by Wendy Kenin @greendoula
In the United States’ high tech birthing industry, a pregnant woman must do research and be ready to advocate for herself. Important safeguards for a fulfilling rite of passage are a birth plan and a solid birth team.
If a mother-to-be doesn’t have the time to research all of the regional hospitals, birth centers, or homebirth practices, she may want to check with local friends who’ve had babies or find a doula who has experience with multiple providers and methods. Even if the birth does not go as planned, a mother may carry with her a positive memory of her milestone day if she is surrounded by an attentive and caring team.
Believe it or not, it has only been one century since almost all births in the United States took place at home. Natural childbirth occurs when a woman gives birth with little or no medical intervention (depending on the varying definitions of the term). The process of choosing a natural childbirth imparts power and strengthens a woman’s autonomy.
Planning a natural birth in the United States today requires stern commitment. The ACLU reports violations of pregnant women’s right to make their own medical decisions and pregnant women have even been jailed for refusing advice from their doctors. Expecting families must thoroughly interview caregivers about practices in order to find the professionals whose ideas match their own.
For reproductive health as well as for personal sovereignty, it is critical for a woman to trust that her body knows how to birth, just as her body knows how to breathe. Nurses and doctors I have encountered in the hospital have all told me that they rarely see, or have never seen a natural birth. In today’s climate, a pregnant woman who relies on these professionals becomes subject to modern medicine’s latest trends.
With a range of monitoring and protocols, the process of birthing in a hospital becomes the subject of analysis that regularly leads to successive medical interventions. Many women who intend to have a natural birth find themselves being guided by their caregiver to use pain medications, hormones, and more. Sadly, most pain medications reach the baby, who may be born intoxicated.
Often the nurses who are on shift during labor have the greatest impact on labor decisions. Nurses are oriented toward measuring labor progress and administering pain medications. Doctors or midwives are also present during delivery. Depending on the people and the institution, hospital midwives may have an approach that is more conducive to a natural delivery.
As a doula with a background in various birth settings, I strive to create a homebirth experience in the hospital. My attention is on providing the mother informational, emotional and physical support. Just like at home, the mother in the hospital may choose to walk around, turn out lights, and go through contractions in multiple positions for many hours to help the baby move down and to manage her pain.
Often mothers are kept on an active schedule to resemble a textbook delivery, discounting that every woman, labor, and delivery is different. Nurses offer simulated hormones to bring on stronger contractions and move the labor along. When a woman in labor complains about pain, the nurse informs her of available medications. With every medical intervention comes more risk factors and typically one medical intervention leads to the next.
“Failure to progress,” also called dystocia, is the leading cause of Cesarean delivery—major surgery of the abdomen and uterus—in the United States, not fetal or maternal distress. USA Today reporter Rita Rubin aptly calls dsytocia “failure to wait.” Cesareans entail many more risks to baby and mother than do vaginal births. A natural vaginal birth ensures the best possible entry into the world for baby, and the optimal emotional, spiritual, and physical experience for mother.
Technology imparts the pregnant mother with new choices. We may be measuring our nutrition intake, or choosing in vitro fertilization or prenatal testing. Unfortunately, the power of technology can also work against a woman’s basic rights and her intuitive knowledge.
Some women include in their birth plans that they do not want pain medication offered unless they request it. Some specify to not be coached to use arguably hazardous yet standardized precautionary techniques, such as bearing down and pushing the baby before the urge to push arises, or having her bag of waters artificially ruptured. Some birth plans instruct to wait until clamping and cutting the cord, to wait for the placenta to birth naturally, or to wait until after mother and baby have bonded before performing routine medical procedures with the newborn. To allow for maximum inclusion and respect of your birth plan in a hospital, bring five to 15 copies to share with the various nurses and medical personnel who will be involved in your care.
Whatever your circumstances, a doula can help navigate your birth through the high tech system. Usually the doula stays with you after the birth until you begin your next natural stage of mothering: breastfeeding. Simply having someone who understands the experience to be your ally assures a positive element to the birth experience.
The life cycle events of birthing and being born have been Hallmarked, mechanized, corporatized, politicized, and institutionalized, along with many other naturally occurring life forms and processes. One way to retain your humanity during birth planning is to have your beloveds organize a Blessingway, a spiritually-focused gathering in honor of the mother.
In her book Blessingways: A Guide to Mother-Centered Baby Showers, author Shari Maser, CCE, explains, “The common thread among Blessingways is the use of ritual to celebrate the mother-to-be, to acknowledge the momentous impact of bringing a new baby into her family, and to support her through this transition.”
The term “Blessingway” comes from a traditional Navajo ceremony. In popular culture, mothers receive gifts at fanciful celebratory baby showers. Many traditional peoples still adhere to taboos that prohibit gathering baby items, setting up a baby room, or naming a baby before birth. Drawing from your personal ancestral cultural heritage to hold a spiritually-centered baby shower concentrates your attention on the spiritual journey of your birth and has the potential to bring together your community’s strength around your birth and the welcoming of your child.
Birthing can be healing and restorative. Always transformative, birthing is when a woman’s body acts as a vessel to form a passage from the spirit realms to the physical world. Empowered we embody the life-giver, and when we birth with intention, the worlds can come together.
Wendy Kenin is a doula and mother of four in Berkeley, California. She is Vice Chair of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, and serves on the Editorial Board of the Green Party of the United States. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original version of this article first appeared in Vision Magazine, September 2009.