Taking back birth

Today, May 5th, is International Day of the Midwife. This year, it’s my Mother’s Day.

Something happened to me this January, something transformational.

I became a mother.

I was, in fact, already a mother, having given birth to a wonderful boy two years ago, but   I was robbed that time around: all I got out of it was a baby. (Obviously I’m kidding.)

I was robbed of that feeling, that transcendental moment when a woman crosses the threshold from regular person to giver of being and breath; that moment of euphoria that sweeps over you when your child is released from your life into his own.

My child was extracted from me with giant salad tongs while I was under the influence of massive amounts of drugs; my body was numb and my mind loopy. I never had a chance to feel myself crossing that threshold. I never felt anything — and that’s not how I wanted it.

I had been birthing naturally for hours when the head nurse came in and asked me to tell her, again, why I didn’t want the epidural. “You’re too tired to do this,” she said. “You need something for the pain.”

Shouldn’t I be the judge of my own strength? I thought. Shouldn’t I be the one calling mercy?

In my vulnerable state, having fear instilled in me, I made the tragic mistake of allowing my very bored-looking ObGyn to break my waters. That one intervention led to chaos: forms of consent were thrust into my face and next thing you know there was a needle up my spine. Conveniently, ten minutes before hospital shift change, my child was plucked and sucked out of me in the OR.

My comedown was violent; I shook for five hours and was unable even to hold my dazed and dopey, little purple baby. He had deep lacerations on his face from the forceps and it took a whole week before he would breastfeed.

The Samurai of birth

So how did things turn out so differently this time? I met a midwife.

With her support, alongside incredible doulas, we had a homebirth. We walked, laughed, ate good food, drank tea, listened to music, and at the end there was a beautiful, healthy baby with us. Most importantly, I felt safe, comfortable, unafraid and superhumanly strong.

I’m willing to bet that the majority of people think midwives disappeared during the Middle Ages, alongside chastity belts and guillotines. It may come as a surprise to hear that in most countries in the world babies are born under the care of a midwife and that the World Health Organization is striving to make midwives the prototype for birth attendants everywhere.

A gifted midwife can tell you the weight of your baby just by touching your belly. By the flush of your cheeks she may know how far dilated you are or how close your contractions may be. A midwife will support you and your bum—less tearing and swelling. She will crawl under you and twist herself into a contortionist to get a fetal heart rate rather than disturb your position of choice. She might even simultaneously knit your baby a hat.

Above all else, she will not tell you you can’t do it. She knows your body was built for this; that you the one who really delivers your baby onto this world.

Although midwives are trained to deal with almost any birth complication, they and the natural births they promote have been cast aside in North America, in favour of medicalized birth, even in low-risk situations.

Intervention Overload

Indisputably, birth can occasionally become dangerous. Sometimes emergency medical intervention is required. We are fortunate, in Canada, to have a health care system that provides for us, and we have modern medicine to thank for saving countless lives over the last two hundred years.

But the number of births which actually require medical intervention is very low. While many women are told that Cesarean is the only option for a breech baby, or that one Cesarean necessitates subsequent Cesarean-births, this simply is not the case.

The risk of severe maternal outcomes is three times more likely in Cesarean delivery than in a regular delivery. While the WHO recommends that Cesarean birth should be reserved for emergency situations only, the rate in Canada is around 27%. Countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, where midwives attend the majority of births, have the lowest rates of emergency Cesarean and lead the world in low infant and maternal mortality rates.

The abuse of the medical intervention in healthy, low-risk situations disrupts a natural process, tears us from experiencing a very important rite of passage and can cause more harm than good.

Statistics have shown that babies born to mothers administered drugs for pain, or to augment or induce labour, are less responsive and have more trouble breastfeeding than those born without.

One former president of the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated  “pitocin is the most abused drug in the world today.” It is estimated that almost 1 in 3 births in Canada are induced using drugs such as pitocin, even though studies have shown that exposure to these substances can cause fetal distress.

Think about it: you can’t eat soft cheese, but you can have an intravenous chemical cocktail? I say: Cervical polyps? Call an ObGyn. Having a baby? You need a midwife.

Birth is not a pathological problem

This is not to say that mothers who give birth using drugs or other interventions are irresponsible. We place our trust in our health care providers, and every women in labour wants the same thing: a safe delivery of her baby onto earth.

But treating every labour like a possible emergency is like carrying around a tank of oxygen when you are healthy and breathe perfectly well—just in case. And as for the pain? It’s pain with a purpose: to tell you how and when to move; to help you give life.

Midwives can help us birth naturally, in an environment we feel comfortable in, be it the hospital or home. They are skilled in helping babies out without fancy tools and drugs. I’ve given birth both ways, and I would never go back.

But next time, I may not have the choice: there is currently no legislation in Newfoundland allowing midwives to practice. Bill 17 has been passed, but without funding and actual legislation, trained midwives – who may not be as willing to buck the system as my midwife was – cannot help the many women who need their support.

It’s about choice: every mother-to-be should have the right to give birth the way she wants to. Every woman and every labour are different; I would never take modern obstetrics from a woman who felt she needed to birth this way, so how can hundreds of thousands of years worth of successful birthing and the wisdom of an ancient tradition – a tradition that works, that is safe, that is proven – be denied those who rely on it?

Today, May 5th, is International Day of the Midwife. This year, it is my Mother’s Day.

(I am so eternally grateful, Jayme, for your rebel spirit, and for helping me and so many other mamas and babes cross that threshold.)

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