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I remember in my first pregnancy, reading ALL the books about birth.
Every night I would heave my very pregnant body into our sad little basement apartment bath-tub, drip some Lavender and Geranium oils in there like fairy-dust, and read from my stack of pregnancy and birth books.
These books who were my companions as I stared down an unexpected pregnancy. My burgeoning birth-nerdery was just sprouting. I could actively FEEL that part of my brain waking up as I poured over their words.
Ah, Ina May. The “mother of modern midwifery”. My introduction to our-great-mother Ina May was through her birth bible, “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth”. Praise be.
It seemed the perfect antidote to my worries and fears. In a culture that floods pregnant women with horror stories, ridiculous images, and institutionalized birth, this book was a breath of fresh air.
If you’ve been pregnant for six minutes, someone will recommend this book to you. It’s the first book your doula will suggest. She may even have a copy you can borrow, baptized in dried amniotic fluid.
Why such fervor?
As a hippie who caught her first baby on a school bus, Ina May has seen some shit. She has learned some things. She advocates for woman-centered care, low intervention and a focus on lost midwifery techniques.
Her voice struck the pendulum at a time when our birth culture was swinging waaaaaaaay over there.
And man, is she quotable. Here are some gems. (Maybe you’ve seen them on some bumper stickers.)
So quotable we can make some memes! Let’s make some!
* snort * They would take it out and show it to you.
Oh, yes, Ina, Sing it! We gotta LOOVE on that woman!
Oh, girl, I knoooooow that to be true.
Truth. Especially for Women of Color.
Ok, there’s a lot of us. Yeah, alright, I can mostly agree…
“Your body is not a lemon.”
Wait, your body is not a lemon?
Mher, I'm not totally on board with that one. I have some beef.
I mean, I get her intention. She doesn’t want you to begin with the idea that you’re broken. She is starting from this assumption that our bodies are designed perfectly by a careful “Creator”.
So I appreciate where dear Ina is coming from. She wants you to “trust your body” and “trust birth”. It's a pithy saying like so many other simplistic absolutes that birth people like to launch out there.
But these people can suck it.
Because sometimes bodies are lemons.
Bodies can be screwy. In fact, OFTEN bodies malfunction.
Take a look at my toes.
You see how uneven those big toes are? That’s a genetic anomaly that has caused me pain and scoliosis and all sorts of physical therapy over my life.
And how many people do you know with similar little glitches? Or take prescription drugs to remedy chemical imbalances? Or who struggle with infertility? Endometriosis? Who have a genetic predisposition toward high blood pressure or don’t handle glucose well? Who carry the BRCA gene? Or wear glasses?
Man, she SEEMS so perfect. Lemon.
Our bodies are chaos, at best.
These things suck, yet they happen. And birth is just one more biological event with a million seen and unseen factors.
We HAVE to acknowledge that sometimes all of the parts aren’t syncing up to create this beautiful, angels-sing-from-heaven birth.
Sometimes our hormones are wonky. Sometimes our babies aren’t lined up perfectly. Gestational Diabetes. Pre-eclampsia. Footling Breeches. Meconium happens.
Bodies are chaos. Say it again for the folks in the back.
To shrilly persist in the maxim, holding our poster board “YOUR BODY WORKS!!!” leaves no room for the turbulence of nature.
I don’t trust nature. Nature has viruses, sharks, and tornadoes.
Why does this matter?
Because it’s doing damage. It’s causing women and their partners to feel shame for the ways their births go, for how their bodies “failed them”.
So where does this come from? Why do we feel this strong urge to “trust our bodies” and claim that they are all perfect? To look around and pretend we see no lemons among us?
I believe there are four common motivations for this problematic approach. I’m sure there are more. See if these make sense to you, or what you would add. I’ve also included how this can play out poorly, and then what an actual solution might look like.
The underlying beliefs of “Your body is not a lemon.”:
1) “Fuck the patriarchy. They don’t know me.”
The history of obstetrics is full of a whole lot of abuse. From the atrocious experimentation on unanesthetized slaves, to Twilight Sleep, to Thalidomide, Allopathic medicine does not have the best reputation.
I understand Ina May was responding to American obstetrical trends. When so much of medical care is about managing pathology, it’s common for Care Providers to fall into the ditch of assuming your body is about to explode! Or worse, stall!
When doctors have seen deaths and tragedies, they can easily over-correct and over-intervene. They no longer assume it’s all going to work out.
Hell, as a doula with a few years of experience, I also feel that fear.
For those in labor, it can be scary to walk into a hospital, especially after watching certain documentaries, and just hand over their trust. So maybe it feels safer to hide under “MY BODY WORKS! I DON’T NEED YOU!”.
One can feel that, in order to avoid “the man”, we have to retreat to a cave.
What if that mother DOES need medical intervention to help her labor, or to keep herself and her baby safe? With a blanket fear of intervention, she may refuse life-saving care and even turn her back on her own options. Her birth experience could be full of strife, fighting and feelings of failure.
A real solution:
–Take prenatal classes that are not outcome focused nor prescribe a “right” way to birth. Parents can learn to be good advocates for their family without dogma or judgment. They can be prepared to navigate each choice as it arises and work with their trusted team to do the next best thing.
–Working with a capable Care Provider that you trust. I think it’s the most important thing pregnant people can do. Hire someone who lines up with your approach to birth. How much more could we trust our providers IN the emergency if we trust them outside of it?
-If I could control anything in obstetrics, I would change how some medical providers communicate with their patients. Speaking kindly, treating patients with respect and autonomy, reminding themselves every shift that their words and tone matter. I am raving fans of the doctors and midwives in my community who have this down. They are out there!
I know there could be a happy marriage between life-saving care and woman-centered, compassionate care. They don’t have to be at war.
2) “This is one of my first acts as a parent. If I do it perfectly, it means I love my baby.”
(I know you do.)
Becoming a parent is one of the biggest life transitions humans experience. It’s a natural impulse to want to begin this thing RIGHT, to do our utmost to protect our children, to minimize risks and to CONTROL whatever we can.
We want so much to be good parents.
It makes sense that one would throw all of the visualizations and positive thinking and Birth Affirmations at it.
It’s not wrong to prime ourselves for the best scenario possible or to do whatever is in our power to influence birth.
If the birth requires intervention, parents can feel they have failed their baby. This black and white thinking of “good birth = good parents” and “bad birth = rotten parents” can tarnish a new parent’s self-perception and confidence. This plays out in how they parent.
A real solution:
–Practice compassion for yourself prenatally. We all have harsh critics in our heads that like to shit-talk. If you hear them, let them be a reminder that you are like all of us. You are imperfect. (Hell, maybe you’re a lemon.) And in your universal imperfection, you are worth love.
-Temper the positive imagery. Imagine how you would bring your best self to the unexpected, not just the ideal. What would you do to take care of yourself and your baby if your labor needs medical support? What is still true about you even in the midst of a plot twist?
-The birth of your baby is just one or two days in the grand story of your parenting. It looms large because you don’t have much to compare it to yet. As your baby grows, you begin to see that there are many ways you will be a good parent –soothing, disciplining, listening, setting boundaries, feeding.
There are many expressions of love to look forward to.
-Begin to view parenthood as a spectrum of not-so-great days and pretty-great days. You will have some of each. (Like life! Hey!) The sooner you can embrace your humanity with grace for yourself, the more you can be present to the next chance to show up.
-After your birth, reflect on the ways that you were a loving parent through the labor. What would your baby thank you for? And how are you a good-enough parent TODAY?
3) When a person’s physical capabilities are tangled up with their self-worth.
I have great compassion for the woman who doesn’t see her body as her friend. It’s something I’ve struggle with my whole life, as many of us do. For many women, getting through birth in a specific way means they can make friends again with these traitorous bodies.
And it is truly beautiful when that does happen.
When the underlying assumption is that a perfectly functioning labor means that a person is a better
– member of the mom group
Once again, it's tying something deep and intrinsic about you to an event that is not fully within your control.
Because the dark side of the assumption is that a dysfunction of the body equals a core flaw in yourself as a person.
A real solution:
-Hear this: It’s utter bullshit. But you have to recognize if it’s crept into your reasoning, or it can wreak havoc.
-For a woman to hear at least once in her pregnancy that sometimes a factor, seen or unseen, changes the recipe for a straightforward birth. And that doesn’t mean she is less than. To hear it AHEAD of time. Ounce of prevention and all that.
–Practice sending love to your body. Practice touching your body in positive ways. Practice honoring your body’s signals and limits.
-Remind yourself (post-its! Lipstick on the mirror! Screen-savers!) that you are more than your body. It is your vehicle to love and care for, but who you really are is immense.
-Watch this Video. He knows what's up.
4) We are disconnected from Nature’s …nature.
Here, in 2017, many many many of us are fully separated from what nature can do. We don’t worry about polio anymore (for now). We’ve never had to kill our own dinners. We know about electrolytes, antibiotics and open-heart surgery.
It really wasn’t that long ago that people died from diarrhea. And there are still parts of the world where it can kill you.
Same with birth.
We are in this glorious golden age of modern medicine. And it’s not perfect, but it’s constantly evolving.
Yet we’ve become a little spoiled. We idealize the pretty parts of the forest preserve and forget that there are DEER TICKS OUT THERE.
Now we’ve forgotten what was so bad about measles and fistulas. We’ve lionized the days of yore and anything that’s “Natural”.
Remember sharks? Tornados? Oh, and Type 1 Diabetes. That’s natural.
As mentioned several times now, what if medical support or a longer labor or pain, take one by surprise? Exactly. Parents can feel conflicted about it later. You get it now.
A real solution:
-Begin to notice any black or white thinking you may have around medical support. It’s interesting where that comes from, what stories and experiences you had growing up. What rules you may be following as a result.
For instance: “Women shouldn’t trust doctors.” Or “Interventions aren’t necessary.”
See if you can expand those rules to include the exceptions: “Women shouldn’t trust doctors…if they’re like the one that was rude to me.” Or “Interventions aren’t necessary…when things are going as expected.”
Now you’re expanding your options. That’s self-compassion.
-Also tune in to any idealism you have about biology. It’s messy, monstrous as times. Nature is not always your buddy. It’s impartial. Humans have mostly learned to work with it.
If you forget, just watch your cat eat a Robin.
-While nature can be beastly, humans don’t have to be. Work with a doctor who treats you respectfully. Do whatever you can to staff your birth-boat with people who can ride the waves compassionately.
(Please don’t misunderstand me here. You may have friends who are acutely aware of the unpredictable nature of …nature. They often say things like “at least you have a healthy baby”. It’s one thing to be grateful for your baby’s survival, and it’s another thing to wrestle with how they got here. It usually doesn’t help to hear that phrase from another person, as it’s often a way to bypass uncomfortable conversations. It’s subtly shaming. It’s an entirely different phrase if the mother says this from her own heart and when she’s ready. “I have a lot of emotions and thoughts about my birth experience AND I’m grateful for my healthy baby.”)
Back to Mother Ina. Some Redemption.
To be fair, I can’t just take her phrase out of context. She’s not Jesus.
Let’s finish the quote.
“Remember this, for it is as true and true gets: Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth well as aardvarks, lions, rhinoceri, elephants, moose, and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.”
Absolutely. I agree. THAT I can get on board with.
You can embrace the imperfection and chaos of your body, and still be friends with it.
Because of my uneven feet, I also have uneven legs and a crooked back. It’s caused me pain and muscle problems since I was 17. Those “problems” are just part of my package.
And yet there’s a choice there. I choose to appreciate the good days. I appreciate that I’ve had to learn how to strengthen and move my body. It’s even given me a love for fitness.
You can embrace the imperfection and chaos of birth, and still bring your best self to it.
Your imperfections do not diminish you.