Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I Believe in Empowered Birth

 Once upon a time, I did not think I was ever going to have a baby.

Hard to believe, right? I spend so much time nowadays talking about pregnancy and birth and babies that most people probably assume I was that little girl who always played house, pretending to care for her baby dolls and imaging names I'd give to my future children.

Not so much. I honestly never thought much about it as a child. Or I don't remember thinking about it, anyway. And as a teenager, I was adamantly against the idea of having a baby. The weirdness of growing a living creature inside my own body, the pain of labor, the actual process of birth... no, thank you! If I ever had a a baby, it would certainly be adopted!

As a young adult and through the first few years of my marriage, I maintained that point of view. No babies, not for us. We'll just be the "cool" aunt and uncle, who visit our nieces and nephews bringing toys and cupcakes, but then we still get to go home by ourselves at the end of the day. That thought suited me just fine.

I'm not sure entirely when that changed. The seeds may have been planted when I read my first natural birth book (Birthing a Better Way by Kalena Cook and Margaret Christensen, which I was inspired to pick up as a review book for San Francisco Book Review during my sister's first pregnancy). Maybe it had something to do with both of my siblings having babies of their own. Maybe it was having pregnant coworkers, or making new friends who were already parents. Whatever the case, D and I started discussing actually having a baby of our own.

I still had my own fears to get over, of course. I was still very freaked out by the idea of pregnancy. And as for birth... well, I just couldn't wrap my mind around the idea of a baby's head coming out of my vagina. And the pain of contractions! Every movie and TV show I'd ever seen depicting birth showed screaming women who felt like they were being torn apart from the inside, dramatically intense labors beginning with an explosion of amniotic fluid, mantras that consisted of "I can't do this I hate you I'm going to kill you for doing this to me I just want this to be over." Birth looked downright scary. But what was scarier, the pain itself, or the big epidural needle that could take it away?

But we did it anyway. And apparently that one natural childbirth book had made a deeper impression on me than I realized at the time, because as I started reading about birth, I immediately found myself gravitating toward less interventions. I did not know quite what I did want from birth, but I certainly had some ideas of what I didn't want, and the hospitals in my area did not seem to be able to deliver. Routine electronic fetal monitoring, mandatory IVs, high c-section and epidural rates, the regular use of drugs to speed things up.... these were not what I wanted.

I like to say that I accidentally stumbled into the natural birth community. By knowing what I didn't want, I eventually figured out what I did want. Through rejecting some mindsets and the books that promoted them, I instead found books advocated for natural birth. I discovered birth centers and home birth. I learned that for many low-risk women, ultrasounds aren't actually necessary. I found out that I didn't have to take a test or do a procedure just because my care provider included it in their standard of care (and I was fired by my OB for doing just that!). I learned about natural, non-medicated ways to cope with labor pain (and the more I read about the side effects of epidurals, the more determined I became to avoid one). I read about the many benefits of not cutting the umbilical cord right away. I learned about skin-to-skin, about why the vernix shouldn't be washed away, and why that ointment they put in a baby's eyes was completely unnecessary for us.

Between books (I was lucky enough to have someone refer me to Ina May, and I followed my instincts and returned What to Expect to the library just a few days after checking it out in the first place) and the Internet (where I discovered many wonderful blogs and the beauty of positive birth stories), not to mention the guidance of my midwife (who introduced me to The Business of Being Born, among other things), I was able to figure out what kind of birth I wanted.

And you know what? The birth of my son was perfect. It was the most amazing and empowering thing I've ever done. And I attribute that to the amount of time I spent researching my options, learning everything I could about the normal process of birth.

To me, that is what empowered birth is really about. Empowered birth does not necessarily mean a natural birth, nor does it mean a pain-free hospital birth. It means taking every step you can to ensure having the kind of birth YOU want. It means being treated with respect and dignity throughout labor, so that even when things don't go they way you wanted them to you still feel like you had a great birth. It means knowing your options. It means knowing potential side effects, knowing the benefits and the risks of everything. It means informed consent - AND refusal.

That's why, even today, more than three years after my son's birth (and with no certainty of whether or not I'll ever be able to experience birth again), I remain so passionate about birth. I don't even want to think about what my son's birth could have been like if I hadn't started reading. I know so many people who had birth experiences that were disappointing or downright traumatic... and in most cases, they probably didn't have to be. (And that's a failing of the system, of the way birth happens in our country. It is not a failing of birthing women!) Birth is absolutely unpredictable, and things don't always go according to plan, but it's amazing how simply being educated about the process can make the entire process more satisfying overall.

I believe every woman deserves the opportunity to have an amazing birth. That is why I briefly sought certification as a natural childbirth educator (and why I may eventually return to that vocation someday), why I dream of being a doula in the future, why I share a million pregnancy- and birth-related articles with my friends through social media.

I got lucky. I read one good book, and then I stumbled upon others and some amazing websites. I found I had questions, and I discovered the answers that were right for me. But it shouldn't have been merely determined by luck. The information necessary for an empowered birth is out there, but it shouldn't be so hard to find. 

And that's why we must all keep working to make sure pregnant women have access to real information about birth.