Birth & Culture & Pregnant Feelings

“Giving birth is not an isolated event in a person’s life. A woman births with both her mind and her body and participates in the attitudes toward childbearing of her culture and her family.”

This quote from the book Pregnant Feelings by Rahima Baldwin reminds me of two other relevant quotes about culture, birth, and women’s choices:

“Although pregnancy and birth is a richly intuitive and instinctive process, a woman will prepare her ‘nest’ and birth according to the style of her culture, in the same way that a particular species of bird will build its nest with whatever is available.” –Pam England

“One does not give birth in a void, but rather in a cultural and political context. Laws, professional codes, religious sanctions, and ethnic traditions all affect women’s choices concerning childbirth.” –Adrienne Rich

I think we get onto slippery ground when we start talking about how women just need to “educate themselves” and then they will make different (i.e. “enlightened like ours”) choices. If education was all that was needed, we would see much different things in our present birth culture (more on this later!). As Pam England would also say (paraphrased), thousands of factors seen and unseen go into the resulting birth experience, it is hard to point to one, two, or three factors and say “that was it! I have it all figured out.” (Reminds me of another quote that women birth as they live.) With regard to the second quote, I have to ask myself whether couples truly have a free choice of where to give birth? Ultimately speaking, yes they do, but according to my clients’ perspectives insurance companies and the political climate surrounding midwifery in our state dictate their birth location, as well as opinions of family, friends, books, and so forth. I do a “pain pie” exercise during my classes and after I do it, I always talk about how sometimes choices are actively stripped away from women and we need to keep that in mind when we hear “bad” birth stories—not, “she ‘failed’ or made the ‘wrong’ choices” but that her pieces of the pie were taken away from her (sometimes forcibly!).

The reason I initially marked Rahima Baldwin’s quote is because I am fascinated by how my birth experiences continue to inform the rest of my life–while not the defining moment of motherhood for me, I continue to draw upon the lessons of birth throughout the rest of  my life, as well as retaining a total fascination with the subject. I wonder why I’m so “stuck” on birth? Why fixate on this one element of a lifespan? Does it mean I’m not “moving on” somehow—like a high school football player still reliving the glory of that touchdown from 10 years ago? I think it is because birth touches something else. Something deep and raw and true and we glimpse something that we rarely glimpse in everyday life. A touch of the sacred perhaps. Magic. Mystery. Or is it a sense of personal power and satisfaction in being a woman? I know that the “birth power” experience is a rare one for me—I have never felt so powerful and capable and amazing as I did giving birth. I like to think about how this “birth power” sense could be drawn into the rest of my life—how can I live a powerful and affirming and amazing life, not just as a birth giver, but as a woman? Lately, I am finding some answers in feminine spirituality, but it is a question I love to consider and hope to write more about in the future.

Okay, moving back to Rahima and the quotes from Pregnant Feelings:

Anthropologists’ reports of women working the fields, going to a sheltered spot to drop their babies without any ‘preparation’ and then returning to work describe a kind of mythical natural childbirth that is nearly impossible for Western women. We are far too cerebral, and our twentieth-century consciousness intrudes between us and our instinctual selves. The fact that we question both how to birth and how to parent shows how awake our consciousness is. We must of necessity involve our minds in understanding what we do and create, for it is impossible to turn them off. Nor can we simply erase, or afford to ignore, our culture’s view that giving birth is a dangerous and painful event requiring intervention and technology. Rather, we must consciously replace that view with new knowledge and new images if we are going to be able to reclaim our ability to birth with harmony of mind and body.

Loved this. The mythical woman giving birth by the side of the road and popping back into the field to work is strongly ingrained amongst “natural birth” advocates. Some women draw strength from the image—“if she could just squat in the field, so can I!” Others make a joke of it—“are you one of those nuts who encourages women to just squat in the field?!” And others are doubtful that it has any basis in reality. I also suspect that if said women did ever exist they did not return quickly to the fields because they wanted to do so, but because of the framework of their culture and those seen and unseen factors that shape our lives—perhaps their other children would starve if they didn’t run back to the field, perhaps the overseer would beat them, etc., etc. It doesn’t mean those women were stronger or more capable, but perhaps less valued and less cared for than they should have been.

Okay, back to Rahima again:

Our task is to integrate our minds and bodies, so we can give birth in a way that feels whole and nurturing—to ourselves as parents and to our babies…We cannot go back to ‘natural childbirth’ in which we just let it happen. There must be knowledge of birth and an assumption of responsibility for our own health care and for decisions affecting ourselves and our children. There exists for us the exciting possibility of giving birth with full awareness, participating in the joy and exhilaration of working in harmony with the tremendous energy of creation. But it does not occur automatically or unconsciously…

The potential for conscious birthing can exist independently of the place of birth, although some places require more watchfulness than others….Let us just say that it is actively giving birth in an environment which is woman-centered and child-centered, in which the cues are taken from the birthing woman while she experiences fully the sensations and emotions of new life coming into the world through her. She is not medically managed or manipulated, but is supported with the knowledge, love and experience of her attendants (doctors, midwives, husband, other support people) to birth in a way which is safe, yet does not deny the intense physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of giving birth.

Birthing in this way is rare in today’s culture…less than 5 percent of women in this country today experience ‘purebirth’ [positive birthing/conscious birthing]…

Given the wealth of images of birth that surround us, our task is to recognize that none of them adequately denies or exhausts the potential of birth. Perhaps their infinite variety can help to free us from any one fixed idea of giving birth and help us to realize our freedom to birth in the way that is right for us. We cannot control the energy of birth, but we can control our response to it by deciding to be open, relaxed positive, noisy, grouchy, whatever. We don’t need to behave in a certain way and we can accept ourselves and our births without self-judgment.

What caught me about this section was the mention of not being able to go back to a time when we could just “let it happen.” Though I feel like getting out of my own way and “letting it happen,” was a personal key to my own births—that the surrender is what gets the job done—I agree with her point that there is no letting it happen in today’s culture. A long time ago someone mentioned in an online forum that they were not planning to take birth classes or read any birth books because they felt like they should just let it happen and not have any preconceived notions; that cluttering up their heads with this other information would cloud their ability to do so. While I hear the motive and feeling behind this sentiment and believe there is some (perhaps idealized) truth to it, I simultaneously feel like it is impossible to do this, because women do not give birth in a void or outside of their culture. Women give birth in a context, usually involving other people (even with unassisted births, there is usually someone else there). If you enter the birth room (the aforementioned woman was planning to give birth in a hospital, not unassisted) without any ideas or pre-knowledge about what to expect or what you want, the stories and dramas and ideas and myths and preconceived notions and reading and media-exposure of all the other people present DO enter the room and impact your birth. You cannot just “let it happen,” because they will not just let it happen. Right or wrong, this is the environment in which many of us our building our birth nests.

I’d like to close my thoughts with another quote. This one is from one of my favorite birth books, Transformation Through Birth by Claudia Panuthos. In giving birth, regardless of our nest and our choices and all the seen and unseen elements shaping our lives, perhaps we can simply, “…celebrate ourselves for our courage to birth. The real question becomes not, ‘Have you done your breathing exercises?’ but rather, ‘Can you love yourself no matter how your birth, where you birth, or what the outcome?'”

7 thoughts on “Birth & Culture & Pregnant Feelings

  1. Pingback: The Illusion of Choice « Talk Birth

  2. Pingback: Women’s (Birth) History Month | Talk Birth

  3. Pingback: Tuesday Tidbits: Birth Research | Talk Birth

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