Wow! What a great place to give birth, I thought. Attended by midwives, apart from any drama the home environment might hold… and with no laundry to do afterward!
The rooms in the birth centre were beautiful – like hotel rooms, with dimmed light, big, comfortable beds, and a luxurious, deep bath tub in each one. The expectant mother got to pick the colour of room she wished – the friend I was accompanying chose the warm orange over the pink or olive.
The (young and childless) medical midwives were more welcoming of me than I had thought they might be – it seems that traditional midwives rarely announce themselves in the birth centre setting, so I was treated as somewhat exotic (for a change 😉 ). I left after that first visit with no qualms whatsoever about this centre as a very viable option for any birthing woman.
My friend’s labour began a couple of weeks later – gentle and idyllic, the full moon shining over the snowy landscape and into their home lit by candles and a woodstove. It became long, however, and we decided a change of location would be helpful. I was once again happily surprised at the warmth of the greeting we received upon arrival at the birth centre – the bath was run, and the midwives were waiting, smiling and calm.
It was when I gave a status report, purposely using medical language the midwives would understand, that I felt the shift. Throughout the first part of her labour, it was the mother who was in charge, following her instincts with my guidance. When we stepped through the doors of the birth centre, all of that changed and she became a Patient. Although their language was politically correct, and the midwives perceive themselves as part of a process of empowerment for birthing mothers, separated by ideological light-years from the ob-gyns who do births in hospitals, the most insidious aspects of medical training were present in their every word and gesture.
Once the passwords had been uttered, I was allowed amongst the Elect, shorn from the mother and one of Them. Communication through signs and meaningful looks kept the parents oblivious of most of what was actually going on. Concerns were signalled, but not verbalised – carefully modulated voices cheerily conveyed nothing of the undercurrents of “What if…?” to which all of us but the parents were privy.
Once the baby was born, a blanket was draped over the mothers knees so she could “focus on the baby” and not what was going on in her own body. A cap was immediately popped over the baby’s swollen and cone-shaped head, molded by the long hours of labour – “out of sight, out of mind”…. The mother’s anxious questions about the sutures necessary to repair where she had torn were answered as one would answer a fidgety child. “You just concentrate on your new baby – we’ll take care of the rest.”
In my own state of fatigue after 40 sleepless hours, it was the next day before I realised that the midwives are only trained to intervene medically. The use of herbs, aromatherapy, homeopathy, pressure on the perineum during the final pushes, massage of the new-born – these tools that I take for granted were just not part of their medical kit. What I observed them do was all for the “comfort” of the mother, not to avoid difficulties down the road.
The attitude, as it felt to me, was that the mother would be allowed to do what her body naturally was able to do, and all potential complications were allowed to unfold unhampered until there was a need for medical action. The medical intervention, although completely preventable, then justified the presence of medically-trained personnel.
I have known about this dynamic in the medical model for decades, but have never seen it with such clarity, nor felt it so acutely. The difference was in being assumed to be one of Them, and complicit to a disempowerment that was so smoothly executed, so taken for granted, that the mother never even noticed, and I almost missed it myself. I had been desensitised by fatigue, it is true, but I was also mislead by the seductive relief of not being perceived in an adversarial position (for a change…).
I really believe that we need to get over the fear and distrust – the divisions that keep us from best serving birthing women and birthing parents… indeed, that keep us from experiencing Birth as the sacred, transformative initiation that it can be. All births are perfect, as I always say, for the baby and the parents and everyone else involved…so what can I absorb for myself from this experience? And what can I do to avoid the temptation of this particular aspect of Duality – of Them and Us?
For a start, I will offer to teach new-born massage to the midwives at the birth centre.
Wish me luck….