"Best of" Week: Science and Sensibility
The Benefit of Hindsight
This is the second Mother’s Day that I have spent as a mother and this time around I am also pregnant, due with my second child sometime in October. On Mother’s Day two years ago I invited my own mother to attend my upcoming home birth. I had struggled with the decision for months, vacillating between an anxiety that her presence might affect my ability to labor freely and confidently and a deep gut feeling that having her there would be comforting and healing for us both.
My mother had been more supportive of my birthing decisions than I expected her to be. She’s open-minded, but home birth was just not something she had any experience with. When she bought my then-in-utero baby a cute outfit “that he or she can come home in,” I simply answered, “Mom, we won’t be coming home from anywhere… I’m planning a home birth.” After that, she was nothing but supportive - though sometimes naturally inquisitive - about the choices we made.
I give her a lot of credit for this. There isn’t an ounce of generational memory of normal birth in my family. When my mom was pregnant in 1973 she signed up to take Lamaze classes with the now legendary Elisabeth Bing. Just days before the class was to begin, and only 28 weeks along, my mother went into preterm labor. She knew instinctively that she was carrying twins, but her doctors didn’t believe her. Just hours after going into the hospital, she gave birth to Katherine and Frances. Frances died after 1 day on a ventilator. Katherine spent 3 months in the ICU and is now my healthy 33-year-old sister. This devastating birth was the result of a pregnancy that occurred when my mom was using the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine contraceptive device that two years later would become the subject of one of history’s largest class action medical lawsuits. This birth also cast the dark cloud of “high risk” over her next two pregnancies - she was on bedrest for threatened preterm labor for 3 months while pregnant with both me and my younger brother.
My mother at least has the advantage of remembering her births, which is a luxury compared to the generations before her. My grandmother gave birth to my mom in the twilight sleep era, when women were drugged into a stupor so as not to remember the “trauma” of giving birth. Then, because the medications could make laboring women act “crazy,” they were tied down. When labor slowed or the baby appeared to be in distress (no doubt because the dangerous medications crossed the placenta and the laboring woman was flat on her back), the baby was often pulled out with forceps. It would be days before the mother held her baby and breastfeeding was practically unheard of. As far as my mother knows, this describes her own birth to a T. “She was in the hospital almost 2 weeks,” my mom tells me. “She was given some kind of drug and remembers nothing of the birth. I think I was a forceps delivery, but I’m not positive.”
My great grandmother was given an experimental drug when she was in labor with my grandmother. The drug inadvertently induced psychosis and she was never the same. For 14 years she was in and out of mental hospitals, barely able to care for her daughter even when she was healthy enough to be home. Finally two men came and took her away in a straight-jacket for good. My grandmother, as a young teen, witnessed the whole thing.
I don’t know the history of my great-great-grandmother’s births, but they most likely took place at home with midwives. She probably felt prepared for labor, birth and breastfeeding because she had no doubt witnessed them - perhaps even assisting at the births of her sisters or aunts or friends. And she must have known that, while some women had great difficulty with birth, her body was designed for this important work and she would most likely have a safe birth and a healthy baby. I wonder if this unknown ancestor of mine knew she would be the last in her lineage until the 21st century to experience the joy, intensity and magic of a normal birth.
It drives me crazy to see what’s happening to my generation of childbearing women - the highest cesarean rate in history, induction of labor for convenience or pseudo-medical reasons, a bevy of “machines that go ping” the highlight of every modern birth. The generations of women who came before us thought that they were getting the best, most modern care. The experiments and treatments that they were subjected to seem barbaric to us now. What will we think of this crazy era once we have the benefit of hindsight?
Judy and Charlotte, it is my honor to join you in the blogosphere for the next few weeks. If it weren’t for amazing mentors and wise women who buck the trend like you do, I might have signed up for “the best birth that money can buy.” And I wouldn’t be able to tell Lucy about the magnificent day I had the pleasure of birthing her into being, following my own body’s cues, surrounded by wonderful support people who were 100% confident in my ability to give birth naturally.
This post originally appeared on May 14, 2006 as a guest post on Giving Birth with Confidence, a blog which is being revamped into a social networking community where expectant and new moms can interact with Lamaze educators and other birth professionals later this fall. This post was submitted by the author for “Best of” Week.
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Amy Romano is a midwife and advocate for mother-friendly maternity care who blogs at Science & Sensibility.