In December I visited a labor and delivery ward at a prominent hospital in Boston. There were four women in active labor while I was there. They were all young and healthy with no risk factors of any kind.
Three were having their first baby.
One was having her second.
One was a vaginal forceps delivery after the woman was given an epidural and pitocin (a synthetic hormone that mimics oxytocin and is used to intensify contractions) and had spent most of the labor and two hours pushing flat on her back, one was a vaginal delivery with a second degree tear by a woman who was also given an epidural and pitocin and who also delivered flat on her back, and two were Cesarean sections.
The doctor I was shadowing wasn’t sure why the two women—both of whom had wanted natural births—were sectioned. But she did know that neither of the C-sections were emergencies. “I think it was for failure to progress.”
I can’t stop thinking about one of those women. She was laboring happily, walking the halls with a smile on her face, her partner shuffling along behind her, stopping to buttress herself against the wall when a contraction washed over her. She looked so healthy and alive. She was so present in herself. She looked to my inexperienced eye like the last person on earth who would need to have a C-section.
With the epidemic of Cesarean operations in America today, how do you avoid an unnecessary C-section? How do you have the kind of birth you want? How can you own your own labor and delivery and trust your body and your baby so that you feel euphoric when you remember your birth experience instead of depressed and disappointed?
1. Read the right books
If you don’t want to know anything about labor and delivery until it’s your turn, it will be very hard for you to be empowered when the time comes. It’s a good idea to read up on the process.
But what you read makes a huge difference.
I recommend you, your partner, and anyone who you want to be with you while you’re in labor, read the following books, in this order:
• Simply Give Birth by Heather Cushman Dowdee. This is a little known collection of very empowering birth stories where the focus is on the woman and her baby and not on the birth attendant or the intervention. Many of these are stories of women who chose to have unassisted births though Cushman Dowdee did not set out to collect unassisted birth stories per se. Though some of the writing is uneven and some of the narrators might be a bit too woo-woo for you, every story is empowering.
• Unassisted Childbirth by Laura Shanley. Even if you just read around in this book, you will learn so much from it. Shanley tells her own incredible birth stories (she had all of her babies unassisted. The first with four of her partner’s male friends watching!), shares birth stories by other women, and also tells about her philosophy that birth is a natural process and that laboring women should trust themselves. She talks, too, about the importance of mind over matter and of teaching yourself to think positively about the birth process instead of dwelling on fear or pain.
• Childbirth Without Fear: The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth by Grantly Dick-Read. Though this book was written in the 1930s, it is tremendously empowering and affirming (and the book that inspired Shanley and her partner to think outside the birthing box.)
• Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin. This book is for both midwives and pregnant women. It includes many of the birth stories in Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, as well as all of the technical details about childbirth. Though I don’t agree some of Gaskin’s approach (she and her midwives tend to interfere more than I would have been comfortable with when I was in labor), the book is a tremendously helpful, detailed, and well-written resource.
2. Mediate every day, say positive affirmations, and tell yourself that you will have a peaceful, fun, sexy labor
Next I’ll be telling you to hug trees. Thinking (if you prefer that word to the more woo-woo one) about the kind of birth you want, imagining yourself in labor, and psychologically preparing yourself to be the calm center in the eye of the storm can help tremendously. You can simply practice breathing. Breathe slowly and count each breath up to ten and then start over again. As you breathe and count imagine your body opening up, imagine the baby coming down the birth canal, imagine that you and your baby are a team working together in a dance that will change both of your lives.
3. Eat well and exercise, you’re preparing for a marathon
You wouldn’t try to complete a marathon without training first.
Being pregnant is a fantastic excuse to spend a lot of time exercising without feeling guilty that you should be _________ (fill in the blank: working more, spending time with your spouse, cleaning the house.)
Do the exercise that works for you: biking, hiking, pre-natal yoga, swimming, running, walking, dancing. You know this already but exercise really helps prepare your body for labor.
4. Think carefully about WHO you want at the birth
This is not a very popular opinion but honestly if your partner or your mom faint at the sight of blood and are totally panicking about you having a baby, maybe you don’t want either of them there.
Sometimes men can interfere with the labor process, especially when they bring their own fear and baggage into your space.
If you think your mother is going to miraculously morph into the attentive person you always wanted her to be while you were growing up, don’t be surprised when she’s reading a manuscript in the labor room and ignoring you completely, that’s what she’s done your whole life and it’s not going to change now just because you want it to.
Women in labor are very vulnerable to suggestion and they need to have supportive, kind, loving people to help them through every step of the birth. The father of your child can be an amazing source of strength and comfort. But in some cases he can be a hindrance. He isn’t doing you any favors if his energy is negative. Choose loving, supportive, kind, patient, experienced people to be with you. It’s also a good idea to have a friend who isn’t afraid of being your advocate if you butt heads with hospital staff.
If you don’t have close friends or relatives who have been through labor and who you want with you, hire a doula.
5. Stay out of the hospital for as long as you can (or have your baby at home)
The best way to have a safe and empowering birth is to have your baby at home. If you don’t believe me, ask Aneka, who had a safe and wonderful home birth after three hospital C-sections.
If you still don’t believe me, watch “The Business of Being Born,” the movie by Rickie Lake that made the ACOG so upset that they issued a hostile, anti-home birth statement in response.
If you’re lucky to have a birthing center nearby, have your baby there.
If a hospital is your choice:
• Forget about timing contractions and going to the hospital when they are less than five minutes apart. Don’t go to the hospital until you feel like you can’t stay on top of the contractions for one more second.
• Forget about going to the hospital if your water breaks. Stay home and watch a movie. Stay home and watch two movies. Conveniently forget when your water broke and don’t tell the hospital staff how long its been. They’ll want to put you on an unnecessary timeline and also might start you on unnecessary medications and unnecessary intervention.
First time labors can last a long time, much longer than the doctor has patience for. As a first-time mother what you feel is overwhelming may actually just be early labor. The longer you labor at home the better the outcome for you and your baby.
For most women having a baby is pretty intense.
Maybe you’ll be crying out during the contractions but laughing at yourself during the lulls.
Maybe you’ll enjoy being the center of attention or be mortified by the fact that you’re defecating in front of several people (to say nothing of losing all sorts of other bodily fluids in a public forum—it happens to all of us.)
Maybe you’ll keep your romantic sentiments and tell your partner you love him or her or maybe you’ll scream, “THIS IS YOUR FAULT, YOU DID THIS TO ME AND I’LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!”
In a rush of body fluids, a baby girl was born. The doctor put her right up on her mother’s chest. “She’s so small,” the new mom said quietly, patting the floppy baby who was lying on her tummy, her voice full of awe and exhaustion. “I’ve never seen a newborn before.”
The whole world changes the moment your baby is born. When you first look into the baby’s eyes you meet someone you’ve never seen before but have somehow known your whole life. You have a lifetime to get to know each other better. What better way to get started than owning your labor and delivery and having the birth experience you want?
The longest post (in case you’re wondering): A Daughter with Special Needs
If you have children, what kind of birth experience did you have? If you are expecting, what kind of birth experience do you hope to have? Experienced moms and dads, what advice do you have for pregnant parents preparing for labor and delivery?