Every one of us who has given birth knows that it is an amazing experience. You wait for 9-ish months, and then suddenly, one day, there is this baby. YOUR baby. In your arms, after what felt like an eternity. Whether that baby was born after 3 days of natural labor, or a quick scheduled surgery, the presence of that human as a real, live person is one that is difficult to put into words.
There is so much more to birth, though. The experience of birth matters. That a mother can walk away from her birth feeling empowered, strengthened, and transformed is something that few women seem to know. Our culture tells us, “You had a healthy baby, that’s all that really matters!” And we believe it. Or, we feel guilty for feeling that there should have been something more. In the worst cases, we spiral into post-partum depressions as we mourn the birth we had, especially when it was so much different than the birth we wanted to have.
I am not the first to say this, but I will say it regardless: Your birth matters. The experience of your birth matters. Yes, we all want healthy babies, but the way we feel about our births matters, too. I feel so strongly about this statement that in 2009 I turned it into a doctoral research topic, for a dissertation that was completed in 2014. I had read so many books depicting the power of a woman giving birth, and had three very transformative experiences of my own, and yet I listened to woman after woman mourn or defend her birth experience, rather than celebrate it. Why is that? Why are more women not walking away from birth feeling strong and capable, connected to something beyond themselves?
The answer to that question requires many, many words, and probably a dozen or so books (fortunately some of those books already exist). It lies in the way our medical system views pregnancy and childbirth as an illness requiring intervention; it is evident in the way individuals and the media portray childbirth, with doctors as the heroes and mothers often as nothing more than vessels from which infants must be delivered. It is also tied to the fact that most women have never seen birth before they themselves go into labor – we are not exposed to birth as a normal physiological event to be celebrated rather than feared.
I wrote my dissertation from the theory that women CAN experience birth as a profound event, regardless of the kind of birth they have. A woman who is educated, informed, respected, and honored can experience profound moments in birth whether she is at home alone with her partner or surrounded by a surgical team.
Through my research, I identified eight kinds of profound experiences that the women in my study experienced. There are probably others, but of the 224 women who were surveyed, and the 15 who were interviewed, these are the themes I saw.
Conducive Environment (44%): The place in which the mother gave birth often contributed to her having a profound experience. All locations mentioned by the responders—home, birth center, or hospital—were found to be environments in which certain mothers found support.
Empowering/Powerful (45%): These terms were used by almost half the mothers surveyed. Elements of medicated, unmedicated, and surgical births were described as empowering.
Body/Physical (38%): Many mothers remarked that the physical process of birth was profound. Women commented on their own strength or their ability to cope with pain.
Relationship with Others (16%): Connection with another person was of- ten a contributor to the mother’s profound experience. Most common was the mention of a husband or partner, but doulas, midwives, nurses, friends, other family members, adults and children, were also mentioned.
Relationship with the Baby (16%): Most mothers who mentioned con- nections with their babies referred to holding their infants for the first time as profound moments. Several other mothers spoke of connecting with their babies while giving birth.
Spiritual Aspects (26%): Direct spiritual and religious references were made by many of the women. These included connections with God, Jesus, or an unnamed higher power, visions of or connections to ancestors andthose no longer living, and unexplainable moments such as feeling out-of-body or seeing the veil between the physical world and the world beyond.
Personal Strength/Transformation (60%): The most common theme in- cluded women’s comments about birth having made them stronger, empowering them in new ways, or healing them from previous negative birth experiences.
Fighting Against the Norms (10%): For a few mothers, going against the common culture of birth, such as birthing twins or delivering a breech birth vaginally, was the most pro-found and empowering aspect of giving birth.
There was nothing ‘special’ about the women who answered my survey, or allowed me to interview them for my research. They were a diverse group, from the aspects of age, education level, race/ethnicity, income level, sexual orientation, marital statuses, and religious affiliations. They gave birth at home, in birth centers, and in hospitals. They had unmedicated, medicated, and surgical births. And yet, they all had profound experences while birthing. The conclusion is that empowering birth experiences are available to all women, despite circumstance. The next question is, how do we make sure that all women get to have these kinds of experiences?
Again, the answer to that question is far-reaching and not easy to give. I believe we begin by raising our voices to say that our birth experiences DO matter. We share with other women the empowering moments of our birth stories – I didn’t share that element of my first birth for almost 7 years, because I was afraid people would think it was weird. I was so happy when another mother shared the beauty of her birth story with me, as it gave me freedom to own my own experience. When listening to the story of another mother, ask her about her feelings. We need to hear more than a play-by-play of dilation and pushing – give another woman an audience for the profound. Listen for the gems, and ask to hear more.
Ask how the birth transformed her as a woman and a mother. If she wasn’t empowered by her experience, keep listening. Ask her to share honestly about what she is now mourning. She cannot change the experience she had, but having an opportunity to grieve is a step in the right direction for healing. If you see someone who is really struggling, help them get the support they need.
Most importantly, keep sharing the elements of your birth story that ARE empowering. It is my hope that doing so will one day turn the tide of birth – that the majority of the stories we hear will be about beauty and power and strength and love, rather than emergency and medical procedures and fear. Laura Stavoe once wrote, “There’s a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.” I want to make sure that this does not remain a secret. Don’t whisper, speak loudly and clearly. We will spread the word.