A Tale of Two Births
I just gave birth to my second child and it was an experience entirely different than the one I had previously or what I expected. I suppose the mechanics were the same, I gave birth vaginally without the use of anesthetics and yet it seemed to me that I lost something indescribable in the second birth and I am mourning that loss. You see, I am one of those women who believes that there is real power in the birth process; that there is something other worldly and divine in trying to give life to another being. In my first meeting with the midwife who would deliver my son, she asked why I wanted to birth outside the mainstream medical model for my first pregnancy. I had several good answers for this including a skepticism of male dominated, Western medicine and a fascination with the history and marginalization of midwifery. But my desire for a “natural” birth went further than this to something I couldn’t quite articulate. I wanted to connect with women throughout the past and present, to touch the divine within myself and to know the power of creation. Something within me knew that I could best achieve this as I labored to give life to my child.
I have given birth twice in the past year and a half; both births were wonderful experiences where I was, at least briefly, able to obtain the above desire. But the births were dramatically affected by my choice in medical providers. I believe that labor and birth are inherently feminist issues because of the choice, or lack of choice, that the experience provides laboring women. Indeed, the increase in knowledge and choices for pregnant women was one of the earliest successes of the women’s movement. There was a huge paradigm shift during the 1970’s and 80’s that rejected the old model of restraining and knocking women out, effectively making them passive participants in the birth of their children. Instead, women demanded a greater role in the birthing process and wanted some choice in what happened to their bodies.
As a woman in her childbearing years, I am grateful for the increased choice I have when it comes to my maternity care. What I didn’t understand before giving birth though, was the impact these choices had on the experience I wanted for myself and my child. So as a public service (I promise I’m not trying to navel gaze here, although I won’t stop you from commenting on how brave, strong and skinny I am), I thought I would share my birth experiences. Please take them for what they are, my experience. What worked best for me will not be best for all women.
I have never felt more powerful than when I gave birth to my son, Baby Monster. I chose to deliver outside of a hospital at a free standing birth center in the Phoenix area. I had a midwife and a nurse who gently guided me through my twenty-one hour labor with a variety of techniques used by midwives for centuries. I felt a powerful connection with the women assisting me and to my foremothers who had birthed me and all humankind. As I transitioned to the last stage of labor, I entered into a dream-like place somewhere between mortality and death. At that moment I connected with the divine, a connection that supported me through the three hours of pushing it took to give life to my son. When it was all over, I not only had a beautiful baby but the knowledge that I had converged with something greater than myself.
When I got pregnant again, I was devastated to learn that my birth center had closed due to the sky-rocketing insurance rates midwives are charged. A homebirth was not something I felt comfortable with so I turned to the OB/Gyn that I had gone to for my annual pap smear. I had picked him because he was the first OB in my HMO directory to have an open appointment. I figured that since I already given birth, I could be assertive enough to stand up for the kind of birth I wanted. Unfortunately, I felt that there was always a power struggle between me and my doctor as to who controlled my pregnancy, birth and body. Due to gestational diabetes, early in my pregnancy the doctor informed me that he would induce my labor if he felt the baby was too big. Baby Monster had been ten pounds so I was not afraid to have a large baby but I stuck to a low-carb diet so as to prevent a medical induction. Despite my best efforts, when it came time for the ultrasound to determine the baby’s size, she was big and so the doctor scheduled my induction without my input or consent.
In an effort to regain some control, I induced myself using my trusty breast pump the evening before the scheduled induction. This labor was much more solitary than the first; I labored mostly alone with my husband and mother-in-law asleep nearby. My labor was short and intense, almost primal. I listened to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Wagner’s Immolation of Brunhilde as I worked through each surge. Once again I entered that dreamland and felt the power of creation. I felt myself transition into the last stage of labor and knew I had to get to the hospital quickly. At this point I lost my connection with the dreamland and was never fully able to regain it. It seemed as I went through the process of registering and being checked, I stood at the doorway of that sacred place, looking in but not entering. The triage nurse panicked when she realized I was dilated to a nine and was about to have a baby. The doctor arrived just in time to demand I be given an IV, which of course didn’t take on either arm but effectively kept me from re-entering the dreamland of labor. Ten minutes later, Baby Valkyrie was born.
I am grateful to have had both experiences because of what I learnt from each one. Most importantly, I am grateful for the healthy baby at the end. Both the alternative and traditional experiences had their upside and downside. For example, my midwife was so easy going that she forgot to give me the gestational diabetes test which probably led to the size of my son and made the labor harder both on me and the Baby Monster. My OB/Gyn was very attentive to detail and I had an easier pregnancy and labor because of it. Assuming there are no complications, there is not a right way or a wrong way to birth as long as the woman is comfortable with the choices she is making. This is where I went wrong; I was never fully comfortable with the traditional medical model of birthing. I lost so much power in trying to fight my doctor that I was unable to regain it when I most needed it. So I guess my advice is, know what you want and then be true to that desire.