An extract from Hearts of Fire, by Kemp Battle
Men know nothing about birth. Nothing at all. No man can truly grasp the thousand nameless moments when her body weaves within itself a new life, those long months of quiet, astonishing transformation. Even the male doctors, who routinely bring babies into the world and know everything about the medical procedures, cannot really know the pain and joy of that one, startling moment when the baby comes. But women know. They speak to each other wordlessly about the pain, about the sacrifice, the bliss. Those who have made that journey take those who have not by the hand–Do not be afraid. You can do it.
Strange, then, how many stories of birth we know with men at the centre–the country doctor who rides out and delivers the baby in the driving storm (remember his unflappable calm and steady wisdom?); the firemen and taxi drivers, called in as unexpected midwives; allowed for a moment to take part in the mystery (we applaud them for not flinching); the familiar figure of the husband pacing anxiously up and down the corridor, waiting for the doctor to come and tell him triumphantly “It’s a boy!” American folklore anthologies are filled with the comical cliches of the birth story and, inevitably, they minimize the toil and the mystery of the event by making the birth itself something of a sideshow.
Such stories are not the ones women tell each other. They are not the narratives that women use to help one another. The best of them touch on the lonely and powerful journey that every woman takes in childbirth: the journey towards empowerment and solitude that often means leaving everyone else behind–and climbing alone toward that place where one’s child is waiting to be claimed, saved, born.
Increasingly in America, birth is being reclaimed by women. Midwifery is once again being viewed as economical, practical, and superior to the automatic interventions routinely authorized by a medical establishment long dominated by men. These midwives are part of a long and honored tradition, one in which women look upon birth as a natural event, not a medical one. The midwives are seasoned guides through the anxious and sometimes confusing landscape of birth. Like many mothers, midwives often find themselves at odds with male doctors intent on moving women in and out as quickly as possible. Midwives have travelled the road so many times, seen the mother’s fear and her triumph–and they are among our best folklorists. Every midwife has a great birthing story to tell and each knows that a man, even a good, kind, and anxious one, must stand aside when the pain comes. There is work to be done honey, the midwife tells him. Hold her hand but let her concentrate. And then she speaks to her woman as if the man were not there at all.
Of the sadness or joy, good fortune or tragedy that awaits every mother and newborn child in this life, we can never know in advance. But the birth journey is and will always be nothing short of heroic, for every child and every mother, every time.
Midwives offer the birthing mother something that a male doctor never could, even if he wanted to. Mothering of the new mother.
This mothering is what makes it possible for a woman to reach deep down inside herself in order to find the strength she needs to birth her baby.
Men who are privileged to be present to witness the birth of a child should remember that they mustn’t talk to a labouring woman. When the endorphins kick in she needs to go into labour-land, a trance-like state which accesses the most primitive part of the brain. Her language and communication skills shut down. Selfishly, some male spouses and doctors often attempt to communicate with the birthing woman to bring her back into the present, because as we know, men don’t like not being the centre of attention. If this happens, and the woman is forced to revert back to her “thinking” brain, the labour can stall.
Stalling the labour, might actually be the point of the male intrusion into birth, so that they can whip out their knives and contraptions and Save the Day. When all a labouring woman needs is to be left alone. Or perhaps a strong, warm hand on her back.
Most babies come at night because the woman’s body lets her wind down before beginning the work it has to do. Ob/gyns hate this and enjoy inducing a woman with chemicals so that the baby comes at a more convenient time (for them).
With my second baby, I laboured for an hour and a half. The contractions woke me at 2 a.m. I went to the nearby midwife’s house. She showed me to a tatami room. It was dark, cool and it smelled of inscense. The baby shot out. It was beautiful.
Not all women are able to deliver babies naturally. But it’s important to know the difference between necessary and unecessary intervention. Hospitals are known for their infamous “cascade of intervention”. If you go to hospital to have a baby you are more likely to end up with a C-section or an episiotomy (almost guaranteed), or both if the doctors tried and failed to get the baby out. In some countries, C-sections make more money for the hospital.
If you’re a pregnant radfem reading this, or a woman hoping to give birth one day, make midwives your first port of call.
[Inspired by a post at Fabulous Fab Stuff. BRaxton Hicks (a man) did NOT discover the pre-labour contractions that he named after himself. Women did. Idiot]