Honoring the need for privacy.

The midwife who attended my first birth was intrusive and interfering. The answer to that was simple enough, I thought: just find an unintrusive, noninterventive midwife for the next birth. I am fortunate to live in an area where birth attendants are not legally required to practice according to restrictive standards, so it was not too difficult to find a midwife who agreed to stay in the background while I gave birth instinctively.

This second birth was empowering and healing, which cleared the way for me to perceive a desire in myself that had been obscured by the trauma of my first birth -- that of simply being alone in birth. I did not consciously understand why I wanted to be alone; there was just a vague sense of not being fully comfortable with people who were essentially acquaintances in such an intimate setting. But I was so strongly drawn to the idea of giving birth in privacy, that when I became pregnant again I planned to give birth alone or with just my husband present. I was done with doing things for the sake of being a good girl and doing what other people expected just because they expected it, and ready to honor my feelings and trust that I felt that way for a reason.

The labor with my third child was uneventful and progressed smoothly. Toward the end we had an unexpected visitor knock at the door, a beloved relative. In my journal I wrote,
I couldn’t seem to form the words to tell her it was time to leave. I looked at [my husband], I could see him trying to guess what I wanted, and all I could do was think at him, can’t you tell? I tried telling myself then that it didn’t matter if she was here. When I began vocalizing loudly, she left the room, no doubt feeling that the sudden intensity of the labor warranted privacy.
Because of this privacy, I experienced for the first time being inside the "birth bubble" after the baby was born -- an altered state of consciousness in which one's focus is totally internal, visceral, felt:
It's what you feel when you're making love, or totally involved in creating a work of art. It's being fully inside something. You can't stay in it when distracted or self-conscious... which I had no compulsion to be. I was inside birth. I can't get over it. I wish I could never get over it, that I could never forget. I would relive those last few moments a thousand times over if I could.
A few moments later our visitor entered the room, laughing and crying. For Laura Shanley's article Laura Shanley's article, "Why Some Women Don't Want Midwives At Their Births" (Midwifery Today, Issue 62, Fall 2002,) I wrote,
It was the time following my daughter's emergence that should have been my husband's and mine alone. Suddenly there was this other person diverting my attention from the most amazing event of my life. Abruptly, without being able to control what was happening, I shifted from being inside birth, inside my husband's love, inside this timeless, holy intimacy, and stepped outside of it to acknowledge someone who was not inside it. It's a difficult thing to describe, and I'm afraid that because I don't describe it well it will seem to others like a small thing. It wasn't. It was glaringly, heartbreakingly huge.

[...] in the days after the birth I was overwhelmed with feelings of grief and rage. Now I knew what it was that had been wrong about my other births - it wasn't so much that they were made more difficult or the normality threatened (though this was certainly true) - it was that these people with whom I was not already intimate were not supposed to be there. In the days after birth, when one is more open and vulnerable than at any time of life except during labor itself, this hit me hard and deep.
The understanding of what I had lost was overwhelming. I remember initially feeling very alone in this -- it's not something that I had ever heard anyone talk about, so who would understand? -- and feeling a rush of gratitude and relief in reading that Jan Tritten, the editor and founder of Midwifery Today, had experienced something similar after her unplanned unassisted birth:
This few minutes was one of the most glorious high points of my life. [...] About 10 minutes later my dear partners arrived. The problem was that because they had missed the birth they came in chatting and excited. The energy and commotion pierced and stole my bonding time. I felt guilty for wanting them, my best friends, to go home. I could feel this critical time, our first hour of falling in love, slipping out of my yearning grip. I never recovered that first hour. It taught me on a cellular level how to behave when a new baby graces the planet. The birthing room is sacred ground. The first hour is a most holy time and space.
Spiritually and emotionally, the disturbing of this stage in birth can be wounding. But because the vast majority of women in this country have never experienced an undisturbed hormonal process in birth and the benefits that are specific to it, and because we have social back-up systems that can mitigate the negative effects to some degree, we as a culture have lost the awareness that the "birth bubble" naturally extends into third stage of labor, and thus have no basis for understanding that its disruption affects the postpartum period. Society in general is dismissive and antagonistic toward the idea that the circumstances surrounding birth have an effect on the mental, emotional, and physical health of both mother and baby, so that people who take measures to protect these things, like giving birth at home and in privacy, are assumed to be doing so either out of ignorance or lack of concern for the health of the baby.

Even so, many of us still feel intuitively that the ability to bond, mother, and care for a baby is directly affected by the circumstances surrounding the birth, and feel browbeaten into forsaking that because the culture around us rejects it as invalid.

My own experience, having given birth four times with varying degrees of privacy, from an intrusive managed third stage to a fully instinctive and private one, was that the quality of the experience significantly affected my confidence level, emotional state, and instinctive ability to mother, and that those things in turn affected the emotional and physical health of myself, my baby, and my family. I guarded my fourth birth and postpartum very carefully, and there were no intrusions, no conflicts, and no postpartum depression.

In the birth story I wrote,
It was the most wonderful thing to sit there naked and unselfconscious and just be, talking in low tones happily with each other and knowing it was all over and no one would bother us, we could just be with each other as a family and be fully in the moment with nothing to take us out of it, nothing out of place, in complete harmony. I felt incredibly awake, alert, and aware, and there was a stillness of time and clarity and a feeling of utter rightness that was present for the first time for me after a birth.

It was so very hard, yet now that it is all over I feel infused with emotional strength. No depression this time, no weird feelings. There has been nothing wrong to set them off. Everything about this emergence feels different -- it feels like it was finally the way it was meant to be.
It was such a simple thing, but sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. It made a huge difference in my ability to care for my baby as nature intended (and as a result my confidence as a mother,) in my relationships with my children and husband, and in my enjoyment of the newborn phase. I bonded perfectly and immediately with the baby, with a deep inloveness. It was also the first time I did not experience postpartum depression, and my joy and satisfaction radiated out to my family. I felt like finally this was what having children was supposed to be like. We as a family were experiencing what we were meant to, and it was very healthy and whole and spiritually right.

Anecdotal evidence aside, think about it: Most women in our culture do experience postpartum depression, delayed bonding, and difficulty adjusting to the role of being a mother. What if it is that way in large part because we create birth experiences out of damaging cultural myths instead of the mother's own intuitive and instinctive knowledge of what will best serve her purposes for health and wholeness? What if it is the norm that the negative psychological effects of doing so are not limited to one day in the life of the mother, but trickle out into her life in myriad insidious ways? And what if it doesn't need to be this way at all for the majority of women? What would be the ramifications for families and for society as a whole if more women were allowed to give birth normally, unhindered?

why birth is difficult

A letter to the editors of National Geographic:


In contrast to the widely held belief (stated in the article "The Downside of Upright", National Geographic July 2006) that birth for human females is difficult primarily because of the shape of the pelvis and size of the infant, I'd like to offer the alternative (and scientifically valid) view that it is management of birth that creates most of the difficulty we experience.

Normality in birth for all mammals is dependent on the unimpeded release of sexual hormones; stimulation of the neocortex interferes with the functioning of the primal brain that regulates these hormones. Our highly developed neocortex makes humans especially vulnerable to conditions that disturb hormone release. Most people recognize the difficulties a cat would experience if it were expected to give birth in the same environment the average woman does -- under bright lights, observed, touched, and directed by attendants -- yet strangely it does not usually occur to them that these things make the process arduous for humans as well.

The World Health Organization has stated that, "By medicalizing birth, i.e. separating a woman from her own environment and surrounding her with strange people using strange machines to do strange things to her in an effort to assist her (and some of this may occasionally be necessary), the woman's state of mind and body is so altered that her ways of carrying through this intimate act must also be altered and the state of the baby born must equally be altered. The result is that it is no longer possible to know what births would have been like before these manipulations. Most health care providers no longer know what "non-medicalized" birth is. This is an overwhelmingly important issue."

There are, in fact, very few cultures that do not disturb the birth process in some way, either for cultural or medical reasons. If researchers continue to look only at assisted birth, it will remain impossible for them to say to what degree physiology alone is responsible for the hardships modern women endure in birth. One valuable lesson from the natural birth movement, in which more and more women are being encouraged to birth without direct assistance and according to their instincts, is that it is a myth that the human birth process is inherently long and painful and that it is difficult for women to catch their own babies and attend to them directly following birth. Women who are allowed to give birth spontaneously and who are not inhibited or distracted by the presence of attendants tend to experience the physical process of birth very differently from their managed counterparts.