“Women are as nervous and unsure of themselves as ever, and they need to learn to trust their bodies. Birthing is much more that eliminating pain. It is one of life’s peak experiences.” –-Elisabeth Bing
The mother of the Lamaze childbirth education movement in the U.S., Elisabeth Bing, died this week at age 100. She had a tremendous impact on the birth culture and was a very early activist in promoting the “radical” idea of birth as a transformative, powerful, important experience in a woman’s life.
…For years Ms. Bing led classes in hospitals and in a studio in her apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she kept a collection of pre-Columbian and later Native American fertility figurines.
Ms. Bing preferred the term “prepared childbirth” to “natural childbirth” because, she said, her goal was not to eschew drugs altogether but to empower women to make informed decisions. Her mantra was “Awake and alert,” and she saw such a birth as a transformative event in a woman’s life.
“It’s an experience that never leaves you,” she told The New York Times in 2000. “It needs absolute concentration; it takes up your whole being. And you learn to use your body correctly in a situation of stress.”
“…far too many women are left in the aftermath of a traumatic experience on the very day she is born as a mother. She is a new woman – amazing, strong and life-giving – ready to face the world. Holding her new baby in her arms and a smile (or not, depending on her acting skills) on the outside, with a broken heart, fractured spirit and shattered self-confidence on the inside. This is the result of traumatic birth…”
Can part of the “cause” of traumatic births be the expectation that a “good birth” is a quiet and controlled birth? Nadia Raafat wrote a powerful article at the Huffington Post that touches on this possibility:
Contractions were outed, surges, came in, the un-gratifying word pain was ostracised from the semantics of childbirth and, across the nation, grateful midwives watched in awe as powerful, silent women breathed their way through drug-free labours.
That’s half the story. The other half concerns those who did not experience the blissful or natural birth outcome that hypnobirthing promised them; the many disappointed women whose labours were violent, or which deviated from the normal care pathway, women who found the experience not only painful, but shocking and traumatic – all the more so because they believed it might be painless. I have met many of these women – still processing their birth experience years later, still wondering what they did wrong? Their emotional and physical scars run deep and take many years to heal.
Raafat goes on to advocate the full spectrum of the semantics of birth and birth experiences:
Childbirth is the most profound experience in a women’s life. It is awesome, challenging, brutal, visceral, joyful, transporting, awful, deeply physical, incredible, powerful, at times, calm and in-flow, at other times all-consuming and over-whelming. Our preparation and our semantics need to acknowledge the whole spectrum of the experience, not just the palatable colours.
I have a long time interest in words and birth and how we “talk birth” in our culture:
…On the flip side, I’ve also read other writer’s critiques of an overly positive language of birth, labeling and mocking words like “primal” as “euphemisms” for hours of “excruciating” pain. But, that makes me think about the locus of control in the average birth room. It seems like it might more difficult to start an IV in a “triumphant” woman, so lets call her stubborn or even “insisting on being a martyr”? Could you tell someone making “primal” noises to be quiet? Probably not, but you can tell someone who is “screaming” to “stop scaring” others. Asserting that a painful and degrading language of labor and birth is “real” English and that the language of homebirth advocates are “euphemisms” is a way to deny women power and to keep the locus of control with medicine.
I’ve also thought a lot about the association between a quiet birth and good birth. “Quiet” during labor is often associated with “coping well” and noise is associated with not coping, which may not be the case:
…Occasionally, I hear people telling birth stories and emphasizing not making noise as an indicator, or “proof,” of how well they coped with birthing–“I didn’t make any noise at all,” or “she did really well, she only made noise towards the end…” Women also come to classes looking for ways to stay “in control” and to “relaxed.”
This has caused me to do some thinking. Though relaxation is very important and helpful, to me, the goal of “laboring well” is not necessarily “staying in control” or “staying relaxed” or “not making any noises.”
And, speaking of how we talk about experiences as well as pulling this post back around to Elisabeth Bing, I quoted some reflections on postpartum care from Bing in a past post:
“The degree of pleasure you take in your mothering is not the same thing as loving the baby or being an effective parent. Keep in mind there is a distinction between mother love and maternal satisfaction. You may love your baby very much but be dissatisfied with your life circumstances.”