Fridays at The Variegated Life: on what I’ve read or am reading … Yes, a new, more-than-occasional but less-than-every-week feature! Some Fridays I’ll post a review. Some Fridays I’ll just post a few sentences about what I’ve been reading. Some Fridays I won’t post at all. This Friday I have a review of the most recent book by Ina May Gaskin, whose receipt of the Right Livelihood Award for her “lifelong work to promote natural childbirth methods in a society where medicated deliveries and cesarean sections are the norm” was announced yesterday morning.
My acquaintance with the work of Ina May Gaskin begins, appropriately, with birth stories. During the rest period at the end of the prenatal yoga classes I took during my first pregnancy, the instructor usually read birth stories from Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. The births described in those stories sounded awesomely powerful — and nothing at all like what I had been led to believe that childbirth is like. Though to tell the truth, I hadn’t been led to believe much of anything in particular, other than that childbirth is excruciating and sometimes takes a long time. I had seen TV shows in which sweating, shouting women gave birth in a state of panic. But had I ever listened to a woman tell about her actual experience of childbirth? Come to think of it, I guess I had — just once. And luckily, that story was a positive one; like the women in the Guide to Childbirth, my friend seemed to have been in awe at the power of her body, at how her mind could ride through the contractions, and at the way she opened up completely to deliver her daughter to the world.
Gaskin’s most recent book, Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta, begins with an argument that such stories are important sources of information about a process that in our technological society has become hidden and mysterious. And — hurrah! hurrah! — the book also includes five new birth stories (or six, if you count Ani DiFranco’s, given in her forward to the book). Birth stories — positive birth stories, in particular — provide both pregnant and birthing women and their caregivers greater understanding of what is possible in childbirth. And what is possible, argues Gaskin, is magnificent. She writes:
Birth also matters because the journey through pregnancy and birth offers an irreplaceable way for women to explore their deepest selves — their minds, bodies, and nature. Such a journey of self-discovery can help them prepare for the hard and underappreciated job of motherhood in a world now full of historically unique and complex challenges. There is a sacred power in the innately feminine capacity of giving birth. It is one of the elemental, continuing processes of nature that women have the chance to experience, and it is the one act of human creation that is not shared by men. Why would we not want to explore this territory?
Why not, indeed. Much of Gaskin’s book is given to an exploration of how and why so many U.S. women have become alienated from this territory. There are chapters on second-wave feminism, the cultural severing (in the U.S.) of sexuality and childbirth, the history of the disempowerment of midwives in the U.S., and the role of technology in childbirth. Having recently read most of Of Woman Born, by Adrienne Rich, I was familiar with much of the story — and distressed at how little much of the bad news has changed since 1976. (OK, so we don’t have twilight sleep anymore, but we do have rising cesarean rates.)
Through her work at The Farm and her books such as Spiritual Midwifery and the Guide to Childbirth, Gaskin, of course, is one of those responsible for the positive changes that have occurred since the seventies; for example, would the birth of my son at a birthing center have even been possible if it weren’t for her? Gaskin is clear about the work that remains to be done, and in the eighth chapter of the book she provides an outline of her vision for improvement: greater support for midwifery and birthing centers; better medical education for both obstetricians and midwives, including experience with “ecstatic birth”; the establishment of maternal care standards; standardized methods for accurately tracking and assessing maternal deaths; and universal postpartum care. What’s disappointing is that the chapter lays out a clear vision, but not a clear plan for realizing that vision. Gaskin does identify the goal of accurately tracking and assessing maternal deaths as “one that all women, regardless of their politics, can agree upon”; however, the means by which this goal may be achieved are identified no more specifically than “using the social media to the greatest advantage.”
There are, of course, organizations working toward meeting all of the goals Gaskin describes, including the Coalition for Improving Maternity Services (CIMS), the text of whose Mother-Friendly Childbirth Initiative is included in the appendices of the book. Additional appendices list resources, books, and films for further exploration of the topics addressed in the book. And Birth Matters certainly does inspire further exploration — and not just about the practicalities of how we may achieve truly woman-centered maternal care for all women in this country, but also about the meaning childbirth itself. The paragraph I quoted above is actually one I have a lot of trouble with; I do not subscribe to what Monique Wittig labeled “woman-as-wonderful” feminism, and I generally distrust appeals to what is “innately feminine.” But the question of exploring this territory appeals to me greatly. What is there to learn — if anything — about my “deepest self” in childbirth that I cannot learn through other extreme and transformative undertakings such as running a marathon or sitting in a week-long sesshin? What has my experience of becoming a mother meant to me? And what might that experience — and my stories about that experience — mean to my family, to my community, to this society?
The other night, I was mulling over my preference for the term intervention-free birth, thinking about the women who are not able to have — or who do not want — a “natural” or “intervention-free” birth. Above all, I concluded, we should be striving to be sure that every mother experiences a caring, misogyny-free birth. And by “we” I mean all of us. For I believe, with Gaskin, that all of us has an interest in how women are treated in birth, because it is through birth that each of us comes into the world.
What have you learned from the birth stories of others? What does exploring the territory of childbirth mean to you?
Disclosure: The links to IndieBound are not affiliate links, though I do hope that you support your local independent bookstore. I received a copy of Birth Matters but no other compensation from the publisher for the purposes of this review; all of the opinions in this article are completely my own.