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Birthing in Peace - Page 2

Author // Ina May Gaskin, M.A., C.P.M.

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Birthing in Peace
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Pleasure Bonds

The first birth I saw was an ecstatic birth in the ’70s. That was such a gift that I got to see in that little school bus, 45 years ago. And I went, Wow! I didn’t know birth could be that good. That woman was…she was so radiant, so beautiful, and I was transfixed by her beauty. I had thought birth might be a little bit disturbing, but instead I saw the most beautiful unfolding of nature that I could have imagined. The closest I’d gotten to birth before that was seeing a turtle lay some eggs on the coastline of Malaysia in the mid ’60s. And it seemed easier for that woman to have her mammal baby than it was for a turtle to lay a hundred eggs. All she needed was some - one there to look at her eyes, and she was gorgeous. So that was a gift, experiencing that euphoria. It was a contact high that was unbelievable.

And we didn’t know in the early ’70s what hormones were. I mean, we knew what adrenaline was, but oxytocin or beta-endorphin, nobody knew what those were yet. That research was going on simultaneously through the ’70s in Sweden and so forth. But I learned, when paying attention to women and observing what works for them in labor, how to help the mother’s attitude, because we don’t want to have any negative attitudes. That’s another way of saying we don’t want adrenaline, catecholamines, norepinephrine or any of those. We want the calming hormones. We’re 70 percent liquid. We can be hard as a rock if we’re really toned up, but when we sleep, or if our muscles are relaxed, we will jiggle like jelly. And we want everything below the waist to be like jelly. How do we get there? We have to be calm. We can’t be scared.

So I would develop all these little tricks of how to get there. One time it was telling a woman and her husband, who were rigid with fear, to kiss. I was afraid she would tear, because the baby was going to come anyway, so I said, “Why don’t you kiss him?” So she turned to him and he did the same and they pecked each other on the lips. And I thought, “Oh my God, they don’t know how to kiss!” I had to instruct her for the next one.

“Open your mouth.” She opened her mouth, and ah, she let go. It was the first time she ever kissed him that way, turns out, and it fixed their marriage. But not only did it fix their marriage, it got her biggest baby, so far, out without a tear.

I had to take it apart later and ask, “Why does that work?” Well it was a good kiss, so the blood left the brain and went where it was needed. That is what the counter - culture brought—It put the sexuality back in birth.


A Wealth of Experience

My partners and I, together, have assisted some 2,700 births since that first birth I saw in the parking lot in November, 1970. And I have to count from that first birth, because I have no way of saying at what point I became a midwife. I don’t think anybody can answer that question adequately.

We did a birth in the south Bronx, in the late ’70s— this was the neighborhood of Fort Apache that white people were supposed to be terrified of. We had a free ambulance service there; it won awards from the city because we entered an area that wasn’t being served because of fear. And there were lots of drunks and fights and breaking glass and loud voices and argumentative stuff, but whenever somebody was in labor this calm pervaded the neighborhood. It wasn’t that people knew someone was giving birth. Just...calming energy was somehow broadcast in ways that we’re not used to thinking of. In Western culture we forget the ways we’re connected.

The first inkling I got about this kind of energy in birth was a story told to me by a friend who, after having had a traumatic hospital birth, was going to have baby number two at home. So she found a friend who was a maternity nurse who would act as a midwife. She described the birth: The labor was painless, and after the baby was born, holding the baby in her arms, she looked out the window and the neighbors’ cows were looking in. Now, cows don’t ordinarily do that, OK? They’re not that interested in what we’re doing in our homes. They’re usually out there eating grass. And here they were, drawn to the energy of birth.

Sometimes wild animals out of the forest will come and they will exhibit behavior we never saw before. We had a snake trying to come into the room—not a poisonous snake, but a six-foot-long black snake— trying to come in through the window once. I know of a case where a fox entered the room where there was an open door. Foxes are terrified of people ordinarily, but when there’s a birth going on they feel that calm energy established and they’re not afraid; there’s just that sense that they’re helping.

And then it occurred to me: People are supposed to worship a woman in labor and treat her like a goddess. What would anyone do for a goddess? They would please her. They would serve her. They would praise her. And if we did all those things, her hormones would be just right. She would have plenty of oxytocin, she would have plenty of beta-endorphins, and she could have an utterly painless, euphoric, and perhaps orgasmic experience.


Wisdom vs. Textbook Knowledge

So much wisdom can be lost in one generation. Who knows how long it took to accumulate? There was a C-section that happened in November 2008 in North Carolina that had the involvement of seven different obstetricians, and not one of them realized that this woman wasn’t even pregnant. A C-section, mind you!

How did that happen? Well, they had all the modern tests: They had the pregnancy test, they used the ultrasound. But, apparently, if anyone laid their hand on the woman’s belly, they didn’t know how to tell accumulated poop from a baby. Accumulated poop does not arrange itself as a baby does, and there is such a thing as a false positive pregnancy. When I tell people from Europe this story, they cannot believe that we could have reached that stunning state of ignorance where this could happen, and yet we’ve done it. We’ve shown the world that that can happen. And that’s just one anecdote.

This ignorance can cost lives. There are so many doctors today who would be terrified if they saw a baby’s feet, and who would prompt for immediate surgery. I say to them, “Get out of the room and let somebody calm be there.” And whoop, that baby’d come out! It could be the easiest birth ever. It would be good in case the arms were up if there were somebody there who knew how to lay their hands gently on the baby and have the baby roll just a little bit. It would be so much easier, and now the mother wouldn’t have to recover from a major abdominal injury.

What I think so many people forget about surgery is how much surgeons depend on the wisdom of Nature. They make a deliberate injury and then rely on Nature to heal it. If we can trust Nature that far, couldn’t we trust that same Nature to deliver the baby? But we’ve got to do it in calm. We can’t have fear hormones in the room. That means the mother’s fear hormones can’t be activated, and neither should anybody’s in her immediate area. But the hospital experience destroys all of that. There’s no magic in the hospital setting. It’s meat-factory stuff.

It’s the height of arrogance when anthropologists today say that the price of having our brain is that we can’t give birth. We can get to be such dumbheads when we get this academic arrogance that our culture is fraught with. And on top of that, there’s so much revulsion of the body that comes from Western culture. We need to remember that birth can be a deepening of a relationship; a wonderful adventure into the body and the soul— an adventure of life! Remember that we’re not only connected with Nature, we are Nature, and we are part of a wondrous design.

In the U.S. and the U.K., as well as in many other countries around the world, caesarean section rates are rising. Some of this rise can surely be attributed to the fact that maternity ward policy at many hospitals is more likely now than before to call for induction or augmentation than to send a woman home to await the eventual onset of labor. The higher incidence of C-sections after a failed induction or augmentation of labor is well documented.

How would hospitals and maternity clinics differ if the true physiology of laboring women were understood and taken into account? I believe that they would be organized in much the way that Michel Odent outlined in his early book Birth Reborn. Women would give birth in quiet, dimly lit rooms furnished simply with mats on the floor and a good-size tub of water. There might be ropes or ladders attached to the wall for the laboring woman to pull on. And if there is a bed in the room, it is a double bed large enough to accommodate her and her partner. If a caregiver who has not been in the room needs to check on the woman’s progress, she or he would knock on the door and enter quietly enough to not destroy the mood and the atmosphere in the room.

What I have described is the best way to reduce the occurrence of intervention in modern, high-tech hospitals. I am sure that redesigning hospital maternity wards and altering maternity-care policies with the goal of preventing intervention would significantly lower current rates of unnecessary C-section for “failed” labor. How good it would be to see hospitals do this during my lifetime!


Pathways Issue 48 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #48 and #64.

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