How much does the way we give birth really matter? Does natural childbirth make a difference in the long-run?
What can childbirth tell us about our future? Our parenting? Our overall successes? Our relationships?
Does a woman who has a “natural” (unmedicated) childbirth have a higher chance of, say, living longer, than a woman who chooses medication?
On the surface this question may seem a bit ridiculous, and fair warning, I fully intend to evade any sort of firm answer on the topic. Instead, I invite you to explore with me the many different branches of this questions, and what it could mean for laboring women everywhere.
We already know the short-term effects of childbirth.
Without a doubt, a woman who suffers from a traumatic childbirth experience is at higher risk of postpartum depression or PTSD and other negative side-effects. (source). This can be a debilitating experience for a Mother and child with perhaps long-lasting effects on the long-term relationship between Mother and child and other family members.
We also know that different factors in childbirth such as medications used, mode of delivery, hospital procedures and routines can have significant short-term effects on maternal and newborn health outcomes and breastfeeding. (source)
A 2013 study from The Cochrane Library, has proven that women who choose Midwives as their primary care providers over Obstetricians tend to have less interventions, safer outcomes for themselves and their babies, and are more satisfied with their childbirth experiences. (source)
But what are the implications of childbirth experiences beyond these short-term medical effects?
Personal responsibility in childbirth.
Empowerment is an important theme I stress throughout all of the work that I do as a doula, a childbirth educator, a health podcaster, and even as a parent. I am always encouraging my students, my clients, and my children to take personal responsibilities for their lives, their health, and their futures.
Perhaps it’s a personality thing (classic control freak here!), but for me, I truly feel that my health, my finances, my actions, and even my emotions are my responsibility and no one else’s.
Sure, I ask for advise, and I seek out the appropriate help when the situation arises, like hiring an accountant to help with my taxes, or seeing a doctor when an emergency happens. But even with these examples, I still take personal responsibility for the situation. I don’t just blindly hand over my receipts and statements to my accountant come tax day. I ask for help understanding how to file better next year and engage in the process. When I seek out medical help, I don’t blindly say yes to every word of advice my doctor gives me. I engage in the conversation, I ask a lot of questions, I offer my own ideas and experiences, I express my gratitude, and in the end I make a decision alongside my care provider.
I view childbirth as being no different.
So many parents worry about “coming across as rude or pushy,” if they question a prenatal decision, or want to choose a different route than what’s being suggested. Why do we feel this way when working with care-providers? And can this “white-c0at” syndrome be effecting us down the road more than we think?
“Giving birth” versus “being delivered.”
I remember the day that the notion of “giving birth” vs. “being delivered” first stuck in my head.
I was chatting with a midwife friend of mine when somebody asked her, “How many babies have you delivered?”
Her response made me turn my head. She replied, “Just four… but I’ve been present for hundreds of other mom’s births.”
She saw her role as a midwife not as “delivering babies,” but as being a guide to mothers who were giving birth themselves. Her role was to monitor for safety and give medical advice if the need should arise, but she’d learned long ago to leave her ego aside, and let the transformative power of giving birth belong to the mother.
I loved this perspective, and I wondered how many other care providers thought in this way, or more importantly, how many mothers felt this way?
The way we give brith vs. the what of our birth.
In the end, the question of what birth can tell us about our futures, to me, becomes much less about what actually happens to us in labor and much more about how we treat ourselves during labor. or in other words, the way we give birth.
Do you want to give birth as an engaged person? Will you choose to make yourself the main authority in the room? Do you want to take personal responsibility and learn what to expect and what your options are, and make decisions alongside your care-provider?
For some women, the answer to this question is no. Some women prefer to go through pregnancy and childbirth more passively. They prefer to not explore all of their options, and wish to simply follow the path of least resistance.
This article is NOT about shaming these types of women. This article is NOT about trying to prove that one way is better than the other.
This article is about asking what happens when a women does decide to be her own advocate, and take personal responsibility of her own birth process. Is she more likely to then go on and take more control of the other areas of her life such as parenting, health, and finances? What would that look like?
Birth is it’s own authority.
There are many things we can do and decisions we can make that help sway birth towards a healthy and happy outcome. But it’s not always in our hands. Your baby might all of a sudden be breech, or out of nowhere you’re diagnosed with preeclampsia. The midwife you thought was going to deliver you is sick and so you have to deliver with an obstetrician who has not-so-humorously been nicknamed “the cutter.”
Birth is it’s own authority. But…
You are your own authority.
You are the one in control of your decisions, your thoughts, your actions, and your attitude. And attitude is everything!
I’ve seen clients go through insane hardships during labor and be able to maintain an amazing sense of optimism and gratitude. And I’ve also seen women give birth who on the outside seem to be having “the birth of their dreams,” but inside are full of fear and anxiety and doubt. The latter are more at risk of postpartum depression than the former in my opinion.
No matter what birth might look like for you, epidural or not, cesarean or not, long labor or short, you always have the power of perspective and attitude on your side. When birth is all said and done, how do you want to look back on it? Do you want to think, “I felt in control and like the leader of a team. I was the one who delivered my baby, and I feel grateful for the help I received.” or do you want to think, “What just happened? Why did they do that? What would have happened had I said this or that?”
Even if things don’t go as you hope, would the knowledge that you took an active role in all of the decisions help you move past any disappointments you might feel about things going “off-course?”
Implications on the future.
Pregnancy and childbirth can be a pivotal and transformational moment in a woman’s life. Many mothers discover things about themselves they never knew were there before.
What happens when a woman decides to use this transformation as a chance to take an active, authoritative role in her journey?
Would it perhaps lead to her taking a more active/responsible role in her parenting? In her relationships? In her finances?
Would her decision to explore alternatives, make informed decisions, and ask for respect from her providers and family in turn earn her more respect in the future and learn to speak up when she feels disrespected?
Could all of these mind-shifts and personal transformations help her take a more active role in her health, and consequently live a longer, happier, more successful life?
Regardless of outcomes, interventions used, or paths taken, will a woman who feels in control of her birth choices go on to take more control of other areas of her life than a women who choices a passive role?
Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, but these questions are certainly ones that lead me to ask even more, questions such as:
How does a childbirth educator’s role extend beyond just birth and parenting?
How does the way we treat women during pregnancy lead to feelings of respect vs. helplessness?
How does our language surrounding birth and pregnancy effect our culture and transitions into parenthood?
A teenage birth story.
These thoughts and questions remind me of a young teen-mom who I had the honor to teach childbirth classes to, and who also honored me with an invitation to her birth. We’ll call her Tina.
When I first met her, she was petrified of the thought of childbirth. She came from a culture where birth was thought of as painful, scary, ugly, and medical. She had no thoughts of exploring natural childbirth and simply wanted to learn about epidural anesthesia.
As a birth educator, and especially when working with teens, I try to never assert my personal opinions or insert my personal agenda onto my students. I simply try to lessen their fears around birth and educate them on their options.
By the time our class was over, Tina was completely fascinated with the birth process. Her mind had been blown! (her words not mine), and she was interested in at least exploring the idea of unmedicated childbirth.
When labor day arrived I met her and her family in the hospital. Everyone could not stop remarking about how well she was doing and how brave and confident she looked. She was getting through contractions with grace and courage, and she was very confident in the decisions she was making about her birth.
In the end, she delivered her baby without any interventions. It wasn’t easy. She cried, she sweated, and she swore a bit, but when it was all said and done, she was ecstatic, and her family looked at her as if she were a new woman. She was proud of herself, and found a new sense of strength, wisdom, and courage that she didn’t know was there before.
2 years later I ran into Tina on the playground. Our kids gravitated towards one another and we were able to talk. I hadn’t seen her since a week or so after her baby was born. She looked happy and as confident as any other mother could be. She told me that her birth experience was very transformational for her. That she still thought of it to this day. That if it had not been for that experience, she wasn’t sure she’d had been as confident in her ability to parent at such a young age, but that her mind had shifted, and she now looked at other areas of her life too that had shifted as well.
Regardless of whether or not she had an unmedicated labor or not, just the act of knowing her choices, making up her own mind, and being the one in charge of her birth experience, in my opinion, helped her to take responsibility and ownership of raising her daughter, despite her young age.
It’s a story that stays with me always, especially when I teach expectant parents, or support a client in labor.
Birth matters. Mothers matter. Choice matters. Respect matters.
Attitude is everything.