Michel Odent in Montreal

Michel Odent came to town the other day, and I was very interested in finally hearing him speak. I first heard about him when I started learning about natural birth, twenty five years ago. His accounts of natural birth and his respect for the birthing woman seemed legendary among some circles, so I was eager for a first-hand impression.

The talk took place in a huge imposing building, on a cold, windy, and rainy night. The hall was a good size, though, so the audience was packed in and everything seemed cozy. I saw three or four men in a huge sea of women, and there were enough babies there to make a considerable noise at odd moments during the talk.

As a radical old feminist, I was uncomfortable with the dynamic of the evening. Here were over one hundred women, of all shapes and sizes and ages. One lady wore a head covering; a couple of ladies were different colors. And here is a man, old enough to be our father, or even our grandfather, telling us about what our bodies could and couldn’t do! And we were all lapping it up, eager to ask questions, eager to be spoken to by the expert.

I appreciated one point that M.Odent made. He said that the traditional midwife not only is witness to the births of generations of babies, but she is also the transmitter of information from generation to generation. We tell the younger women we attend what we know about birth, about babies, about children, about how to treat your man, about herbs and healing, about grief and dying. I feel the weight of that responsibility every time a woman calls me to ask a question. We are the keepers of woman knowledge. We keep knowledge in our breasts, in our uteruses, in our scars and in our hearts.

M. Odent spoke of the nature of natural birth, and the difficulties women in our culture have with the process of natural birth. “Natural Birth” has become a buzz word, a goal, and through and because of this popularity, it is becoming more and more misunderstood.
I agree so far. I agree with M. Odent that a truly natural birth is a birth during which a woman is simply giving birth. A birth during which her body takes over, when she has no more control over it than when she is digesting her food. The body takes care of itself. The baby wants and needs to be born; the uterus obliges by making contractions, the cervix opens, e violĂ ! We have all witnessed births like this, and we do well to identify these births as normal and natural. A first time mother usually takes about 6 to 8 hours to birth, and multiparas take much less time.
I agree as well with M. Odent’s suggestion that the presence of the woman’s husband (does that include lesbian women’s partners?) can actually have a negative effect on labor. About one third of all the births I have attended have been with women whose husbands stay out of the birthing area. These women tend to give birth effectively and easily, but there are other factors involved.

So what is the problem? Why do we have women laboring for days in the hospital? Why do the babies not come out? How can all these babies get stuck? Why is our surgery rate so high? Why does everyone else end up with a second-degree tear?
M. Odent says that a woman needs to be able to labor within a protected environment, where her neo-cortex is not activated with silly questions, and she feels free to do what she needs to do. Every doula knows that this is part of what we try to provide for the mother when she is laboring. If we are at home with her, we like to rest in the armchair as she labors. If we are in the hospital, however, the dynamic changes and we do need to become protective of the birthing space. For this reason, we like women in labor to go to the hospital as late as possible in their labor, which gives her body a better chance to get into the birthing mode, with full-on oxytocin and triple shots of the birthing cocktail.

M. Odent stated that “oxytocin is timid”. I disagree. I believe that characterizing oxytocin, which is thought of as primarily a female hormone, in this way, is to do women yet another disservice. Oxytocin isn’t timid! I have watched so many women birth their way right through all sorts of ridiculous situations, with their oxytocin going strong. I have seen women answering questions and filling out forms while their oxytocin gets the baby ready to be born. I’ve seen women pushing in the elevator, with people asking them if they need a wheelchair.
No, oxytocin is not timid. There’s something else happening here.
Let us remember that in this world, as soon as you observe something, it changes. So whatever you are witnessing at a birth has been changed by your act of observing. The less we observe, the better off the birthing mother will be. If I am there with a woman, as her friend, sister, or mother, I can mitigate that difficulty by entering into the birthing woman’s world.

M. Odent went on to decry the masculinization of childbirth, and suggested that our culture’s obsession with a dysfunctional sexuality is at the root of the de-naturing of childbirth. Again, I take exception to this interpretation.
Let me propose another explanation:
We live in a hypersexualized society, where young people are expected to have their first sexual encounter before they turn sixteen; where Viagra is advertised on prime time TV; where any seven-year old can access movies of sexual acts on a cell phone; where marriage is temporary and our private sex life is grist for the public mill.
At the same time, though, real sexuality, the vibrant, living, and intimate communication with one another, is shunned and feared. Pictures of breastfeeding mothers are banned from Facebook, and regularly purged. A long and fertile marriage is caricatured on national radio (“Who wouldn’t need Viagra when their wife is old and wrinkly?”). Women in labor are silenced with epidurals or breathing techniques.
Our culture is afraid of childbirth. Men have always been afraid of birth – remember, only the woman knows who the father of the baby really is. The miracle of birth - bizarre, shocking, and extraordinary – is difficult for men to accept. They are shaken by it. It moves them in ways they do not appreciate.
But how can I say what men feel? Who am I to theorize about how a man feels when he sees a baby come out of his wife’s vagina? How can I, as a woman, presume to imagine what a man feels at this elemental time of his life?

We are a culture full of fear. We are afraid of terrorists, of viruses, of weight gain, financial ruin, cancer, mold, in fact, we are afraid of our own shadows. We have been “rimbambolito”, reduced to doll-like proportions, by our media, by the conclusions we have drawn, by the absence of real mothers and fathers. Women in particular need to grow up, and we need to take back our own voices and our own bodies. If a man feels the need to take Viagra, so be it. If he tries to tell you that your own body is “timid”, shout him down.
Birth is powerful, duh.
Women are strong. Life is good.

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