Reflecting on birth “from within” (part one)
In one of the early chapters in Birthing From Within, the authors suggest that pregnant women should interview the “wise mothers” in their lives in order to gain a better understanding of the birth experience–to get a peek at other women’s insights into birth, to see how they have coped with the physical and emotional intensity of birthing. The authors provide a list of questions that women can ask other mothers in their lives, questions asking what helped them most during the birth, what their spiritual experience of birth was, what they would do differently, what they would do the same, what they wish they had known beforehand.
Although I would not go so far as to consider myself a “wise mother” (and all that the term connotes), I do think that my birth experiences imparted some wisdom to me. Or at least they made me wiser. And, maybe on some level, the ways in which I was made wiser are worth sharing.
In the context of M’s birth–my first birth, which was an unplanned, pre-labor cesarean section–I answered the Birthing from Within questions as follows:
What helped you most when you gave birth?
Sheer willpower and the uncanny ability to remain cool, calm, and collected on the outside when there’s a storm raging on the inside.
I had planned (oh, those dear, sweet plans) on a spontaneous, drug-free, hypnobirthing-assisted labor. I had planned on laboring with my husband, my mother, and my mother-in-law by my side. And by the time I was nearing the end of my pregnancy, I was even excitedly anticipating those first few contractions.
But when a non-stress test revealed variable decelerations into the 60-70 beats-per-minute range, and when an ultrasound also confirmed these decelerations, and when the decelerations not only continued but also worsened during an oxytocin challenge test, my doctor determined that M would probably not tolerate labor well once it started. So it was decided that M would arrive via cesarean section.
I had four hours from the start of my prenatal appointment to the first incision to get used to the idea that all of my plans for M’s birth were evaporating into the sterility of what was to become my–and his–birth experience. And the shift in plans wasn’t made any less dramatic by the fact that M’s c-section was, by most stretches of the imagination, a necessary one.
So, as Ani DiFranco once sang, I learned like the trees how to bend, how to sway.
Flexibility. It’s a mighty good tool to take to the birth of one’s child.
Surprisingly, my doctor even provided one of the most helpful aids in my emotional recovery from the cesarean.
For although he was patronizing and misleading and haughty with me as he tried to talk me into unnecessary repeat cesarean in the 36th week of my second pregnancy, I can still say that I appreciate him for “slowing down” my first son’s birth so that my husband could take pictures as my son was born.
The doctor moved away the surgical instruments and the surgical team’s hands so that Tim could snap a quick shot of M’s head just as it emerged from my belly. Just his head, just my belly, nothing else.
Perhaps a grotesque photograph for some.
But for me, it was and is my one tangible link to M’s birth. I was numb and paralyzed and scared and sick and anxious when he was born, and I could literally do nothing to actively bring him into the world. I could not even see him being born. So to have that photograph–to have that document of the moment of his birth–helped and still helps me to feel a deeper connection to his birth.
And finally: breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is what helped me the most. Hands down.
Admittedly, breastfeeding was a struggle in the recovery room. The spinal medication had worn off. I was groggy and tired. My baby had been rooting for my breast while we were still in the operating room, and he didn’t even get to my arms until he was over one hour old. He was so distraught, and I was in so much pain, that we had trouble getting that first latch.
But we persevered. (And we persevered for weeks, through cracked nipples and colic and all.) I told him that if I couldn’t give him the perfect birth, I would give him this.
It was what I could actively, happily, and empoweringly do for him.
And it helped me to become a more active, happy, and empowered mother.
What was your spiritual experience of giving birth?
It was a humbling experience.
The change of plans, the awesome flexibility required of me, and the tenacity I needed just to feed my child in those first weeks of physical recovery all humbled me in a powerful way. It was not the spiritual journey that I had envisioned whenever I imagined M’s birth when I was pregnant, and it took time for me to accept the spiritual journey that had actually occurred.
What’s more, combined with some traumatic events following M’s birth, the circumstances of his arrival into the world contributed to months and months of spiritual bankruptcy (otherwise known as post-partum depression). I am lucky to have come out of that darkness–to have emerged “on the other side” with my spirit intact. And stronger.
But M’s birth also set me on the path toward one of the most spiritually powerful experiences of my life–my second son’s birth. And if it weren’t for what M’s birth taught me–if it weren’t for those dark, cavernous places I had to confront within my soul–I’m not sure that I could have experienced the triumph of A’s birth with the level of depth that I did. In some strange way, I am eternally grateful for M’s birth for that.
If you could do it over again, what would you do the same?
I would still offer my breast to my baby as soon as he was placed in my arms, and I would still fight just as hard as I did to develop and maintain a good breastfeeding relationship.
And, of course, I would want him to be just as healthy as he was (with 9/9 Apgars) from the moment he emerged from my body.
Is there anything you would do differently?
I would insist upon holding my baby in the operating room. Skin-to-skin contact. Earlier breastfeeding. Just something so that it would not have felt as if they were placing a complete stranger in my arms when I first “met” him in the recovery room.
I would also have hired a doula. Especially so that she could have stayed with me as my incisions were being repaired in the operating room. At this point, Tim had gone with M to the nursery, so I was then separated from everyone I loved most in the world. And there’s nothing like being in an operating room while having your uterus sutured and hearing the OR team make small talk and being separated from the one person with whom you have been as intimate as is humanly possible for the past nine months to make you feel like one of the loneliest people in the world.
I also would have been a better (and snarkier) advocate for myself. To the pregnant nurse in the operating room who exclaimed to the rest of the surgical team, ”Gosh, I hope that I don’t have to have a c-section,” I would have said, “HELLO. I am not a slab of meat on the operating table. I am awake. I am alive. And when I woke up this morning, I was also hoping that I didn’t have to have a c-section!”
Instead, I remained silent. Afraid to talk, because I was afraid that I would start crying. And that’s because I was all alone, save for the OR team.
What do you wish you had known beforehand?
I wish I had known that I could have asked to bring M closer to me in the operating room, especially as Tim was holding him. I wish I had known that I might have been able to offer M the breast sooner after his birth. That I could have nuzzled him closer, and maybe even had Tim bring him closer to me for some (even minimal) skin-to-skin contact.
In that same respect, I wish I had known that preparing for birth should not involve simply preparing for a vaginal delivery. I wish I had known that I could make some personal requests for a cesarean section. That I should have discussed my doctor’s c-section protocol with him and his partners well before M’s birth.
I wish I had known to attend my local ICAN meetings soon after M was born.
But I also wish I had known just how much M’s birth would transform me. I wish I could go back to myself, as I lay on the table, and whisper in my ear, “This will make you stronger. And you are already amazingly strong.”
In fact, I think that any woman who brings a child into the world should know this beforehand.
Whether she has a vaginal birth or a c-section, a drug-free birth or an epidural-assisted birth, a spontaneous labor or an induced birth, a hospital birth or a homebirth, a birth after months of carrying a baby in her womb or a homecoming after months of carrying love for an adopted baby, she is amazingly strong.