We have done a wonderful job as women of making ourselves heard–for the most part. Almost 200 years ago our mothers fought so we could vote for our political leaders. Forty years ago our mothers fought so we could play collegiate sports. In recent weeks we have seen military women speak up about abuse and finally be heard by congress.
Women have also gained control over how and when they conceive a child, yet they have little control over how they deliver one. With all this progress, this is the area in which our daughters most need a voice–a voice about one of the most important things they will do in their lifetime. Our daughters need a voice about how they want to bear their children.
Childbirth is a highly emotional time, a time when we, women, are likely a bit scared. We may not think as rationally or calmly as we do under normal circumstances, and our husbands forgive anything we say to them in those taxing hours before we give birth. Because women in labor are in such a heightened emotional state, doctors and health care professionals are in a position to silence a woman’s voice. The “experts” may make recommendations based on their isolated opinion, and expectant mothers do not have the opportunity to consider other opinions that may have equal validity.
Because we are scared, perhaps naive, and undoubtedly in a position where we must trust our doctors, we weakly nod, or perhaps whisper an “all right” when a doctor suggests he administer pitocin, or an epidural, an episiotomy or a C-section.
Women who have educated themselves about childbirth adamantly declare, there is another way! I am not one of them. I am old-fashioned enough that I mutely accepted all the doctor’s mandates. I was raised to view doctors as wise and all-knowing, and “Who was I” to question the recommendation of the “expert”? My father, who was a doctor, said that when he went to medical school they were taught to appear “wise and all knowing.” They were supposed to instill confidence in their patients by acting as if they knew everything there was to know about the medicine and how to practice it.
“Practice” is exactly what doctors do, however. Today’s medical students seem far more humble about their profession. Recently I interviewed a medical student who readily admitted that doctors are seldom 100% sure that what they do will work. Much of the time they are guessing, an educated guess, no doubt, but they intervene on a trial an error basis.
A Voice in Childbirth
When it comes to childbirth, a woman can have a glorious experience, or a horrifying experience, and it largely depends on her voice–does she speak up and is she heard?
One friend felt “forced” to have a c-section because her cervix was “too small.” She begged for a vaginal delivery during her subsequent pregnancies and was refused. Another friend complains because the pitocin created labor pains far more intense than those she experienced when she did not take pitocin.
Another friend laments that the epidural gave her excruciating headaches, and another could not walk upon delivery. Another claims her babies were lethargic when she received anesthetic, and alert when she didn’t.
My daughters-in-law have educated themselves to a level I never fathomed when I was bearing children. One of them didn’t make it to the birthing center in time to receive professional help, and she and her husband actually delivered their baby together in their living room! She said that of her three deliveries, the one they did themselves was the most peaceful, most spiritual, and most miraculous birth of all.
Certainly a home birth without medical help is ill advised, but the experience illustrates tremendous blessing of a woman educating herself. Today’s educated woman knows all kinds of secrets about childbirth I never learned as a young mother. Our daughters know they don’t have to lie flat on their backs throughout their labor, they can walk around; they don’t have to deliver flat on their backs, they can squat, or rest on their hands and knees. These possibilities never even occurred to my generation.
Our daughters know they don’t have to let someone check their cervix every few minutes to see if they are amply dilated. These girls have discovered that labor actually slows down and the vagina closes up when they feel threatened or stressed. One stranger after another entering the room while a woman is in labor can certainly be stressful. (If I had known this fact perhaps my labors would not have lasted as long as 36 hours.)
Our daughters actually have the courage to deliver babies without anesthetic! They have mastered self-hypnosis and a variety of breathing techniques that enable them to manage the discomfort of childbirth. The fact that labor does not stall due to stress would in itself help manage the discomfort.
Another daughter-in-law recently delivered her baby underwater. She sat in a warm tub, upright and relaxed. At one point in the delivery her contractions stopped and she recognized she was becoming anxious. She asked my son to climb in the tub with her, so he slipped in behind her, hugging her and helping her feel safe. The baby was born within minutes. Haven, their tiny gift from heaven, was placed on momma’s chest, her little blue body grew more and more pink as she derived her oxygen from the air, rather than the umbilical cord. Haven never cried, just latched onto her mother’s breast and nursed peacefully. When she finished her first meal outside the womb, Haven smiled. She has the same adorable dimple as her brother.
Natural childbirth is not for everybody, but neither are episiotomies and epidurals. Were we to educate our daughters we might reveal that the old-fashioned type of medicine we endured wasn’t all that pleasant. Alternatives exist that women have the right to consider. Certainly, medical intervention is a tremendous blessing when something goes wrong with a pregnancy or a delivery. Many lives have been saved because a fast-thinking physician has performed a c-section, rather than waiting on a vaginal delivery. However, extreme intervention should be the exception, not the norm. Emergencies are not the norm. They are the exception.
Currently, even if a woman has educated herself and she wants a natural childbirth, an insurance company will likely not pay for it.
It is cheaper for her to run up thousands of dollars in hospital and doctor bills that the insurance is willing to pay than it is to hire an experienced midwife at a fraction of the cost.
The sophisticated advances of medicine that we so extol may actually be far more primitive than childbirth without so much medical intervention. My prediction is that our daughters will be the suffragettes of childbirth. One day their daughters will praise their courage and their wisdom and will consider childbirth a sacred experience, a partnership with heaven to which nothing can compare.
JeaNette Goates Smith is the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available many places, including www.Smithfamilytherapy.org