BIRTHING BY NUMBERS
By Mary Pagendam-Turner
I wanted a natural birth. A good many of us do. I read Sheila Kitzinger and Elizabeth Noble, and gradually absorbed the idea that interventions in birth weren’t such a good idea. But somewhere I also absorbed the idea that Doctors are evil-minded men, lurking in hospitals just waiting to drug you, strap you to a bed and cop a feel. Needless to say, I didn’t want to go to hospital!
But even though the books that I read supported “natural childbirth”, they were still filled with the medical definitions of normal pregnancy and labour; fundal height, weeks of gestation, centimeters of dilation. These became the only ways in which I understood the process of pregnancy and birth.
When I look back now, I can see how utterly wrapped up in these measurements I was. I used to yearn for the next visit from my homebirth midwife, because she alone could supply me with the numbers that made my pregnancy seem real.
I approached the birth with a similarly intellectual attitude. I read dozens and dozens of books on childbirth. I knew what interventions would be offered and when, as well as when they were unnecessary and what the consequences would be. I felt like it was this mental knowledge that would get me through. I see now that it was as if I was expecting to “deliver” someone else’s baby. I had NO idea how unprepared I was for what would actually happen.
By the time my labour began, I thought I was totally prepared. I had everything that my research had led me to believe I would need. My list went something like this: Two midwives, four support people, a birthing pool, a plan on how to fill the birthing pool and keep it warm, an oxygen tank, liquid herbs to give the contractions a boost, two shower curtains, two hot water bottles, four specially recorded tapes of birthing music, beanbag, rocking chair, easily accessible lactation consultant, baby blankets wrapped in foil, cake mix for the baby’s birthday cake.
But when I finally did go into labour, it seemed that all my plans had gone completely awry. My midwives, who I had expected to hug and talk to me through the entire labour just sat in the corner, quietly, occasionally making notes. My support people seemed a bit embarrassed and awkward. My husband and my father got frustrated with my carefully thought out plan to fill the birth pool and just stuck the garden hose through the window.
But most startling of all was the fact that what was happening to me was not a numerical experience. Nothing that I knew about time between contractions or centimeters of dilation or the length of the average first labour prepared me for the storm raging in my belly. Somewhere in my head, a childish voice was pleading, “I’ve got the birth pool and the beanbag and the support people and the heat packs, so why oh why can I still feel this PAIN?!” And in my desperation I kept trying to find relief in the things I had gathered around me. I tried the pool. It helped a little, but slowed my labour right down. I tried the beanbag, but it was useless. I tried the herbs, and they made me want to vomit. I tried the heat packs. Nothing seemed to help.
There was one time during my labour when the pain wasn’t so hard to deal with. I was alone in my living room. I had been in labour for about eighteen hours. I was dead tired and falling asleep in my rocking chair. Everyone else was out on the back deck eating dinner. Every time a contraction surged through me I would wake up, arch my back, stare into the ceiling light and sing a Viking-like call, over and over again. When it would pass, I would fall back asleep. I never read this technique in any book, but it worked better than any of the things I had been counting on. When all the distractions I had provided for myself were gone, my body was finally able to tell me what to do. For three hours, I laboured like this. To this day I wonder whether I would not have needed a caesarean if I had been allowed to continue.
But my midwife called my attention back to the numbers. I had stayed at five centimeters dilation for the six hours since her last exam. “It’s time to go to hospital”.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that medical definitions and measurements don’t really have anything to do with natural birth. The body has it’s own plan to follow. I hope to have a real natural birth next time. No exams. No numbers. Just my body, my baby and me.
Postscript: This article was written in late 2000. Shortly after that, Mary conceived her second child who was born naturally at home with no vaginal exams, no clock, no beanbag and a refreshing absence of numbers!