Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Business of Being Born.

I knew the minute I heard about this documentary that I had to see it, because I've always been intrigued by the process of birth. When I was about ten years old I saw a scene depicting natural childbirth on TV and it triggered a fascination that has lingered. I never remember being freaked out in later years, despite your stock movie portrayal of shrieking woman in hospital meeting up with nightmarishly long needle -- that earlier natural birth scene prevailed in my mind. It took longer for me to decide that I was excited to be a parent for the long haul or even care for a sweet, cooing infant -- let alone a grouchy, wailing one -- but I was always sure I wanted to have the experience of being pregnant and giving birth. (Need a surrogate mother? Womb for rent! Anyone?) So I was deliriously happy that I got to see the birth of my niece, even though my sister didn't especially want me there (sorry, Sis -- you know I was forced). And then later, my nephew as well. What an honor to be there when the little ones appeared. Humbling experiences, on many levels.

However, despite my fascination with the natural aspects of birth, I was sure that I would ultimately settle on a standard hyper-sanitary hospital birth: backless paper gown, stirrups, epidural, the works. I “knew” that my vision of birth was romantic and dangerous that if I didn't give birth in a hospital attended by a physician that even if things turned out fine I would feel that I had been irresponsible -- that I'd endangered my child to indulge my silly Earth Mother notions. But I kept indulging them on the sly. About twelve years ago I read the Pulitzer-winning history A Midwife's Tale, and marveled that an experienced Revolutionary-era midwife living in frontier conditions could attend 816 home deliveries with only 39 fatalities (14 stillbirths, 20 newborn deaths, 5 deaths of mothers), but concluded she must have been freakishly skilled. Clearly a standard modern hospital birth offered the greatest chance for safety, I repeatedly told myself. Several years ago when a friend started indoctrinating me about doulas and home births, stuff even wackier than my own thinking, I decided she must be a devil on my shoulder, feeding me more and more of what I wanted to believe, encouraging me to ignore the Known Truth. Later, after the birth of her first child (with doula, without drugs), she told me how she had felt strongly that the room of the birthing center had been transformed into a temporary religious sanctuary, and that someone should have been standing at the door interviewing potential intruders to ascertain whether they were worthy to enter the sacred space. I had heard many joyful birth accounts before, but nothing quite like that.

On the other hand, my own mother has no romantic notions about the epic ordeal of moving babies from Point A to Point B, which is not surprising given that I was her first and had such an abnormally large head that the doctors thought I was hydrocephalic. Thanks to me and my massive noodle, she needed a blood transfusion afterward, and even if 1976 had offered her any real birth alternatives, I would have thought her insane to do anything but what she did -- demand the drugs.

So like most of our peers my two siblings and I are epidural babies, and despite what rabid granolas would predict, we three are all highly intelligent (even if we do say so ourselves), well adjusted, and non-psychologically-scarred. And whether or not Mom was initially slighted by the circumstances of our entrances (the documentary notes that certain modern interventions interfere with early hormonally triggered mother-child bonding) she went on to be the warmest motherheart in this cold earth, and has only grown more remarkable as the years have ticked by. She's waaay better than your mom. Just accept it.*

So now we come to the who's-a-better-mommy wars: you don't have to linger long on a typical “mommy” blog before encountering this nasty phenomenon, as mothers beat each other over the head for decisions they don't approve of. We had a female neighbor when I was growing up who was also a dear friend of my mom's, and the only thing that that woman ever did that hurt Mom was occasionally boast that both of her children were born naturally, implying that she was a braver, better mother than the hosts of epidural mothers around her. (Of course, she was a six-foot-tall woman having average-weight babies, so.....) In spite of my secret views about birth I took Mom's side whenever that conversation resurfaced, and felt the ickyness of any woman using her childbirth experience as proof of her superior mothering ability. Not to mention that that lady's children were nothing particularly special -- I know because I was their regular babysitter for several years. They were good kids and I loved them, but neither were they exceptional. Surprise, surprise -- they turned out just like those of us who had “normal” mothers.

But having said that -- having stood on the side of those mothers who choose (or have chosen for them) medical interventions and defended those mothers against the delusional nature-will-never-betray-us kooks who see a forked tongue in the mouth of every OB/GYN -- I do have to say that I'm very glad that if/when I have babies it will be in a time when there are beginning to be real choices again in the US. When birthing is beginning to be seen as something intense and excruciating, but rarely dangerous when allowed to proceed normally under the watch of an experienced attendant who knows when interventions are wise and when they are not. When we are able to see how our childbirth culture has evolved and consciously choose the good developments and reject the evil developments (and I don't use the word “evil” lightly -- economic and legal considerations have trumped medical considerations in recent decades to give us a ONE IN THREE Caesarian birth rate in the United States and the second highest infant mortality rate in the developed world).

So I'm nearly done rambling. You should just see The Business of Being Born if you ever plan to have children, whether in the role of mother or father. It is balanced. It doesn't paint women who give birth in hospitals with drugs as lesser mothers, because if it had I would have laughed at the screen and turned it off. It just tells us some of our forgotten American cultural history, exposes some of our scientific vanity, gives some jarring facts, and asks some compelling questions. Not questions related to wowing the other mothers at the park with your harrowing tale of birthing 9-pound breech-presentation triplets in the woods without drugs, but rather questions related to how we can be conscious participants in the transformative process of birth rather than hit-and-run victims. As someone notes in the movie, all women are transformed by the process of birth whether or not they want to be, and that transformation can be joyful and empowering or devastating and scarring (both spiritually and physically).

Informed choice is a beautiful thing. And if I ultimately choose to go with the hardcore drugs, the first person who calls me a wimp is meeting up with the heavy end of my diaper bag.

* Note to future spouse: you can only PRAY that I'll eventually become my mother.

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