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Pregnancy & Birth

Recommended Books and Films About Childbearing

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In her vehement critique of French in-hospital prenatal programs designed to spare women pain during labor (Ces Hommes Qui Nous Accouchent…, Libre Expression, Stock: Canada, 1982), Marie-Jose Jaubert points out that often women are forgotten in the attempt to promote the effectiveness of a given ideology. Even in the most benevolent of circumstances certain methods may work only up to a certain point. If a woman becomes too tired or feels too much pain and thinks that what she has prepared or what is expected of her isn’t working, she may feel she has failed. "Each method becomes a trap which closes upon the woman (108). It is important to question the intent and efficacy of any structured alternative.

Toward the end of the book Odent asks: "What is a man's proper role in a movement that seeks to return the childbirth experience to women?.. Presently I am seriously considering leaving obstetrics...male obstetricians would do well to retire progressively and restore childbirth to women." (118) He continues: "How women give birth and how children are born are profoundly tied to our views of nature, science, health, medicine, freedom, and human -- especially man-woman -- relationships. Our ambitious project, which struggles to humanize and feminize birth, uses very simple means to achieve this end. In fact, the local women who have given birth at our clinic refer to our style of doing things as common sense. These women find our attitude so obvious that they can't imagine what so many visitors and film crews are doing here. Their astonishment is worth thinking about." (118)

The Birth Book and Spiritual Midwifery

The Birth Book (BB) by Raven Lang -- out of print -- and Spiritual Midwifery (SM) by Ina May Gaskin (1990) -- in its third edition -- are internally consistent, positive and passionate. Both books describe births occurring in two closely-knit rural communities, the first one located in Santa Cruz County, California in the early 1970s. At that time, a number of young women wanting natural births could not find obstetricians or hospitals that would support their wishes. Raven Lang helped start a Birth Center. She and other women began attending mothers in their homes, assisted by a sympathetic doctor friend when necessary. The second community is The Farm, started in 1970 by Stephen Gaskin and still going strong. During its cross-country caravan from California to its home in Tennessee pregnant women inevitably gave birth along the way, and Ina May Gaskin, out of inclination and necessity, became a midwife. Other Farm women also learned midwifery skills, and over the years the midwives developed a mutually satisfactory relationship with a local doctor.

Both books combine birth stories with information about pregnancy, labor and birth, the entire second half of SM consisting of "Instructions to Midwives." What stands out in all these tales is the sound of each participant's voice, one after the other, detail after detail, a collective chorus of events and emotions that make up the event of birth. The women speak of exaltation, fear, determination, effort, learning about themselves; of momentary lapses, pulling themselves together, of hard work and giving in, of contentment, amazement, ecstasy. The men participate as much as they can, watching, empathizing, helping (and sometimes hindering) them. The reader follows the individual course of each labor and birth, often seeing it from several viewpoints -- the mother's, the father's, the midwife's. Neither book glosses over difficulties. Depending on the circumstances, birth is presented in all ways -- as simple or complex; as needing only patience and abundant good feeling or (rarely) as needing, in addition, some sort of intervention; as happy, or as sad in the very few instances when babies are stillborn or die soon after birth. Throughout, these mothers and fathers speak with energy and enthusiasm, with a desire to know themselves well and do the best they can, and, often, with a sense that, during labor and birth, they were connected with powers beyond themselves.

A word about the two books: The Birth Book was truly a book of the early 1970s. It existed in one trade edition, went into several printings and passed too soon out of print. It possesses a rare vitality and ingenuity. Well-produced, it has the feel of grass-roots effort and inspiration and bespeaks an optimism hard to come by nowadays: "We have been asking and asking the people in positions of responsibility to respond to our needs and the needs of our children. Now we realize that we must do more than just ask, so we have chosen to act...(joining) hands in a struggle for human birth." (Introduction) It contains photo after photo of families and of women giving birth in many different positions. And simple statements: "I think what got to me the most…was that there was no break…I remember feeling, if I could of just had fifteen minutes ‘off’ I could have returned with better breath control. (Judy) "I could never accurately describe the power of those contractions except to say that it’s the same type of power that brings the sun up in the morning.’ (Estelle) "I felt whole – like a seed – I even felt like the shape of a seed." (Emily)

SM has a similar spirit and strength. Farm women and midwives sometimes speak in a language of their own, expressing the transcendence of birth. One midwife in resuscitating a newborn says: "As "I squeezed his heart, there was a time when he was grunting very shallow, and I saw this pink aura of light come out from his heart and all these waves of ecstasy were going from my heart to my head." (103) A mother describes labor: "Mary Louise came over and put her attention totally to me. She and I swapped bodies…she…did a few contractions for me. I found myself in a beautiful place with a green field and a house…a place I’d never seen before." (73) Another mother: "I started to push hard on the baby to get him out. I made a lot of noise. I remember telling them that the louder I talked, the better I felt. Ina May was sitting right in front of me between my legs, and her face looked really clean. She talked to me in a real calm, even voice and showed me what to do with all that energy…she said ‘If you be really graceful, the baby will come out gracefully.’ That was a helpful one." (176)

In both communities, women's wishes, strengths and skills were the focal point. No one questioned that women would give birth as they wanted. Having to choose at the outset between a "natural" or a "medical" birth was not an issue. Pregnancies, labors and births progressed as they would, most often organically and naturally. When it turned out that women needed medical help, they made dignified decisions out of a necessity that they recognized. Their wishes and their rights were not violated. They remained whole.

Such a climate of confidence can exist in these tiny pockets because midwives and women devoted to midwifery supported women and midwives who believed in their own powers. Each community was supported in its efforts by at least one medical person who served as liaison with the local hospital. But when the midwifery practice threatened the medical establishment in the Santa Cruz area, doctors harassed the midwives, accusing them of practicing medicine without a license, and causing them to be arrested and brought to trial. As long as competition exists between obstetricians and midwives, women will be victims of this rivalry.

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