Hello, people of the internet!
I spent the entire weekend away from the computer.
It felt good.
The Little Family Wrap has been sidelined for now because, frankly, we're boring. There was packing (me), crying (also me) and lots of whingeing (okay, that was me, too). Slowly, slowly we are inching closer to our moving day and I am very excited, oh yes I am!
A lovely friend recently alerted me to the fact that a piece I wrote and had published in Sydney's Child magazine a year or so ago has been reprinted in Melbourne's Child this month. So, fellow Melburnians, be sure and pick up your free June edition to read an article by yours truly!
For everyone else, I thought I'd pop it up on the blog for your reading pleasure. This version is pre-publishing edit so it's longer and contains more Angie-flavour. Enjoy!
The Birthing Battleground
I was one of those women who thought that childbirth without drugs was barbaric. Surely the pressure to labour ‘naturally’ was coming from the predominantly male domain of obstetrics. In fact, the very use of the word ‘natural’ bothered me. It was obviously another patriarchal invention designed to make women suffer. I mean, no-one insisted on natural root canals, did they? So why the hell should women have to endure the agony of childbirth when modern science had rendered it unnecessary? I could wax lyrical on the subject for a good twenty minutes and feel quite righteous for the duration.
And then I got pregnant.
Everywhere I turned there was information, advice and agendas surrounding this mystifying journey towards having a baby. Online, I could chat, share experiences and ask questions on pregnancy-related forums. If I turned on the television, I might happen across the latest ‘hot baby topic’ ranging from breastfeeding to co-sleeping, and the advertiser’s reach about everything from formula to pregnancy supplements was strong and constant. But in spite of this glut of information and support networks, I was more confused than when I began.
Make no mistake ladies, there is a war being waged for our birthing souls. And the more research I did, the more deeply entrenched I became in the battle. The problem for me was that being pregnant and adapting to the concept of actually ending up with a real live baby was fairly profound stuff and I felt I was busy enough sifting through those particular emotions without adding in choices. Because, oh baby, there were choices! How will you give birth? Where? Who will be with you? And of course, will you use pain relief? And suddenly, all my righteous ranting about natural childbirth being unnatural came under sharp scrutiny.
Amongst girlfriends, a typical conversation;
“Do you reckon you’ll use the drugs?”
“Oh god yes, jam that horse needle in my spine pronto, Doc!”
Raucous laughter and the sound of champagne glasses clinking followed in celebration of what we fancied was Women’s Lib. Of course, no one was pregnant at the time.
Ah, those were the good old days. The days before I read about what can go wrong. Oh yes, we all know that epidurals carry the risk of paralysis. Everyone knows that (and yet, it’s the size of the needle that churns the gut). No, I’m referring to what can go wrong with YOUR BABY. That’s right, if you insist on doing your research, then you’d better have a steely resolve. Innocuous terms like rapid breathing and low blood sugar seem less so when you’re picturing the vulnerable little life inside you. Where once you might have giggled, “floppy baby syndrome” now sounds sinister. I quickly discovered that whatever I did to my body, I was ultimately doing to my baby. Admittedly, it didn’t stop me from eating cheeseburgers but it did make me question my previously unwavering resolve to take every drug I was offered during labour. I realized how little I knew about pregnancy and birth and how politicized the whole thing had become. There was no single decision I could make that did not carry some kind of value judgment.
There are a number of epic battles in the birth arena currently. Fiercest, perhaps, is medicalised birth versus natural. Even the idea that birth had become medicalised was new to me. Birth was medical, wasn’t it? I mean, that’s why you have babies in the hospital…..right? One half of this battle says NO, NO, NO! The fact that we’ve been conditioned to think so is the problem. Birth actually IS natural and should be treated as such. Obstetrics have intervened in what should be women’s business and turned a normal, natural event into a medical problem to be treated. And good grief, don’t even mention the C word! We all know women are having caesareans because their rich obstetricians want to get 18 holes in. The other side of the argument is the more traditional (antiquated?) view that we should defer to our doctors and let them handle the tricky business of having babies.
Now that I was carrying a child suddenly these battles became mine. At the very least, I needed to decide which side I was on. Didn’t I? And therein lay the problem. I had no idea. There were compelling arguments for each. On the one hand, I was glad that modern medicine allowed for women to have caesareans. Surely many babies (and mothers) died during obstructive births before this procedure was available. But then on the other, if even the World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that caesarean rates are far too high then obviously the obstetric profession were pushing major surgery on women who didn’t need it, weren’t they? And then, of course, there were the myriad of health concerns related to both mother and baby depending on which method of birth a woman chose. The idea of someone cutting open my abdomen and uterus in order to get my baby out was not especially appealing but then neither was a prolapsed uterus or having stitches in my bum!
To say I felt conflicted was to grossly understate it. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. Women were having babies in the medical system every day and part of me wanted to trust in the system. But then was I being naïve and turning a blind eye to the conspiracy? What exactly was the conspiracy?
I garnered most of my information from a pregnancy and parenting forum where I spent a good deal of time reading and chatting to other mummies/-to-be. It was there I started to get an overwhelming sense of just what kind of birth I should be having and exactly how I should raise my new babe. I became very set on the idea of a natural birth. I knew I definitely didn’t want a caesarean and that I was absolutely going to breastfeed. (I am, however, yet to be convinced about modern cloth nappies). The arguments were compelling. Everything was geared towards better outcomes for both mother and baby than the current medical interventionist births were delivering (pun not intended but cute, huh?)
My partner and I went along to some birthing classes as recommended on the forum. These classes supported my new choices. I felt empowered and powerful. I could do this! I could have this baby naturally and with the minimum of intervention. We left the first class feeling really excited. As the weeks progressed, the classes became increasingly more militant. When asked what alternative she suggested if breastfeeding wasn’t successful, a lactation consultant recommended using the expressed breast milk of another woman and only when pressed, muttered about formula as though feeding your baby vodka would be preferable. Another woman, a birth attendant, told us to “prepare for battle” if we chose to give birth in a hospital. Alarm bells started to ring for me. Logically, I knew that there were only two options for feeding a newborn baby – breast milk or formula. The concept of a breast milk bank is a brilliant one but since no such thing existed in Melbourne at the time we were pregnant, exactly where were we to source this milk? Perhaps a wanted ad in the local classifieds? It was a ridiculous suggestion. And as for preparing for battle, I knew I’d have my hands full with the labour itself, I wasn’t keen to take on the medical staff as well (which, the birth attendant informed us, was exactly why we needed a birth attendant to do it for us. Ka-ching!)
And then, just when I thought this whole pregnancy lark couldn’t get any more complicated, I was diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes (GD). I would most likely have my labour induced.
According to the militant mummies, my dreams of a natural, non-interventionist birth were all but over. And, as one of the teachers in my birth class told me, especially in the hospital I had chosen. She disagreed that it was too late to change hospitals. I was eight months pregnant. I had finished work, I was putting the last nesting touches to the nursery and was looking forward to my last few weeks of appointments with the staff and hospital I had been cared for throughout my pregnancy. Technically, the hospital change was possible but it presented a major disruption at the pointy end of an emotional journey.
I didn’t change hospitals.
I did, however, do some research on GD only to discover that it is a highly controversial condition and disagreement abounds as to the effectiveness of trying to treat it. Of course! The online forum directed me to the writings of a doctor who believed GD was pretty much bogus and then I’d go to my midwife appointment where we’d discuss how important it was to manage the GD very carefully. At this point, my brain hurt. I was so worried. Who was right? The more I read or asked questions, the more confused I became. I had to make a crucial decision. I couldn’t keep being pulled between opposing sides. I realized it was simple. I had chosen a hospital and its staff to deliver my baby. I was either going to trust them to care for me or I wasn’t.
Early on the morning of July 31, labour was induced. The pain was so immediate and overwhelming that I had an epidural after only two hours. By late afternoon, I was 10cm dilated. After 40 minutes of pushing, the baby’s heart rate was dipping and when the Registrar and two other obstetricians entered the room, I knew what was coming. Late that evening, I had a beautiful baby boy via emergency caesarean section.
In the aftermath of my son’s birth, I thought about what the militant mummies would say. That I was doomed the moment the induction drip went in. That one intervention led to another until I ended up in the operating theatre. Maybe if I wasn’t bed-bound with an epidural I might have been able to get into a better position to allow the baby to move through the pelvis. Or maybe I could have gone through the entire Kama Sutra of positions and my baby still not be able to fit. I will never know. What I do know is that becoming fixated on 'the right way' to have a baby is a great way to ensure disappointment.
I don’t advocate going into birth blindly. Reflecting back on my journey, much of the research I did was invaluable. Neither do I regret the gung-ho birthing warrior classes. They helped me understand where I stood. And that turned out to be fairly squarely in the middle. The days are gone where doctors are seen as gods and we, the humble patient, who must defer to their greatness and do as we’re told. But on the other hand, I don’t want to give birth in a kiddy pool while Enya plays on the stereo, the family pet never able to look me in the eye again. I have learnt the benefits of natural birth for both mother and baby but am comfortable trusting the medical staff if they say it’s not possible for me.
I also don’t take for granted the amazing work many do to affect change for birthing women. Even though I don’t align myself with the militant mummies, I’m grateful for their tireless campaigning. Information should be available to any woman who wants it. We should be free to ask as many questions as we like and have them answered honestly by our carers. If there are too many caesareans being performed then bravo to those attempting to shine a light on the issue. I’ve read enough testimonials to know that many women have been traumatised by their birthing experiences and improving these outcomes is vitally important.
What I know for sure is that no amount of planning, reading and preparing can guarantee you the birth you want. If you want to, work on the things you can control. That’s great and may go a long way to improving your birth experience overall. But at some point, you need to give yourself over to the journey. My birth was not as I had dreamed. But the majority of my carers treated me with dignity and respect at all times and ultimately, helped me bring my beautiful son into the world. My initial disappointment was unwarranted and based on how I thought the birth should have gone rather than what I genuinely felt which was overwhelming joy and pride.
I’d still like to try for a natural vaginal birth next time. But this time, I won’t allow someone else’s agenda to ruin my unique birth experience.