Empowerment in Birth


There’s a discussion going on over at the Motherload blog about whether or not there is an ideal way to give birth.  Lisa Belkin seems to think an ideal birth is a fiction, and all that matters is a healthy baby and mother.  I disagree that there isn’t an ideal, because I think there’s enough evidence that a particular method of birth (vaginal with the least amount of intervention as possible) is more likely to lead to a healthy baby and mother, thus making it the ideal method of birth.

In the comments, a lot of women mentioned how their birth experience was transformative and empowering, and another commenter, “Blue,” challenge them to explain why.  I took on the task, and Lisa highlighted my comment as one that is among the most interesting and thoughtful responses, so I thought I would share it with you:

Here’s attempt to answer Blue’s (#59) question:

If you felt that it was positive and transformative, and worth the pain, why? Can you pinpoint it for the rest of us? (Leaving aside any health benefits and the accomplishment of withstanding the pain itself)

I had a drug-free vaginal birth with a midwife and a doula at a hospital birth center. I labored at home until transition (on purpose), rode 40 minutes to the hospital in transition and then trying not to push (not fun), arrived at the hospital fully dilated & just in time for my water to break, and 30 minutes later had a beautiful baby girl. Over all, I think the hardest part about the birth was trying not to have a baby in my friend’s Escalde. It didn’t really hurt in the way you would think of pain hurting – it was more like ebbs and flows, not constant, on-going pain – and I was able to relax in between contractions so labor wasn’t really an issue for me until transition. What hurt was them massaging (punching!) my uterus afterward and getting stitches for a minor tear with no local anesthesia. Also, my butt felt sore for a few days (3?), but I didn’t take anything for that either. That is the shortened version of was my birth experience – mine, not my daughter’s, because I did all the work. So, to answer your question, Blue, it was totally worth the pain – because for me it wasn’t really that painful. I was able to work with my body and understand that contractions were telling me something, rather than fight them. I also was able to focus on the fact that each contraction was going to end within 1-2 minutes. The discomfort that I did feel was worth it, because it was very important to me as a part of the experience as a whole. I wanted to live each and every moment of the birth, and if someone else was telling me I was having a contraction because the epidural had numbed me to all sensation, I wouldn’t have been 100% present in the experience.I think a big reason why it felt transformative and was so positive, was how it helped to shape my identity and my confidence in my own abilities to succeed.
First and foremost, I set a goal and met that goal. It’s no different from the great sense of achievement someone gets from succeeding at running a marathon for the first time or climbing a mountain. I faced a challenge and I beat it. I was told over and over during my pregnancy that I should get the epidural; that birth is incredibly painful; that I should be prepared for not being able birth naturally; that once I actually feel it, I’ll change my mind. Even my own mother kept telling me that I should probably get an epidural – that’s not a vote of confidence. And every time someone told me I couldn’t do it drug-free, I wanted to do it drug-free more. The fact that I was able to do something so many women told me I couldn’t do, that I was able to take control of the pain instead of letting it control me, was an incredible confidence booster. Now, when I’m faced with a challenge, I actually think to myself, “Is this harder than giving birth?” Because if I could do that, then I can do anything.

Secondly, I feel like I’ve fulfilled some really important thing that I’m supposed to do. I’m young and until I had my daughter, I never really felt comfortable defining myself as a woman – as opposed to a girl – but now that I’m a mother and there’s no question in my mind…I AM WOMAN. I’m sure there’s some primal, evolutionary reason for this feeling, and maybe I would feel this way no matter how Nora had been born, but as I think about it, I can only connect it to the natural birth experience. We are animals, we have the biological ability (some might even say the design) to survive birth (in most, but not all cases) without intervention; the fact that I did so has made me more aware of my “purpose,” if you will.

I’ve thought a little bit about whether or not the birth would be as empowering if I lived in a culture where this sort of birth experience was the norm. And I think, probably, it would not be. Part of why this experience is so amazing for me is because I am in the minority here. It would probably feel like much less of an accomplishment and more of just a normal thing if all along people had told me I could do it, if I grew up seeing examples of natural birth, and if natural birth was the only option. I think living in America, where natural birth is far from the norm and pain is the common descriptor of the birthing experience, having a baby drug-free becomes a challenge which can be met head-on (with either success or failure) or which can be so overwhelming that women don’t even try. Having faced and overcome something that is insurmountable to many of my peers is a big part of the empowerment feeling.

So that was my comment.  I’d love to know what you think about birth experiences.  Is there an ideal experience?  If you’ve had a baby, how do you feel about your experience?  If you haven’t, how do you view birth?  Guys, feel free to chime in, too – does the birth experience matter to you or is it just another thing women find important that guys could care less about?

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15 responses

  1. Laurie Avatar

    The birth experience is very important to me. I think that it is a personal and intimate experience. I am pregnant with my first child and have decided to have a natural birth at home. I haven’t told most of my friends but I know when I do I will be inundated with the “Get an epidural!!” speeches (none of my friends had natural deliveries).

    I can’t say that I am at the point where I am not afraid of labor (having anxiety doesn’t really help) but I know that the natural birth at home is the right decision for me and the baby. I’m reading books and trying to find other support systems to help me get to that point though. Thank you for sharing your positive story!

    1. Laurie Thank you so much for your comment And good luck with your homebirth! I’m sure you’ll be happy with the decision; we had Nora in a birth center because my husband was nervous about it, and the birth center was the most annoying part about the birth! 🙂 All of our future babies will be delivered at home.

      I think the biggest thing about it is going into the birth with a positive outlook. So many pregnant women I spoke with allowed the fear of the unknown to steer their thinking from the beginning. It’s sort of like affirmations – if you think the birth will be great, then it will be. I just told myself over and over that millions of women give birth this way, some with no medical or personal support at all, which means it can’t possibly be unbearable. And it wasn’t at all. I will say, that we had a doula, who was an amazing asset for both my sanity leading up to the birth (I was 42 weeks) and my composure during labor. If you can get a doula, I highly recommend it. Also, I took prenatal yoga classes while pregnant and found a lot of the breathing and relaxation techniques helpful. Good luck!!!

  2. John Hinds Avatar
    John Hinds

    If you can create life you can do anything. Empowering and transformative? Your decision to be self reliant, to “own” the process is what gives you the fulfillment you feel. We should all strive for that end in all our endeavors.

  3. John Hinds Avatar
    John Hinds

    Let you in on a little secret. It is not until you have done this, say five times, that the empowerment and transformation comes to full fruition. Eleanor’s birth is just the bud of the rose, bless her heart! 😉

    1. Is that your way of asking for more grandchildren? Haha. Sorry, you may have to wait until we have a bigger house for that! 🙂

  4. Rachel Behl Wester Avatar
    Rachel Behl Wester

    Okay, here I am finding myself completely on the same page as you… sorry if my constant “Me too” comments are becoming at all creepy, but it’s like you’re in my head.

    I want to try an all natural birth. I’ve gotten so many of the same comments as you about how I’ll change my mind and get an epidural. And I joke that I never say never and I … See Moreprobably will end up asking for one halfway through. But honestly, I don’t think I will. Of course all of this is pending me actually getting pregnant and it will depend on whether it’s a healthy, normal pregnancy, etc. But I want to try a natural birth. Maybe even at a birthing center.

    I know what you mean about the challenging yourself thing. Not the best analogy- but when I have work done at the dentist, I never get numbed. I hate being numb more than the “pain.” Because it’s not really painful to me, just more of a pressure or discomfort. I can control it pretty easily, it’s just a mind game. And that’s an empowering feeling. I don’t take a lot of meds or pain pills for the same reason. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking them- but I try to get by without them, just to push myself a little and remind myself that I am strong. I often wonder whether I have a really high pain tolerance, or if it’s just that I don’t feel pain as much as other people. I think it all goes back to the mind control.

    So, props to you for the natural birth. I may be asking you for advice on that soon!

  5. marisa Avatar

    hi there, i popped over here from your comment on the ny times article; just wanted to say that i thought you expressed yourself very well. i had a natural birth with my son and very much related to nearly all of what you said!

  6. Megan M Avatar

    If there is one thing I am learning on OB Nights, it is every woman has a different birth experience. No two births (I’m now in the double digits) that I have attended/delivered have been the same.

    You, my friend, have an un-surmountable personality. I never had any doubt in your determination from the start. ;0) And look at what your beautiful girl you made!!

    My 2 least favorite steps in the birthing process as the doctor are massaging the uterus (it is very necessary to prevent post-partum hemorrhage – some uteri are truly exhausted after all of that work and need a little help tp clamp down) and passing a baby to nursery in the event of meconium fluid. I love lying the baby right into mom’s lap, and when there is meconium – I can’t.

    I have decided – when it comes to be my time – to get the epidural. My reasoning being – I know I will have good support of friends/family/colleagues when it comes to coaching for pushing. The second reason – in the event of a necessary C-section, I do not want to be put completely under – I want to be awake.

    1. Aww, thanks Megan. I know you’re going to be a great doctor, and I’m glad you’re at a better hospital this time round!

      How long does it take an epidural to be placed and kick in? What are the chances that you would have a drastic issue which would mean there wouldn’t be enough time to place an epidural and would have to use general anesthesia instead?

  7. Christine@OrigamiMommy Avatar

    Thank you for your reply on my post on home birth in Japan, where I discussed how normalized, how unremarkable, it is to birth naturally. Now that I have been here for so long and seen so many women give birth naturally (whether in hospital, home, or birth house), I feel even more strongly that I wish the birth culture back home would change. I’ve had two babies naturally in the U.S. and two in Japan. I think it can be an utterly transformative experience no matter where you are, but I do feel a special bond between me and any other mother who has birthed naturally in a society where it’s not the norm at all.

  8. No Easy Decision | Au Coeur

    […] That’s a big part of why Nora’s birth was so empowering for me, […]

  9. Sarah Ray Avatar

    Wow. This is something that I pondered for a long time when pregnant with my second. I had a precipitous labor (natural) with my first that left me with something akin to post traumatic stress disorder. It was months before I could talk about my birth experience without tearing up and I felt terrible. For me, natural childbirth was not the answer. I love that your experience was wonderful, and I applaud anyone who can make it through labor without meds. It is truly an amazing and intense pain. After having my second (induction and epidural) I have to say there is something to be said for both ways. I don’t feel like any less of a woman because I had an epidural, but I am not hardcore. I feel like my bond with my second may even be stronger because I truly enjoyed her birth, it was all joy and no pain. To each her own. Birth is like a box of chocolates.

    1. this makes me feel better sarah ray. thanks so much.

  10. reading things like this make me feel so much like a failure as a strong woman… because i had decided i was going to have a natural child birth but then my whole life was turned upside down a few days before i went into labor so while in the hospital my mind was racing i had no support and i chose the epidural…. why do i feel so weak?

    1. K, it is not my intention to make you feel like a failure or that you are not a strong woman, or to pass judgment on any other woman’s birthing experiences and choices.

      I think an unfortunate fact in the US is that our culture does not set women up to be successful in birthing naturally. Not only did I have an incredibly supportive and actively participating husband, but I also had a doula and a very good woman friend who helped me to get through the birth. If we had not hired a doula, I can say with 100% confidence that my birth experience would have likely been the complete opposite of what it was. Instead of triggering labor at home with an herbal remedy at 42 weeks, I would likely have been induced with pitocin in a hospital bed. Instead of staying home until the last possible moment, I would have been under institutional care much sooner — there is no way my husband and I would have felt comfortable staying home alone without having done it before and known where we were. Instead of giving birth without medication, I may well have had an epidural…or given other facts surrounding my pregnancy, I may have even ended up with a c-section.

      In no part of the world, are women expected to give birth alone. Having informed, active support persons is key to having a good outcome in the birth experience. Without support, I don’t think any women can compare her experiences and outcomes to the ideal in a supportive environment. It sounds like you did the best you could given your circumstances and that is all that matters. Please don’t feel bad about your experiences or choices.


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