So there I was, pregnant for the second time, after giving birth to my beautiful daughter a year earlier, and stretching my weary limbs in a prenatal yoga class. Looking out across the sea of anxious eyes from mothers-to-be reminded me how frightened I was the first time I saw a double line on a pregnancy test, how nervous I was to embark on this life-changing experience with all its unknowable consequences.
After reflecting on everything my first pregnancy and delivery taught me, I’ve decided to offer a little advice to first-time moms.
During my first pregnancy, the fatigue and nausea turned me into a sleepy vegetable. It can be a vicious cycle: the fatigue makes you weak, and as you grow weaker, you become increasingly inactive and sore. By the time I had my first daughter, I was a terribly achy mess of bloated limbs and atrophied muscles, which ended up making everything harder than it probably had to be.
I managed to get into good shape, though, after the baby was born by attending a postpartum sculpt class where you can bring your crying infant and also take a break to cuddle your baby or breastfeed at any time without feeling the least bit self-conscious.
The class was wonderful. Not only could we reclaim our shape after the ravages of pregnancy, but we could also get out of the house without worrying about our newborns going ballistic and making us suffer a bunch of awkward stares.
Beyond that, we could hang out with other new moms who were similarly stressed, sleep-deprived, and talk about our baby experiences to our hearts’ content.
For my next pregnancy, then, I decided to be proactive and take a prenatal yoga class. It kept me in better physical shape by preserving flexibility and in better emotional shape by getting me out of the house to relax a couple of evenings a week with other women in various stages of pregnancy.
My first piece of advice, then, is to attend these pre- and post-natal classes whenever possible. Television and movies do NOT prepare you for pregnancy. In Hollywood, actresses just slide a pillow under their belts, eat sardines and ice cream, and otherwise frolic around like everything is fine until one day their water dramatically breaks and –BAM—motherhood!
Without other women to share your experiences with, you have no idea if your hip pain is normal, whether you should be concerned about constant heartburn, or how to keep food down, or whether [insert random body part] is supposed to look like that right now.
Of course, having the baby doesn’t magically end your confusion, either. It’s wonderful to be able to share advice with other women whose babies are crying nonstop for hours, who aren’t getting any sleep, who don’t know how to run an errand without their infant exploding into an impromptu public meltdown. I highly recommend these kinds of classes for the sake of your well-being.
My second line of advice, however, is even more important.
One interesting aspect of the prenatal class I attended is that after every woman delivers her baby, she writes about her delivery and everyone in the class gets to read an email about her birth story. This is wonderful, especially for first-time mothers who are nervous, not knowing what to expect and undoubtedly being routinely terrorized by random women coming out of the woodwork to share every birthing horror story imaginable (seriously, when I was pregnant the first time, I don’t think a week went by without some strange woman telling me about her third degree tear, which is the last thing you want to envision throughout the nerve-wracking countdown).
Now, in a prenatal yoga class, especially one in which most members are enthusiastic breastfeeding advocates, there tends to be an inordinately high concentration of women trying for a “drug-free” natural birth. Some of them even want to deliver the baby at home, instead of a hospital. Many have watched The Business of Being Born, and regard the medical community with great suspicion.
I am more of a moderate in these matters, believing there are times when natural methods are the best tools, but other times when the scientific advancements of the medical community are the way to go. For example, I think you are much better off controlling your cholesterol with diet and exercise, if possible, than relying on a drug. I also think popping an antibiotic every time you have a sniffle weakens the immune system and breeds antibiotic-resistant diseases.
However, if your heart suddenly stops or you come down with a dread disease, you need to be in a hospital with trained professionals, because Mother Nature doesn’t concern herself with weak members of the herd. Likewise, I believe breastfeeding is by far the best method of nourishing an infant. But, like growing your own organic fruits and vegetables, it isn’t always feasible and formula has been a literal lifesaver for many.
Having given birth to one baby already and gotten to the hospital too late for an epidural, I can tell you from personal experience that doctors are not offering to numb your entire lower body via the spinal cord because labor is merely “uncomfortable” or something you can simply “breathe” away. People aren’t getting offered epidurals for gas pain or splinters…. you get them for childbirth or lower body SURGERY.
In other words, labor pain is potentially one of the most physically excruciating experiences a person can have, and can last a very, very, very long time. Yes, it is “natural,” but so is being eaten alive by lions, being crushed to death by an anaconda, or bleeding out during a problematic delivery.
And yes, you can do it without pain reducers, just like the women of yore. You can do a lot of things if you really need to, like saw off your own arm if it gets trapped under a boulder and you need to get free to survive.
But I think it is a particularly nasty form of cruelty to make a woman feel as though she somehow failed by accepting pain-management during childbirth. We don’t call people “losers” for wanting Novocain when getting their teeth drilled or numbing shots before receiving stitches, yet some people will actually point to a woman who has suffered through constant nausea, back pain, hip pain, and fatigue for nine to ten months, and consider her selfish for using pain relief to help her through what might be 20+ hours of physical agony.
These women probably denied themselves everything from booze and soft cheeses to lunch meat and too many cups of coffee for the better part of a year, and then risked their lives in order to create new ones for the betterment of the entire species. How on earth could they be considered weak?
That being said, there are many women for whom natural childbirth remains a goal. Sometimes they describe a natural birth as their version of climbing Mt. Everest, a physical achievement that gives them great confidence and an understanding of their own strength. Some want to feel connected to the many generations of women who came before them by experiencing the same natural process. Others want to be fully “present” during the birth process and believe that anything that drugs or numbs part of them will cloud the experience.
This is a deeply personal and valid decision, and my hat is off to any woman who manages to get through the entire episode without begging for the sweet, sweet release of anesthetics…
But, for the love of all that is rational and sacred, PLEASE do not attempt to do this at home. Please deliver your baby in a hospital filled with trained professionals and equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment… in case something goes wrong. Because this is the one thing home birth advocates tend to forget: Women may have been having babies without doctors for centuries, but they also used to die in childbirth. All. The. Time. Sometimes in agonizing yet preventable ways. So did the babies.
If you are in a hospital, no one is going to force you to have an epidural, you can have the baby as naturally as you want. Many hospitals now come equipped with midwives, birthing balls, and all the other nifty gadgets so beloved by the natural birth crowd.
You don’t need to have an epidural, but it is nice to have one available, in case you change your mind upon actually experiencing labor instead of just imagining it.
But far more importantly, you need to be in a hospital in case something goes wrong. What if the baby is coming out the wrong way and is going to break its arm on the way out and cause you to tear from the vagina through the anus? What if the baby’s umbilical cord gets wrapped around its neck and the baby is going to rapidly suffer brain damage and then death if no one can fix the situation? What if your placenta tears away from the baby and you need an emergency C-section because you are hemorrhaging to death and both you and the baby will die without one?
Because these things DO happen from time to time, even to healthy women with normal pregnancies. For example, one of the leading advocates of the “Freebirth” movement, a group that argues for unassisted childbirth at home, is a woman named Janet Fraser. Though Fraser demands that other women be “drug free,” she herself ran to a hospital for her first delivery to request not only epidural anesthesia, but also a medically unnecessary C-section. More tragically, in 2009, Fraser gave birth at home and her baby died of cardiac arrest. The coroner’s report indicated that the baby’s death would have been prevented in a hospital.
Every 90 seconds, a woman somewhere in the world dies in childbirth. In Afghanistan, where regressive gender politics have effectively forced women away from doctors, women face a one in ten chance of dying while delivering a baby. Childbirth is no joke… it used to be one of the most dangerous times in a woman’s life and we have the medical and scientific communities to thank for so dramatically dropping those risks over the past century.
I believe much of the rhetoric of the natural/at-home birthing movement is akin to faith healing… the idea that childbirth only becomes dangerous or painful because you “believe” it will be implies that any suffering is your own fault and you wouldn’t be having these problems if you just had more faith in the process. It’s an emperor-has-no-clothes belief system, because any failure of its promise of painless, easy childbirth is blamed on the poor mother, who is apt to deny any problems because they would supposedly prove failure on her part, rather than the problematic belief system itself.
I suppose the ultimate show of faith is having a baby by yourself, at home, with no professionals around in case anything goes awry. But, gentle readers, this is simply a dangerous thing to do. How would you feel if something horrible happens to your baby and you then have to live with the fact that you might have prevented it if you weren’t trying to prove something?
If you absolutely, positively, insist in having the baby at home, at least be sure you are reasonably close to a hospital and DO NOT have the baby by yourself. Make sure you have a doula or midwife on hand who can figure out if an emergency situation is taking place so you can be rushed to the hospital if need be. Even in the days of yore, when women routinely gave birth at home, there was always someone hanging out with her, making sure she didn’t pass out or suddenly need assistance.
Because, dear readers, some of the birth stories I’ve read from the prenatal yoga moms have made my blood run cold, though obviously, I cannot reveal the mothers’ names without compromising their privacy. One woman labored by herself for hours, in the bathtub, while her husband was at work. She was in labor for several days before finally being rushed to the hospital. Her water had broken long ago, her baby was leaking meconium (baby poo) into her system, and she was going into septic shock.
She was given blood transfusions and an emergency C-section, which saved her life and that of her baby’s. Do any of you guys watch Downton Abbey? Septic shock is a horrible way to die.
Another friend of mine was a huge advocate of natural, at-home birth. She is young, extremely healthy, and had to be rushed to the hospital while delivering her baby because she was bleeding to death. They saved her and her son. She doesn’t like to tell anyone about the experience because: 1) it embarrasses her that the method she was so gung-ho about worked out so poorly, and 2) she feels like a failure because she didn’t give birth the way she wanted to. This is tragic, in my opinion, because women should not feel like failures after struggling through a naturally hazardous process, and also because we need to be aware of the very real risks we are taking.
I’d also like to share that of the many mothers who wanted a natural birth in my class, the majority ended up begging for an epidural somewhere around 4 centimeters of dilation, which is before things get really rough.
There is no shame in this. You cannot be expected to truly know whether you will need pain management if you have never experienced this type of pain before, and it is good to have all options available.
There are also a couple of mothers who made it all the way through… they gave birth with nary an anesthetic in sight and they feel fantastic about their accomplishment. No one forced them to get an epidural; you see… it is always your choice.
Just because something is possible, does not mean it is always desirable. Mother Nature can be quite harsh. She weeds out members of the herd by killing off members prone to physical problems and removing them from the gene pool. But Nature also made the human animal a brilliant creature who could invent new medications and methods of preventing many deaths and illnesses. So, you could also view medical practices as natural, in that they are the natural extension of human ingenuity and invention.
Some might even argue that taking unnecessary risks, rather than relying on your species’ ingenuity, makes you a potential candidate for weeding out.
If you wish to forgo the epidural, that is a valid choice. But please, keep yourselves safe.
That is all.