Smile Politely

The Business of Being Born

I never thought I would want a natural birth. By natural, I mean without pain intervention. No epidural. No sedation. I had my daughter in Chicago four years ago. When I found out I was pregnant and was considering birthing options (I say I was considering; actually, I was just convincing myself to get an epidural), I spoke often to my mother and sister-in-law about birth. At the time, they were the only women close to me who had ever given birth. My mother told me that if there was anything to stop the pain, take it. And my sister-in-law said: “When you go to the dentist, you don’t get a filling without numbing the nerve first. Why would you give birth without an epidural?”

This seemed perfectly logical to me. And when fear is involved (something most women feel at one point or another about their impending labor), we cling to anything that will diminish that fear.

I am now fourteen weeks pregnant with my second child, and logic is waving its ugly head again. But this time, it’s swinging me in a new direction. Turns out, I didn’t like my delivery experience. I didn’t like being stuck with needles and swaddled in tubes and monitors. I had no idea that getting an epidural also meant getting a catheter. I didn’t know a lot of things about labor. But I haven’t regretted the experience because I got what I wanted: a healthy baby.

The Business of Being Born, released on DVD in February 2008, is a documentary by Abby Epstein about the current state of birth in the U.S. Ricki Lake (a good friend of Epstein’s) and Epstein herself, interview several experts in the field of obstetrics and midwifery. The film also documents the history of labor, the process of home birth, and the traditional “fear-based” attitudes women have toward natural birth.

This film has started a journey for me. I’m on a quest to know everything I can about birth. But, by no means do I want to be the woman who goes to the hospital with a birth plan: “Please doctor, when I’m at 7cm will you flip the CD over to the ocean soundtrack, light two candles, and burn the lavender incense?” And I also realize that modern medicine is something to respect and has saved many babies and mothers who would otherwise have never survived.

But … here are some statistics for you to consider, as I am.

  • Midwives attend over 70% of births in Europe and Japan. In the U.S., midwives attend fewer than 8% of births.
  • The U.S. has the second worst newborn death rate in the developed world and one of the highest maternal mortality rates among all industrialized countries.
  • Since 1996, the cesarean rate in the U.S. has risen 46%. In 2005, 1 in every 3 births was a cesarean section.

What are we doing? Why do we think we don’t know how to birth and that medical intervention is always necessary?

Recently my cousin’s wife had her second child: a perfectly healthy boy delivered by cesarean section. I arrived at the hospital minutes after he was born. My family was gathered around the glass window to the nursery, watching the nurse measure, weigh, and bath him. My cousin was behind us, shaking hands and receiving congratulatory pats. “Where’s mom?” I asked. “Oh, she has to be in recovery for an hour.”

The obstetricians and midwives in The Business of Being Born speak of the natural occurrences in the body during labor. A hormone is released by the mother during labor called oxytocin, otherwise known as “the love hormone.” This produces contractions, increases throughout the labor, and at the moment of delivery, a rush of this hormone floods the mother and baby’s body. This plays a major role in bonding, and creates euphoric feelings in the mother toward her child.

If someone had told me, moments after having my first child, that I would have to wait an hour to hold her, I would have gone feral. I would have bitten, clawed, raged, and torn the place down to stop anyone from taking my baby from me. That’s the power of oxytocin.

Women who have cesarean sections, and babies born by cesarean section, do not have this rush. Breastfeeding also releases oxytocin. Why, oh why, are we electing to have c-sections when there are other options?

Even with all of these statistics and facts about birth, what really hit home for me in this documentary were the mothers. The video shows a wide range of births, from cesarean to natural. The different ways in which mothers react after birth, between natural, induced, and cesarean births, is incomparable.

Here are a few reactions of mothers who have just given birth, at home, with no pain medication or intervention: “I knew I couldn’t do it, and then I did it!” “Nothing compares to this.” Midwives said: “If I can do that, I can do anything. That’s the power of birthing. And that’s what we’re taking away from women.” “If you really want a humanized birth, the best thing to do is get the hell out of the hospital.” “People spend more time checking out their options to buy a camera than they do for birth.” As a photographer, and teacher of photography, I can vouch for this one. I definitely know more about my camera than I do birth.

So here begins my journey. I hope you’ll follow along with me, and perhaps point me in the right direction as I research local midwifery, birthing, and natural labor and delivery. If I said I wasn’t a little scared, I’d be lying.


Official trailer:

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