By now, most people who have been acquainted with me either in person or on social media know that I have personally experienced a traumatic childbirth. I'm sure many of them wish I'd just shut up about it already. It was my first personal birth experience. In a very large part due to that experience, for the last six years, I've been a birth professional. I've pursued and achieved credentials from various organizations, professionals, and institutions. I've walked the walk and talked the talk of empowering women with education. Helping women in this glorious time of their life has been some of the most enjoyable moments of my life. Yet, it is time for me to step away from the model of childbirth educator and doula that I have been following.
Over the years, I have gone through many stages of healing my own trauma and coming to a place where I can use what I experienced in a productive and positive way. It has taken a lot of hard work, and will take more. Upon taking the work of a birth professional, I have made it a point to read op-ed pieces, studies, and news reports pertaining to pregnancy and childbirth. I've kept up with advocacy organizations and their various approaches to making the birth climate in the US more friendly to women and mothers. Honestly, it has been utterly exhausting on the emotional and physical levels.
From all of this reading, interacting, seeking, and doing, I have learned quite a bit about how women communicate with one another. In the most general sense, I have discovered some really troubling trends, especially related to how we discuss the topic of childbirth and share our stories and information. I can no longer surround myself with the qualifying, judgment, and blame that I see coming from women on every side of the discussion of childbirth and empowered women. I'm seeing too many women hurt by mindless comments, too much hypocrisy, and too many speaking from a place of hurt either knowingly or unknowingly without the access to resources that they need to process this hurt. I know that in order to make real change in regards to how we become mothers, there must be change in how we are initiated into and experience womanhood. A woman who has not tasted empowered womanhood will not suddenly become an empowered mother upon becoming pregnant. This issue goes so much deeper than the choices we make or do not make during the pregnancy and birth experience. It is woven into our lives as women.
Advocates for access to childbirth options are making grave mistakes in how they are communicating with the women they are hoping to reach. Some are so zealous with their beliefs on how women should birth, that their whole campaign is based on assumptions about women and mothers - assumptions that equate their personal beliefs with the "right" way to birth. Under this guise they speak of empowerment, yet many mothers cannot be heard or acknowledged for fear or attempted avoidance of being judged for their choices or the way they gave birth or chose to give birth qualified against this "ideal" in one way or another. Women are hiding. The truth is every childbirth option is a valid one. Each and every woman is faced with unique circumstances and history as she prepares to birth. Every birthing option has the potential to carry great beauty and satisfaction to a mother. The key is empowered decision making and unconditional, respectful support.
Two pieces written over the last two weeks hit it home with me, that even the movement that hopes to change this less than optimal environment for mothers and babies is broken. The first was an article written for Time by Mehera Bonner titled "Why Having an Epidural Should Count as Having a Natural Birth". Bonner states, "By classifying Cesarean and medicated vaginal births as unnatural, mothers who prioritize natural delivery are potentially put in a position of feeling inferior if their birth plan is unexpectedly thrown out the window. An unplanned emergency C-section is stressful enough without worrying that your birth experience was somehow less legitimate and authentic than you’d hoped." In various birth circles on Facebook, I read comment after comment from birth professionals pointing out a few minor flaws in the piece that really doesn't retract from the overall point. What is the threat of this mother asking for validation and acknowledgement for what she was able to accomplish and the work that she did to get herself there?
Next, came "An Unnatural Birth: In Praise of the Cesarean Section" written for Jezebel by Laura June. This piece hit me in the gut as I hear and read it so much in mothering circles. June writes, "It took me months to come up with a better, more accurate, and more honest response to the, "I'm sorry to hear about your C-section" comment, but I've got it down now, and I need to, because I hear this fairly often. It is always, always, delivered with genuine caring and disappointment on behalf of my subpar birthing story. Like my well-worn "My face just looks like this" response to "You look like you're having a bad day!" or "Why aren't you smiling?" comments, my response to the C-section question can come off cutting, even rude—even though I don't intend it that way, not really.
"Actually, it was fantastic," I say now. "I slept well the night before, checked into the hospital, she was born healthy in about fifteen minutes, and I healed up in a few days."
It's all true: it was a wonderful experience. But it's not what a lot of people expect (or maybe want) to hear about a C-section birth." Why offer condolences for someone who isn't asking for them? Who am I or anyone else to feel pity for a mother who simply states that she gave birth via cesarean. A cesarean is not an automatic bummer. Trauma is created either by the circumstances leading to the cesarean, how one is treated by those who should be guarding their safety, deep fear, or tragedy. I've seen several cesareans that were wonderfully satisfying and family oriented. There are "natural" births that are also extremely traumatizing. Do we qualify these mothers by saying that somehow their birthing choice was less than? Can you imagine having to withhold plans, not connect with other mothers around birth, or not sharing your birth story because of this qualification and judgment?
I can. I will share my story far and wide, but how it is received or if it is heard is always a hit or miss. In fact, I think I make many uncomfortable when I share it. Laura June writes many statements in her piece that qualify my birthing experience as well. That, if I open myself to it, though I have a feeling it wasn't at all her intention, can make me feel judged, unheard, and ashamed. For example, "Every birthing experience where the end result is a healthy mother and healthy baby is equally awesome." The end result of my birth experience was considered a healthy mother and healthy baby. There was no part of that trauma that was awesome. The only awesome things about it was the miracle of life, hearing my daughter cry the first time, and seeing her gorgeous face. Blanket statements like that negates the feelings of many mothers who have experienced birth as trauma and can result in feelings of guilt and wrongdoing. June says, "If, like me, you don't get to decide, don't feel bad. It really doesn't matter, you will likely remember the day as one of the best of your life, and your baby will be amazing." Some of us could only wish that our having no say in the matter of how we birth could have left us feeling amazing. Tit for tat.
I cannot any longer participate in advocacy for mothers in the same ways I have been doing. For my sake and the sake of my family, I must change things up. The bitterness, pain, backbiting, and unthinking from woman to woman cannot be allowed to go on. I'm calling it out right now, and dare to say we have all been guilty. Empowered womanhood does not project these insecurities. It honors women for educated decision making, provides opportunities for growth and exploration, and supports women right where they are. From now on, that is my path. For my three daughters who may or may not ever be mothers, I recognize that womanhood is not a competition of degrees. It is Divine.
"Without the activity of the third chakra, a person lives as if in a dungeon. Life means nothing." - Yogi Bhajan
As a mother, realizing, accepting, and endeavoring to reconnect with and rebuild the power of my navel center is no small thing. In pregnancy, we are asked by Creator to completely devote the power of our third chakra to expand physically and mentally as we grow another human being. Our power is then pushed to the limits in birth until we relinquish control and become otherworldly in our ability to bring forth this life.
For months, perhaps years, our navel center is devoted to the development of another person. I remember my first postpartum experience, feeling the jelly like texture of my middle and understanding just how vulnerable my body had become. I hadn't grasped how completely my body would be changed. I hadn't imagined the impact on every cell of my being.
Balance is found when this center is active, because when life is dull and meaningless, we tend to substitute emotions, traumas, and problems to "spice things up". We tend to let things happen to us, rather than direct our choices in life, manifesting our own desires and will." -Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, The 8 Human Talents
My history with my navel center has been repeatedly tough since memory. Then, when I was set to give birth for the first time, I delivered my baby through a traumatic, unnecessary cesarean. I spent years working on healing myself from the deep ache that the surgery left. I researched and poured myself into helping other women avoid what I experienced. I worked from a place of profound compassion and intense anger. What I understand now is that the anger dominated my motivation. My second birth was a homebirth turned into a hospital transfer which ended in a necessary cesarean. I know now that I was approaching this birth with my fighting gloves on, and that was a mistake. No woman should prepare for birth by preparing to fight for the right to do so, or to try to prove a point. In 2012, I gave birth for the third time vaginally, at home. It was a triumphant moment for me, and the preparation I did for that birth helped me to rediscover my body and my capabilities. Yet, the very next day a dear person to me experienced a tragedy of her own and is still suffering. It was like a gray cloud hovered just above my glee, and again, I began to protect the space of my family and my friend.
It is no wonder that the third chakra is connected to commitment. When you become a mother you are immediately committed to the task. You will forever be someone's mother. When you chose to be a birth professional, you are committed to your clients, receiving their calls all hours of the night and showing up no matter what you must leave to attend them. In the two years since giving birth the last time, I have developed a reluctance to continue in the traditional way with my work as a doula. This is despite the fact that my business has never been better. I have felt too much stress surrounding my work, and sometimes felt it intensely even when things magically worked out. I have not, up until a few weeks ago, understood why.
The shadow emotion of the third chakra is anger. -Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa
I have been living very consistently in a state of fight or flight, and a large part of the manifestation of that state has been the result of choosing to be present in the current climate of birth that strips women of the innate power they have to know when, where, with whom, and how they should give birth. I have become tired of being present there again and again. I am ready to move forward with my own desires and will.
This knowing rests in the face of my belief that I have been called to be present for women in birth. I know I'm not going to leave birth all together, but I am opening myself up to a broader perspective. I'm opening myself up to the possibility of releasing the feeling of anger at the obstacles faced by the women I serve and have served. Releasing my frustrations around the obstacles I confront as a rural living woman. As Ana Brett says, "turn obstacles into opportunities". I don't know what those might be, but I'm endeavoring to find out.
In my Kundalini yoga practice, I am daily engaging my third chakra and feeling its power and gifts. I'm opening my heart to new opportunities and stepping more fully into myself as Creator designed. It is hard work, and some days I feel the anger so heavily, but I'm working to let it go. It no longer serves me. I'm excited to learn what a strong third chakra can bring to a life, and how I can be a blessing to others as a result. I'm learning to love the will. I'm learning to say "I can" and use it as a guide in my mothering, work, and relationships. I'm healing every moment of every day and will be doing so perpetually.
Earlier this year, the factions within the world of childbirth advocacy were up in arms once again spurred by the release of a study through the Midwives Alliance of North America Statistics Project which concluded that planned midwife-led homebirths for low-risk women lessened the use of intervention and increased the incidence of physiological birth while not increasing adverse outcomes. Immediately, there were rebuttals from the anti-homebirth movement calling the data flawed and citing research conducted from within their own camp where they concluded that babies born at home with midwives were four times more likely to die than babies born in hospitals. Both groups question the other’s methods. Both groups say that their way is potentially “safer”.
These arguments of risk are not limited to homebirth vs. hospital birth. Take VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) for instance. If you Google “is vbac safe”, all of the top choices will tell you that for most women it is. Some of the sources even say it is safe for up to 90% of women who would seek VBAC birth. Despite this body of evidence that shows VBAC is a reasonable option for many mothers with a prior cesarean surgery, only around 8% of women in the United States VBAC. Women seeking VBAC are given numbers and claims about its safety that don’t add up in order to be dissuaded. Yet, even with clear evidence in support of VBAC being a safe option, those who consider themselves advocates of VBAC are also giving women unrelated risk scenarios in order to make a comparison, potentially clouding a person’s perception of the risk. As you can read in Jen Kamel’s (www.vbacfacts.com) blog post “Lightening Strikes, Shark Bites, & Uterine Rupture,” comparing two dissimilar events can be problematic when trying to convey risk to someone.
Whose responsibility is it to convey the risks of pregnancy and birth to women? Is it possible to explain your understanding of the risks of a choice in unbiased terms or by simply adding your understanding of the risks in question are you imposing your choice onto another? Assessing or sharing the risks and benefits of choice is not an easy spot to be in as a mother, a birth professional, or a care provider. It is inevitable that we will feel that we or someone we know could have made a better choice. There may even be times when we feel so strongly about the choice of another that we feel we must save them from it without asking ourselves whose choice it is to make and whose responsibility are the consequences of choice in the childbearing year?
Do numerous studies and the varying opinions of “professionals” help make clearer the inherent risks of our choices in maternity care? Regardless of fact, the discernment of risk is largely individual and is impacted by the personal values, beliefs, and experiences of a person. There is no one way in which a person understands and assesses risk, and some of the ways in which we process risk can compete with one another. It is apparent that when discussing risk, it is near to impossible not to impress personal assessments onto your explanation.
What is right for one mother may not be right for another. Accepting or avoiding risks of options in childbirth is not the responsibility of anyone but the person faced with the choice. Let us take VBAC as an example. One mother may have experienced her prior cesarean surgery as traumatic. Maybe she suffered PTSD as a result of the experience. She felt belittled by her care provider and felt like the surgery she experienced was unnecessary. Faced with the choice of VBAC or repeat cesarean, this mother could feel that choosing a setting where she is fully supported in a TOLAC (trial of labor after cesarean) will give her the best chances at VBAC therefore allowing her to remain in control of her birth and give herself and her baby the safest possible start. This mother may also after researching her local options decide that the location best suited for her birth would be home. In making these choices on her own terms and being supported in preparing herself for this birth, this mother is eliminating fear. The risk 0.5-1% risk of uterine rupture seems so very small compared to the potential loss of control, feelings of disrespect, and feelings of harm she had experience while undergoing cesarean before.
Another mother experienced a cord prolapse after her waters released during her first birth. She had been laboring naturally and moving as she wanted throughout her labor until that point. Fortunately, she was at the hospital with competent care providers who assessed the situation quickly and her baby was delivered via cesarean with no lasting complications. When asked if she would like to VBAC for her next delivery, she asks for a repeat cesarean. The thought of potential uterine rupture or another cord prolapsed overwhelms her and she feels safer if she can plan her birth. She wants to be in control of the situation and allowing the doctor to perform another cesarean, while she is awake and everyone is healthy does so much to reduce the fears she has of complications. The increase risk of problems in future pregnancies seems low to her compared with the potential for complications in birth that she has already experienced.
The “right” choice for a person is subject to time, place, and experience. The “right” choice is not unchangeable. It is as fluid as the human condition. It is an individual choice. Our current climate of debate about the safety of our various options in childbirth and the active pursuit to limit or eliminate options from women is to put the whole of humanity in danger. It is to decry the personal and to take away the right of an individual to accept the responsibility for the choices they make for themselves and the choices we make as a parent. Neither of the women described above are making a “selfish” choice as critics on both sides have accused women. They made the choice that gave them the space to transition into the mothering of this new person in safety and peace.
It does us no good to spend countless hours debating these studies never one to satisfy the other. It does nothing to improve the standards of maternity care in this country or the world. All it does is breed confusion and misinformation, and results in skewed judgment and blame. We can cry out for the right to choose. We can cry out for protection. We can cry out for mothers to take responsibility for their births. The crying will be for naught if we cannot accept that assessment of risk is individual and in order for pregnancy, birth, and yes, even parenting to be healthy there must be room left for personal decision making. If you are called to be with women in birth, you must regard them as individual and their experience as their own. Facts will be facts. Birth will be birth. While I appreciate and very much respect the studies and research being done in the name of evidence based care in childbirth, the torch we should be carrying during this time is the sanctity of the mother in birth, the rightness of personal experience, and the space for empowered decision making, for how can we accept responsibility for a decision we feel we did not make.
It was likely sometime in the late summer months that Mary awaited the birth of her son, whom she would call Jesus. Like all mothers, Mary at some point realized that the weight of the world would be placed upon the shoulders of her child. Like us all, she could be reassured that her child was going to be brought forth in the perfection of the image of God and therefore uniquely equipped to do his work on this earth.
Another thing that Mary surely understood was that she was specially chosen to bring this new life into the world through the capabilities of her own body alongside that unconstrained power that placed him there in the first place. For birth is about releasing expectations and trusting that you are supported. It is knowing that just by the way your body was designed and grew this life, you are capable of bringing this life forward. In our modern world, what birth is all about hasn’t changed. It isn’t about dreading pain. It isn’t about wondering if “they” will let you do this or that. It isn’t about enduring it until it is over. It isn’t about being afraid and resigning to hope simply for a healthy baby. The child you carry is destined to impact the world. We may not know how, but we can know it is for certain. As the mother of this child, you matter. Mary is revered as holy by many of varying faiths. If giving birth is not sacred work, then what is? Birth, mamas, is about knowing. How this special and amazing child you carry comes into the world matters a great deal. How this child’s mother is revered before, during, and after the process of birth matters a great deal.
To prepare for birth, Mary prayed. She consulted her female family members and shared in the joys of their pregnancies. She was visited by angels and meditated on their words. She relied on and fell into the support of those who loved her. There is such peace for every mother. Giving birth to your child is a sacred event. It only makes sense that preparing for the birth is an undergoing of connecting to our bodies, our intuitions, learning from those who have gone before us, and interacting with the power that brought us to this full state of pregnancy. In birth, there is so much to learn about who we are in the scheme of what is the reality of our existence – that in all of us there is infinite potential and that potential wields immense power. Each and every one of us who is blessed to prepare for birth must know, that we are the keepers of that child’s spark and each moment of the process is holy. For unto us a child is born…
Merry Christmas!!! Happy Holidays!!! Love and blessings to you and your family.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, avid yogi, reiki practitioner, and is living life with chronic illness. Connect with her @ Kelli Hansel - Writer & Spiritual/Yoga/Self Transformation Guide
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