In these few weeks following my daughter’s birth, I’ve heard some pretty interesting comments about natural childbirth. Some I expected, others really surprised me. One was “You’re my hero!” This intrigued me because, in re-reading my blog post about my most recent birth never once did I suggest that I was somehow stronger than any other woman who has ever birthed before. If anything, my daughter’s birth story speaks more to the natural power of the human female when no one interferes with its intrinsic design – since my own willpower or personal fortitude had nothing to do with it.
Ultimately, I have had two experiences of childbirth: my first was a drawn out, emotionally and physically traumatizing hospital induction and birth. The second, a short and powerful life-affirming birth at home.
“We have a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.” - Laura Stavoe Harm
To say I have a preference or a bias would be an understatement. Do I think that every birth should happen at home or at least out of hospital? Of course not. The hospital and its OBs have their place: for high risk or difficult deliveries.
It has been my experience with OBs (and the experience of a great many others) often seem to see the human female reproductive tract as flawed, imperfect and thus needing a great deal of intervention to be successful in childbirth. This attitude sets up a very emotionally charged woman with a rather large cloud of doubt about her body’s ability to birth – if labor is a marathon, you don’t want a coach to start out your training by telling you that you can’t do it. We live in a country where c-section rates have hovered near 30% with no better (read: safer) outcomes than 50 years ago when the c-section rate was less than 10%. In fact, the US has worse maternal and infant mortality statistics than any other industrialized nation in the world. Countries that do better rely a great deal more on midwives who transfer high-risk cases to obstetricians and where healthy, low-risk births take place out of the hospital. There are a great many resources out there which delve more completely into this topic, and I will not spend a great deal of time hashing them out here.
What it comes down to is this: if you’re a woman with a healthy, low-risk pregnancy in most states you can choose in-hospital birth or out of hospital birth. Statistically, neither is “safer” (meaning the likelihood of mortality of either mother or baby is nominal). “Studies” that show homebirth/OOH (out of hospital) birth as dangerous pretty universally include high-risk births, unattended births, and even miscarriages. A planned home or birth center birth is just as safe as a hospital birth, and arguably is safer in terms of avoiding the side effects of epidurals, induction drugs, as well as the emotional loss of self that so many women encounter in hospital birth.
I’ve been told that I’m brave for being willing to or wanting an out of hospital birth. I say they are brave for being willing to birth at a hospital! With the push for interventions which so frequently turn into a cascade of ultimately unnecessary interventions that often ends in mom being separated from baby during some of the biologically most precious moments of her baby’s life I’d say there’s no small risk in hospital birth. What is lost? Immediate skin-to-skin with baby, early initiation of breastfeeding (or even the “breast-crawl”), an alert and aware newborn, and the nearly orgasmic cocktail of hormones your body dishes up for those first few hours postpartum are all minimized or lost entirely even in the best of hospital practices. Pitocin for a “stalled” labor causes much stronger contractions than the body naturally produces, which in the case of my son’s birth led to him looking like a prize fighter for months (he literally had the crap beat out of him by pitocin, had one eye swollen over the other until he was 4 months old). A baby feels the effects of an epidural and any narcotic pain reliever and results in a newborn that is less alert and is sometimes not even able to breastfeed directly following birth. An epidural also kills your body’s ability to feel the urge to push or to know whether you’re in a good position to push effectively. Even a simple IV of saline can foil a mom’s attempts at breastfeeding by causing edema not just in the ankles but the breasts leading to difficulty latching as well as delaying milk “coming in”. Never mind the result of routine episiotomies and being forced to birth on your back or worse, in a semi-sitting position which shrinks the size of the pelvis by as much as 20+%. I was told after my son was born that I should “never have been allowed to deliver a baby over 7lbs” (I pushed Justin out in a semi-sitting position which took 3 hours, a stem-to-stern episiotomy, and an obstetrical maneuver I still have not found in the medical literature). In contrast, drug-free with Georgia I was able to follow my body’s lead and deliver a similarly-sized baby with not so much as a tear. I trusted my body to do what it needed to do, that is all.
I am not special. My body has no more “special birthing powers” than any other woman to give birth on this planet. I know many women who’ve had both in and out of hospital births and have found my experience on both ends to be rather typical of each type of birth.
So to my friends who would see out of hospital birth as something extraordinary I say this: Look deep within, know yourself and your body’s intrinsic ability to do the amazing everyday things that you do. Seek out true “informed consent”, know your hospital’s protocols, and seek to know to risks and benefits of each. Don’t take anyone’s word for it (even mine!), and do your own research asking as many questions as you need. But above all, do not make a decision out of blind fear or an assumption that one alternative is “safer” than another. Remember that a healthy baby is not the only thing that matters – a mom who comes through birth empowered and whole is going to more easily weather the sometimes challenging transition to motherhood.
“Remember this, for it is as true and true gets: Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth well as aardvarks, lions, rhinoceri, elephants, moose, and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.” – Ina May Gaskin, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth