Rewriting my surroundings

I just listened to “Rewriting Your Birth Story,” a podcast on Hillary Frank’s blog The Longest Shortest Time, in which she attempts to make sense of her traumatic birth and tries to figure out what she could have done to make things go differently. And although she is not sure exactly what the best course of action would have been, she pinpoints the first elective intervention in what became a cascade from IV drip to pitocin to epidural to episiotomy. She says “I want to get in a time machine and go back four years to when I was pregnant.”

That made me think about my own choices. What was the critical decision point at which I had the best chance of preventing my traumatic birth?

I should have looked around me.

When I was about five months pregnant my husband and I went to visit the Farm in Tennessee, the place where Ina May Gaskin revived American midwifery. We had briefly considered traveling there for the birth, but decided to give birth at home in NYC because of our jobs and in order to avoid the logistics of traveling so late in pregnancy. As we toured the land with its woods and fields, distinctive homes and history, we began to understand why the Farm midwives had so much success with their births. Part of it, of course, was the skills and experience of the midwives, but a large part of it was the culture.

We saw a culture that values slowness and listening. We saw a culture that tries to keep the land and its ecosystem in its natural state. We saw a community that cherishes children and families and creates spaces to be together simply to be in each other’s company, without pressure and without spending money. We saw businesses that are small, locally owned and profitable enough to provide a livelihood for the owners and the employees. And we began to understand that a woman giving birth there would necessarily participate in all of these aspects of the community, even as a visitor, and it would affect her birth experience.

During our visit we got to meet one of the midwives who had originally come to the Farm and had trained with Ina May and I fell in love with her. The few minutes I spent talking with her were among the most beautiful of my pregnancy. I thought, ah, too bad she’s not going to deliver my baby. Maybe I’ll come here for the next one.

That was my moment.

Instead of dropping our plans and making the travel logistics work, we went back to New York and stayed on with our home birth midwives who we liked well enough. They gave all the “right” answers to my questions (in what position can I give birth? What is your hospital transfer plan? Etc) even though they seemed frantic at times, with the phone ringing and both of them always either come from a birth or about to go to one. We thought that we could escape the culture we lived inside by planning a home birth. But our bubble burst: in the end the birth experience was a mirror of the culture around us, with everyone shouting and in a hurry, hustling to make money, no regard for family togetherness, terrified of anything natural, too busy to speak kindly or even look you in the face.

Every single day since the birth I see people hurrying, screaming at their kids, working 12 hours a day, and ignoring others’ needs, and I can no longer make believe that I am not part of that culture.

During my pregnancy I wondered what would get me through the birth, remembering a story in Spiritual Midwifery where a woman’s labor stalls and no one can figure out why. Then one of the midwives discovers that the woman had always wanted to be officially married but the partner had resisted. After he agreed to marry and they did the ceremony right then and there, her labor continued again.

I’ve always wanted to live closer to nature and I thought that during labor I might make my husband promise that we’d leave the city. Now I understand why. Until we surround ourselves with a culture that values what we care about, we risk being overwhelmed and terrorized at our most vulnerable moments.

In her podcast, Frank latches on to a detail that gives her some peace, and she says triumphantly at the end, “My pelvis is good.” In my story, the detail that gives me peace is knowing that I will soon leave the city culture behind.

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About investigatingbirth

My investigations of birth began in 2009 when I was trained as a doula. I helped women consider the evidence on common interventions, and helped them prepare for the physical and emotional challenge of giving birth. After some time it became clear to me that there was another type of challenge that I was unable to adequately prepare them for, the challenge of the maternity system. But it was only after my own traumatic birth in 2013 that I realized how little I had understood. I began to ask questions that few around me - doulas, nurses, midwives, doctors - were comfortable hearing. Questions like: Under what circumstances, and for what reasons, do doctors not practice informed consent? How do hospitals deal with other patient populations vulnerable to abuse? How does loss of professional autonomy, for obstetricians, and professional authority, for midwives, impact the quality of care they are capable of providing - regardless of their training? This blog will collect noteworthy information that attempts to answer these and other questions. Most of what you see here will be aggregated from other sources and analyzed. You will also see original interviews, and the occasional opinion piece or personal story, as I try to piece together a clear picture of the system in which American women give birth.
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