(First written June 11, 2007: a doula’s perspective.)
G’s labour was my third attendance at a labour not-my-own. I am struck by the fact that, should I have been raised in a farming community far away from anywhere else, I would probably work very hard to become a midwife. I really enjoy being in support of a woman in labour. There is a different rhythm and reality to birthing-time, a sort of a parallel way of being that requires active watching and listening to another person: to me, it is as if the listening is as instinctive as the labouring. I sort of disappear, and time does, too, and there’s just this contraction, and then this one, and this run to get ice, and that run to get a blanket.
What is really interesting is that, now that I’ve experienced a range of experiences, I finally get what the books are talking about. Clinical descriptions just don’t freakin’ work for me, though. They don’t adequately describe the woman doing her thing, the something-behind-the-eyes part. There is a thing behind a woman’s eyes.
To be rather alarming, the closest analogue I can think of is sex. I’ve said this to pregnant friends afraid of labour: you get removed in the same way that you do when having good sex. Labour is painful and not pleasurable, and instead of an orgasm there’s a baby: but it’s not like being your everyday self and feeling pain. You DO have endorphin backup (although I believe that that level of endorphin backup varies from person to person and possibly from labour to labour.) A person in labour is being swept along on a rising tide of internal sensation and hormonal commands.
I believe, to be a good support person, you have to be willing to really, really step back and listen to the way a person tones and breathes and moves. You are there, essentially, to give all the material and emotional support you can, trying to help a woman stay in herself and not panic while she does the big work – but it is her work, and it is Huge. Massive. The Biggest. You have to listen to the difference between “I can’t I can’t this is wrong” and “Wait, something’s really wrong here”. It is a privilege to be allowed to witness this work. It’s not just “the miracle of birth” and the excitement of a baby. As the midwife and I were talking about yesterday, once you’ve had sufficient babies for yourself, the babies part become somewhat less of a draw. The holy shit new person thing is what you’re working toward, but it is the hours up to that that are most miraculous – the work of the mom and her body. It’s watching an uncomfortable and unwieldy full-term pregnant woman suddenly up and run a marathon. It is both super-human and very animal, and not at all like on TV.
The standard is not and shouldn’t be machisma and rejection of pain medication, by my reckoning. Although not freaking out and intervening at shadows is a really good goal – since it throws the woman off her game and panics her that something’s going wrong, not to mention hampers an athletic feat – nobody fails if they request pain meds. Sometimes, you’re too exhausted to walk some more; sometimes, you’re too tired to stay on top of the pain. The failure of support people is not hearing the difference between “I’m at 9 centimetres and just starting to go into transition and my endorphins are wearing off and you better make this stop now you f*ck, give me pain medication,” (usually a short-lived condition) and real requests for help. There is also mistake in leaving a woman alone so that she gets freaked out and the pain becomes intolerable.
The thing that most matters in labour, as the labourer, is listening to your body without being afraid. You’re hurting like the inbred offspring of a two-headed foaming flatulent mad dog, sure. But fear makes everything tense, and then you can’t hear the commands from your body when you’re afraid. So as far as I can tell, the support person is there to help make the fear part dissipate. Which means the support person can’t be afraid.
And I think THAT is the problem with hospitals. If a baby dies, you’re going to become very afraid. I think the medicalization of the birthing process might, as one theory goes, be part of the pathologizing the female body – but more than that, I think it’s being afraid. Afraid of when it all goes wrong and someone gets hurt, which does happen disproportionately often to our strangely shaped bodies, compared to cattle. No one wants a fistula.
Birth is huge, bigger than a room can contain: it reaches all the way back to all of the ancestors you’ve ever had who have done this successfully. They are there with you, passing the genes along. Time turns inside out.
Birth is our human craniums competing with our bipedal hips. We have mythologized this: Eve’s knowledge, her big brain, her ability to stand up and see causing her pain. We have mythologized this: Athena’s wisdom, born from Zeus’ head.
Birth is also a moment when the animal we are moves our brain aside and does its thing. Of course there’s fear. There’s power. And that power might rip you a new one, in any number of ways literal or metaphoric.
But to labour, you cannot be afraid. So to support, you cannot be afraid. And the hospital has fear built in.
I will say this. Midwife: very good idea. Rather than in and out docs and nurses. Also? Moving to the hospital does seem pretty stalling, even for well-established labour. Like picking up a marathon runner while they’re running, it breaks the stride. So I get the home birth thing, even though I still wouldn’t want one for me. Birthing centres sound like a very good idea to me.
– Shared by Arwen Brenneman from B.C., Canada. Click here to read about Arwen’s own first birth.