizing them. Engaging in that short exercise greatly reduced these new mothers’ symptoms of stress-induced avoidance, including a sense of “estrangement from others” and high levels of nervous system arousal, which lead to irritability, hypercontrol, and anxiety for forthcoming negative events. The reduced rate of these symptoms -- often precursors to postpartum depression -- remained consistent at a follow-up after two months.
My First Birth: Power Quotient Low
Dr. R. had come highly recommended by my wonderful chiropractor and tended to be on the more progressive side in his approach. So I was taken aback when it became clear over time that he wasn't big on the whole Bradley, "knowledge is power" idea. As my belly hit zeppelin proportions, and I broached the topic of a birth plan, he would brush it off with the basic Big Daddy "Don't worry your pretty little head, just put your faith in me" attitude. I managed to impress upon him my abject desire to have not a C-section, but that was about it. Even if I did end up with a cesarean, the goal was the arrival of a healthy baby, he said. The manner of that arrival was something that would quickly be irrelevant, or so he proposed.
My labor was unusually fast, especially for a first labor. Once we arrived at the hospital, Dr. R. swept my husband John aside and demoted him from labor partner/coach to photographer. Not long after I was gowned and flat on my back in bed, Dr. R. left the room for a few minutes. John was still down filling out admittance forms, so I was alone with a labor nurse doing paperwork at a table across the room. A strong contraction came and she barely looked up.
Ian had the cord around his neck, and so with every contraction that cord pulled tight and his heart rate slowed down. (It is important to remember that with each contraction the baby, too, is exerting effort to be born -- flexing and pushing against the top wall of the uterus to propel himself down the birth canal.) The pushing phase was intense, with Dr. R. bullying me like a drill sergeant: "Push, push, push, push, push! No sound, don't let any sound out, your push gets weaker that way."
I had continually said no drugs, but at a certain point he gave me "a touch of Nicentyl, to take the edge off." As Ian was crowning Dr. R. performed a big episiotomy. At some point in those next couple minutes and pushes (and I am ashamed and sad to admit this), I screamed, "Get it OUT of me!!" (We had chosen to not learn the baby's sex beforehand.) In was only watching the video a few days later that I could see how, the moment Ian's head emerged, Dr. R. leveraged the very tightly wrapped cord away from Ian's neck and pried it up over his head with a startlingly powerful thwack.
Despite everything, I have always felt tremendous gratitude to Dr. R. for the skillful, calm manner in which he responded to Ian's heart rate decelerations during my contractions. Once a contraction was finished, he would "jostle" my belly and actually talk to the baby: "C'mon Baby, perk up, it's okay..." or something like that. I'm quite sure that most other obstetricians would have performed a C-section, even 26 years ago. Instead, he made sure I pushed Ian out as quickly as possible. Also, in a fairly unusual hospital move, once he'd snapped the cord from
around Ian's neck, Dr. R. had me reach down, grab my baby, and lift him to my chest. That was cool. But by then I was so utterly spent I didn't feel very powerful. Just wrung out.
We were in the hospital for three full days, during which time -- yet another confession of deep regret...something our pediatrician Jay Gordon had specifically warned us against -- I relented and allowed nurses to take Ian away to the nursery so I "could get some rest." I felt shell-shocked, scared and exhausted when we went home.
My Second: Empowered Birth
Though I went to Dr. R. for a couple months into my second pregnancy, I soon had an epiphany of sorts: I have emotionally outgrown this doctor. I am blessed to have found my way to Vic Berman, who with his midwife wife Sallee had founded this country's first free-standing birthing center in the 1970s. By now Vic was nearing retirement and working at a tiny community hospital 15 miles from the world-class hospital of my first birth.
Vic had the kindly manner of a country doctor. He was soft-spoken, low-key, with not one trace of the paternalistic "Big Daddy" attitude of my first OB. He helped me see that the gestational diabetes of my first pregnancy had actually been barely there: my numbers after that horrific uber-sweet cola glucose challenge test were borderline and open to interpretation. He suggested that Dr. R's diagnosis seemed inordinately conservative; indeed, Dr. R. made me paranoid about eating anything vaguely sweet -- including the glorious summer fruits that summer of Ian's birth!
Eve's birth was simple, quick, and without any intervention. (I grew up with a mother who indoctrinated me into the belief that being a woman was very dangerous business, and I had not yet gathered the knowledge I have now about the relative safety of home birth. Wherever a woman feels safest is where she will be able to birth most successfully. Happily, in this little hospital I got the best of both worlds.)
There in the birthing room with John and Vic standing by, I labored at my own speed (which happened to be fast) allowed to go deep inside my own interior space. Robbie Gass' “Om Namaha Shivaya” was my mantra, and I rode the contractions on waves of my own gutteral sounds. I pushed at my own pace, and with Vic sitting at the foot of the bed, Eve emerged with her waters and he merely caught her.
We stayed the night in that little low-tech room, and were home 24 hours after Eve's birth. That evening as I was making Ian's dinner while holding Eve in her favorite position over my left arm, it occurred to me that I felt like Wonder Woman. I was exhilarated and renewed. I felt like I could take on anything.
And that was a watermark on my soul that has enriched my life for the past 22 years!
Photos: John Axness
What is YOUR birth story? In observance of Empowered Birth Awareness Week, please share it with us! You can post in "Comments" below, or as a comment on my Facebook page here -- or choose from the many other ideas listed in the FB post.
I'm the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of book I've been visiting many wonderful groups and conferences around the world, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As well as good old parenting stuff. As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."