Monday, May 27, 2013

the culture of motherhood: birth preparedness

At 1:34 am we got a knock on the door. “Monica’s in labor.” I really wanted to be present for the birth of this child, but I also had a hunch that she was not going to pop immediately considering that this was her first. I asked how long she had been feeling contractions and when I heard that they just started, I said, “Go to the clinic, I’ll find you there in the morning.”

Several weeks ago I asked Monica’s mother if she had prepped Monica for the birth process. Her response? “I told her not to make noise.” “No, no,” I clarified,” I mean did you teach her about how her body works and how the baby will be born.” “Yes. I told her everything. I told her not to cry or scream.” 

Apparently, ‘don’t make noise or cry or scream,’ is everything one needs to know to give birth. My over-prepared American-ness scrolled through a dozen replies in my head as I considered the 12 week long Bradley course we took and the hospital classes that are offered everywhere and options like Lamaze and Hypno-birthing, not to mention the gazillion books and websites that are meant to answer the never ending list of questions flowing from the mommy to be. The wanna-be-doula in me was having a crisis, thinking, “this girl is going to be a hot mess if someone doesn’t help her!”

I’ve asked women before why they aren’t allowed to make noise in the delivery room and it has always been explained to me that the silent laboring is out of respect for those who have gone before. The message: your mama was strong enough to shush up and push and you will be too. Women take this code of honor seriously; in all of the births I’ve attended I’ve only heard one woman come close to breaking the “no complaining” rule. She whispered, “I’m never doing this again.” Her aunt nipped that in the bud retorting, “Yes you will, you’ll have ten more, now get back to work.” Birthing is a woman-only event. When I’ve asked why the husbands are not allowed in the labor ward, the women have explained that they do it out of kindness to the men, not wanting them to feel inferior to their wives when they see how fierce they are. Several women questioned my choice to have Jeremy with me through Bronwyn’s birth. “Won’t you crush his manhood with your display of strength?” Haha. I just confirmed with Jeremy and he says his manhood is still in tact.

I’ve often thought about the first time moms like Monica who enter into that room to birth their child knowing nothing about the physiological process that is about to take place. I get stuck thinking about all the information they don’t have access to… But then I start thinking about the information they DO have access to.

-- You are supported by the throngs of women who have gone before.
-- Grown men cower at your current ferocity. 
-- God knows, and your body knows.
-- You can and will do this.

I think about how the American birth culture subtly rejects statements like these. Our birthing heroes are not the women around us but the white-coat OB’s who tell us how its going to be. When we say we can’t do it, the nurses readily agree and without further encouragement, start putting in orders for synthetic hormones and painkillers. We are taught to bow to monitors and protocol instead of praying for wisdom and worshipping at God’s grand design.

Watching Zambian women birth their children has convinced me that I still want to deliver any other children we may have at the hospital (I’ll talk more about the down-side of birthing at a rural clinic in the future.) But I am forever thankful for the knowledge these women have given me. They have changed the dialogue and thus changed the birth story. The strength and faith that accompany the steady determination of these women challenges me still.    

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