I love to listen to birth stories. Many of the stories that I hear are a testimony to the pregnant woman's great ability to "animal out" on her attendant. My favorite is the story of a young woman who had her first daughter by cesarean section She became pregnant again the same month and it turned out she was carrying twins. Her doctor was very alarmed and booked her for a cesarean at 38 weeks, She went into labor at 36 weeks and delivered two lovely girls, vaginally.
Of course, women who are trying for vaginal birth after cesarean don't always have such fine stories to tell. Two remarks have stayed with me over the years, and these were both delivered by obstetricians to a laboring woman. The first was: “Childbirth is like war, and I am on the front line.” The second: “This is Monday morning in a busy hospital. There are road accidents, emergencies …” This was said to a woman who wanted to labor a little more before the decision was made to go to surgery, implying that the birth of a child had to be scheduled in somehow between a messy car accident and some other horrific case. Why did this man want to become an obstetrician? How did he feel about his "patients"? How had he been born? What was it about birth that suggested to him images of war?
What is it about childbirth that makes these people think in terms of war, car accidents, death? Is it just fear? And if it is, what exactly are they afraid of? And , more importantly, where does the midwife fit into this mosaic of fear, or does she fit in it all?
Doctors and midwives who are afraid of childbirth are partly afraid because of their training. Allopathic medicine teaches about pathology rather than the whole healthy being, and pregnancy is often seen as a pathologic condition. But there is another more profound reason for this fear, and it has to do with the fact that Western medical training teaches health workers to rely only upon their own knowledge. How does this lead to fear?
Let me explain. During childbirth there is something present that is outside of us as individuals, out side our knowledge, even outside our experience or our skill. That "something" has to do with faith. It is only with a leap of faith that you can appreciate or even accept that a new human being comes out of a woman's vagina. Without that leap of faith, what happens? Two things: more obviously, you have to interfere, pull it out, cut it out another way. But another thing happens as well. Strangely, your faith (most of us have faith in something) gets turned inwards. As an obstetrician, you have faith only in your own skill. And that is what is frightening-- that an event which cries out for the presence of God gets reduced to the simply human.
I'm sure that there are obstetricians who works differently, but I think that it is easier for a midwife to accept that there is something else, something larger than herself, working through a birthing woman. It is quite noticeable how many midwives are religious, how many live in sight of that something which many people call God. But what happens to the sympathetic midwife working within the medical system? What happens to her sensitivity to that Other which touches us when we give birth?
I have met many diverse people over the years of working with birth.I have encountered some women who probably disliked their work, who were overtired, overworked, who had little faith in anything. I have also encountered midwives who have accepted modern medicine's vision of birth. And I have met many brave and gentle souls doctors, nurses, midwives, and doulas, who are working within the medical system and trying to maintain their faith at the same time.
What do we see in a hospital? We see, first of all, an exaggerated reliance upon technology. We know that the use of technology has a snowballing effect, creating the need for more and more complicated interventions. Secondly, we see a rigid hierarchical structure in which usually one person is calling the shots. Finally, we see the "spiritual" infrastructure upon which this hierarchy is based, to be inward looking and grounded only in human knowledge.
What happens in the hospital when things start to "go wrong," when things don't follow the prescribed path? When I went into the hospital in labor with my first child, the nurse, who was actually a midwife trained in Scotland, touched by belly and said cheerfully, "This baby will be born by noon." As time went on, she touched me less and less. By the next morning at the start of her shift, she didn't even greet me. As they let me eat and drink less and less, my cervix grew smaller, I was touched less and I began to feel more and more isolated. I was touched only when necessary. The baby's heart beat was checked less often. I began to feel abandoned.
Can I offer some advice to birth attendants working with women who are hoping to give birth vaginally after a cesarean section? Remember that the previous cesarean(s) have left scars not so much on the uterus as on the woman's sense that she is capable of giving birth. Accept that having a cesarean can hurt. Please don't describe to her how a ruptured uterus may feel. Watch for danger signs yourself. Keep your concerns to yourself as much as possible. Remember "failure to progress" can be linked to fear and stress.
Keep things easy even when they get hard. Remember that a woman working for a VBAC needs the comfort and security of her own home. Remember that she may need to work on building confidence, on throwing away fear, on finding her "animal" self. Remember as well, if it turns out to be another cesarean, don't abandon her. Give her the support through the birth and afterwards that you give any birthing woman. If a lady has another cesarean, she may feel very low; it may help her to talk to another mother who has been through the same thing. Avoid the mistake of "You're lucky the baby's okay.That's the important thing." Yes it is, obviously, but ... she may still need to grieve.
I am lucky - I have been blessed to have attended many successful VBACs during my years as a birth attendant. Thank you, again, to all the women who have shown me how fearless and strong birthing women are - not least, the woman who have said "Yes, I am ready for surgery, of course, if my baby's life is in danger."
Here's to a happy marriage of modern medicine and safe midwifery, with lower cesarean section rates and happier and healthy mothers and babies. L'Chaim! To Life!
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