Natural childbirth educator Sarah Barre Clark shares her thoughts on why the birth experience matters – for mothers, for babies and for the future of the planet, and gives her thoughts on why obstetricians tell women it doesn’t.
I am just a mother.
I am also just a mother who births at home and occasionally teaches natural birth classes. There is something both shocking and beautiful about this little fact about me. When I mention that to women, they often seem compelled to tell me about the births of their babies.
The thing that is shocking about this is that sometimes the women who open up to me, who share their triumphs, their sorrows, their disappointments, and even their tears, are often well past childbearing age. In fact, over and over again I have had women tell me about their birth stories long after their “babies” are grown and having babies of their own.
This makes me wonder how many people have ever taken a few moments to listen to these women’s stories and talk to them about it.
And it always reminds me of something else we seem keen to forget; the birth experience matters.
The birth experience matters so deeply that women in their 50′s or 60′s and beyond still remember vividly how their children were born and how they felt when it happened. I have heard women talk about a cesarean that they didn’t think they needed. I have heard them talk about having their abdomens pushed on by nurses. I have heard them talk about how incredible it was when, after multiple births without their husband present, they finally experienced a birth during which their lover held their hand. They tell me of their regrets regarding their decisions. They tell me what worked and what didn’t, even how they breathed.
To these women, their birth experiences mattered deeply. That sacred time of labor and birth doesn’t just impact the immediate postpartum period or even just baby bonding – it impacts women, and it impacts them for the rest of their lives.
What does this mean for women?
It means that their births, their choices and feelings surrounding those events are powerful and memorable. Somebody saying, “At least you have a healthy baby” doesn’t change this fact one bit. It discounts those feelings, but it does not change them.
What does it mean for their children?
One question I ask people when they take a birth class with me is what their mothers say about birth. They all know. They know the stories of their own births. They know how birth made their mother feel and how it impacted her. Their mother’s story and her feelings on birth will almost undoubtedly influence that soon to be mother.
I remember my own mother talking about how she had planned a home birth with me. It turned out that I wasn’t born at home, but in a hospital via cesarean. But still I always thought that if you could, you birthed your baby naturally, even at home. My mother’s story influenced me and my births profoundly in a positive way. I knew I would do this birth thing naturally. I knew I would breastfeed. I know now too that I am lucky. Most women do not get such a feeling about the nature of birth from their mother’s experience.
I think it is easy to see that the birth experience matters – for the woman, for her children, and for her children’s children. These feelings, experiences and beliefs are passed on from one generation to the next.
Would a c-section rate of over 30% really be feasible if most women wholeheartedly believed that their bodies worked? Sure obstetric culture can be powerful, but if the majority of women just knew in their bones that birth was joyous and safe, would they ever settle for such a high frequency of surgery?
I submit that they would never accept this. However, birth has been made out to be a thing of fear and death that we deeply believe that the natural process is scary, dangerous, and that our bodies are not to be trusted. Those fears and beliefs about birth make a 1/3 cesarean rate probable and understandable.
Some might ask, “If birth and the experience surrounding it matters so much, why do obstetricians sell the idea that it doesn’t matter? Why do we hear them (and others) so often saying that, ‘All that matters is a healthy baby’”?
I think this goes back to the root of obstetrics. Obstetrics has a beautiful purpose: saving women and babies who otherwise could not be saved with midwifery. This is a fabulous thing, a great tool to have available for women who need it.
The down side of it though is that people trained in the pathology, the “what if,” the disease of birth, simply don’t know that the experience matters. They exist to perform miracles when the life or health of the baby or mother is at stake.
I, a home birthing mother of four, can honestly say that if my baby’s life was on the line, then the birth experience would take a backseat to having a live baby. But when you can have a normal, healthy, non-surgical birth, then that birth experience should not be superseded by fear based, unnecessary interventions inflicted on by a care provider who believes that “the experience doesn’t matter.”
So we have taken surgeons who exist to save in extreme cases when the only thing that matters is getting everybody out alive, and we have made them the general care providers for the majority of women in America.
The result is birth culture based on fear, litigation, testing and risk and it turns out to include very few natural, physiologically normal births.
Frankly, the result (lots of interventions from people who think that doesn’t make a difference) is not surprising considering their background in birth.
I don’t know if there is another answer to this issue besides this: Save the surgeons for when they are needed and praise heaven when they are appropriately used. Use well-trained, respectful, dedicated, and skilled midwives for the rest.
Because the birth experience does matter – not just for women, but for their children and for all of us.
We must tell women about how glorious birth can be. We must hug them when they tell their sad stories. We need to listen to their sorrows, respect the fact that their experience does matter. It matters because the mother is a human being and because the things that impact her will almost surely have an impact on her children.
Sarah Barre Clark is a mother of four young children, all born naturally, one in a hospital, one in a birth center, and two at home. She is also a natural childbirth educator and has been teaching since 2004. She sits on the board of Birth Boot Camp Inc., a natural childbirth education method promoting the midwifery model of care. She can also often be found blogging about birth, motherhood, or just life with little ones, at www.mamabirth.blogspot.com