Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Birth House

Brew of the day: Not just a cup, but a whole pot of raspberry leaf tea a-brewin’ this morning grrrrrlfriends! Drink up… come sit ‘round the table as we chat birth and babies. Breathe in the midwifery herbs of fennel, lavender, marigold and borage hanging in bunches, drying in the kitchen. There’s a thick Autumnal mist here in the valley this morning…bringing a cool chill which surely invites a hot cuppa and good company? Be warned, though, today’s blog is ‘long’...well, you know, even longer than usual!

A few weeks ago I briefly mentioned a terrific novel I’d received for reviewing in The Mother magazine. Today I’m taking part in the Wise Women’s blog tour to celebrate its publication. You can find out more about the tour here

There are times when a book comes along that you really feel should be widely read; that it should be compulsory reading for midwives, doctors, mothers-to-be and anyone connected with remembering the power of birth. The Birth House is one such book. It has so much to teach us, even those of us who think we have the whole women-led birthing thing worked out.

What struck me most about the book was that even though it is set in the early 1900s, apart from technological advances, the truth is that for many women in so- called civilised societies, the same old birth issues still exist. That is, the ‘experts’ of birth are those in white coats. Women, it would appear, don’t know anything about their bodies, even if they’ve birthed eight kids! It’s the doctor who knows when to push, the doctor who tells you what to do…

The experts don’t want women to have a powerful, life-enhancing birth. They want to be seen as heroes, and a hero you can’t be if a woman is squatting in all her powerful glory while pushing her baby out. A hero you can be if she’s flat on her back (in the worst position of all) while you play with your toys (take your pick ~ vacuum cleaner; sword; vicious looking tongs!) and give her a few injections to make it all bearable for her (and limp as play dough for you??). Hero emerges with a badge that has women saying ‘the doctor saved my baby’s life!’. I hear it all too often.

For many women today, things are really not that different to what was starting to happen in The Birth House’s Scot’s Bay. The newly arrived doctor wanted to take the birthing experience away from women as if he was doing them a favour! Now, granted, labour can be pretty intense, but unless a baby is coming out sideways it isn’t something that most women can’t get through. Truly! Some people think (and this includes midwives) that no woman should have to go through pain in this ‘day and age’. Read: we’re civilised, so let’s do this all lady-like, legs shut!! without noise, drama, blood. Let’s keep it clean, sterilised, polite. God, while we’re at it, let’s not even talk about what birth feels like!

It can sometimes feel extraordinarily difficult when you’re so passionate about a subject, to not come across as judgemental. Natural birth, to me, is one of those topics, right up there alongside breastfeeding. One of those topics where, if people simply understood more, they wouldn’t dismiss the ideas as those belonging to earth mothers who have nothing better to do with their time or lives. Caring about how our babes are brought into the world and caring about how their mothers experience this transition does NOT make one judgemental. Rather, it means they genuinely care.

Giving birth to my two daughters has had a huge impact on my life. Their births and birth outcomes were very different, and it is precisely those experiences which have taken me to where I am today, editing The Mother magazine. Perhaps my attitude to birth started by being one of eight children. My mother gave birth to my youngest three brothers at home, unassisted by midwife or doctor. She did this out of choice. If I had ever had another child, this is the path I would take without question.

Bethany was born at home in our bedroom, as planned. Blessed with a hands-off midwife, we birthed our baby gently into the warm water of the birth pool. I deliberately had the room as peaceful as I’d imagined it would be. A few candles, a lamp, essential oils, soft classical music; my husband in the pool with me and holding me in labour, then catching our baby…I couldn’t have asked for it to be any better.

Bethany swallowed some meconium (baby poo) which started coming up after the midwife had gone home. When I phoned her she said to keep breastfeeding and it would help to dilute it, and she’d bring it up. I know now, that a ‘lesser’ midwife or a doctor would have had her in hospital having her stomach pumped. Only about 7% of babies who swallow meconium are actually distressed in birth. There was nothing to indicate stress or trauma for Bethany during her birth.

Her birth shaped me in more ways than one. Sometimes we don’t see how this happens till many years down the road. It made me more sure of myself as a person; as a woman. The ‘process’ of her emerging from my body was incredible. I can still feel the thrill in my body when I opened to release her. It just all happened so naturally, beautifully and peacefully. We laugh when we watch her birth video, because after transition, it doesn’t even look like I’m having a baby. I look more as if I’m in a spa pool waiting for a glass of champagne! I do believe my relaxed state was down to the environment of trust which had been created in our bedroom.

As a child who experienced much sexual abuse, giving birth the way I did healed those wounds more than anything in this world could have (apart from the love of a good man!). The birthing pool acted as a ‘safe’ space. It meant that I was able to be my sexual self (birth is very sexual! ~ think hormones) and open up in a way my body never had, without fear or threat that someone would take advantage of me when I was at my most raw; most vulnerable and most open. This openness isn’t just physical. It’s a psychic space, too. And it is especially the latter that is neglected in medically managed births.

Would I have birthed the same way had I gone down the medical route? Would my body have opened so easily with some strange man (or woman) poking and prodding inside my vagina? With a midwife checking my blood pressure or cervix at regular intervals? Can’t imagine it!

One of the key elements to my pregnancy and birth experience with Bethany is that there was no medical model involved ~ at least to my ‘consciousness’. And this, I believe, is an important point. My midwife, Ruth, always visited our house. It was like having a friend come over for a cup of tea. By the time of the birth she truly was a friend (interesting that the name Ruth means friend). We’d talk homeopathy, essential oils, herbs. She shared waterbirth stories we me. I shared my fantasy of giving birth in a quiet bay with dolphins. She didn’t think I was nuts.

When Eliza decided to pop in my womb we had another midwife. Sian was lovely. There was, however, a distinct difference in midwifery style, in that she worked for a Midwifery Collective (responsible to a team, rather than working independently) and she didn’t come to my home. I went to her ‘office’. In her office there were all sorts of gadgets to measure and monitor pregnancy. And that’s what happened. I was ‘monitored’.

I went from a first, easy-peasy, home birth to being evaluated at each visit. I didn’t know it at the time, I only see it with hindsight, but I went from believing in my body to ‘looking for what might not be right’. She always expressed concern at my blood glucose levels on the pee stick. I ended up sometimes being a bit economical with the truth when I emerged from the loo. Ruth used to tell me ‘not to worry about the glucose, just dilute your fruit juice with water. You’ll be fine.’

Some of our sessions were held at the hospital (even though I was planning a home birth). I remember more than once looking up at a sign that said, “what to do if your baby needs to be resuscitated” and feeling physically ill at the thought of any baby of mine being on that bench and having air pumped into it. It left an indelible image in my head.

Scans, induction…”Veronika, you’re more than 10 days over due. It’s illegal to have a home birth.” (I didn’t know that was bullshit till years later!).

Seventeen days ‘late’…and I began labour in the bedroom. My favourite photo is of Bethany in the birth pool with me! She thought it was wonderful and breastfed all through labour.
My midwife was keen to get me to hospital. I resisted. I was really upset.

“Just for a check up” she said. I knew otherwise. I knew once I was there that was it.
Another distinct difference in midwifery styles was that when Ruth arrived for Bethany’s birth, she left all the ‘medical’ stuff in the lounge room where I couldn’t see it. All she brought into the birthing room was herself.

For Eliza’s birth my bedroom changed instantly into a labour ward with gas bottles and all sorts of stuff.

In hospital, Sian was keen to break my waters. She wanted things to speed up.
Well, they certainly sped up. Hindsight, can’t you just kick it up the arse for arriving so late?
Eliza wasn’t ready to come at that moment in time. OK, on a spiritual, metaphysical level, everything happens perfectly, in Divine Order…but in terms of labour and her birth journey, the waters should have been left intact so she could make her descent easily.

The quick labour which followed was intense. I birthed in the hospital birthing pool but everything felt different. I was aware of being watched by two ‘nervous’ midwives…aware of being under pressure to ‘just get on with it’. I also lay back into Paul’s arms instead of leaning forward. I was in that position so they could see what was going on. Hindsight. Aggh.
Eventually she started to crown but I knew, I KNEW that it was not right. She just wasn’t coming out like Bethany did.

Sian started to panic. “We’ve got to get this baby out NOW.” She ordered me to get my leg up out of the birthing pool. Eliza’s shoulder was stuck. Sian got her out. Immediate panic raced through that room like a hurricane. Hospital staff were called in for the *blue* baby.

Eight and half years later I still cry when I relive her birth. I cry because it was avoidable. I cry because I left behind my sense of belief in birth when I believed, instead, in a midwife who followed the system. I cry because I know it has had a huge impact on who Eliza is, as a person.

Despite my carefully scripted birth plan, my baby was pumped with Vitamin K and other chemicals/drugs. Her lifeless blue body lay on the resusc. table. Adults swarmed around her. I lay immobilised on another bed while something was injected into my leg to release the placenta. “What the hell was that?” Funny, or not, how all your written agreements with a midwife can go out the window.

“Is my baby dead? Is my baby dead?!” No one would answer me. I felt so impotent. I was just a couple of metres from my baby yet unable to touch her; to hold her. No cry. No breath. Poor old Paul. He was standing beside her, in his underpants, dripping wet from the birth pool. “Sing to her! Sing to her!” was all I could say to him. And bless him, he did. I would say those few minutes must have been the most difficult of his life ~ watching our dead baby, lifeless.

My mum had been recording the birth and kept the camera rolling ~ thank God, because it really was an eye opener to later see what happened in that room.

For some reason I’ll never understand, one of the hospital staff gave Eliza a drug which should only be given if the mother has had drugs in labour. Clearly they thought every mum had drugs! The thing was, because I hadn’t, the drug was contra-indicated and it caused her lungs to produce fresh, frothy blood.

We were then transferred to the National Women’s Hospital. While they were getting the ambulance ready, I was able to hold my daughter for a few minutes. The eye contact we made was unlike anything I’d every experienced in my life. Eliza and I had travelled over in the same ambulance but she was separated from me and taken to SCBU and then NICU. They wouldn’t let me in with her while they put in all sorts of needles and tubes. I was distraught. They couldn’t understand why I was so upset. “But my baby is in there, I can hear her screaming!” The staff just didn’t get it! As her mother, I had no purpose there. There was ‘nothing you can do. Let the staff do their job. You can go home.’ Needless to say, once we were able to get to her, we never left her side!

Paul had driven himself across the city ~ I don’t know how as he was in as bad a state as I was. When we arrived…well, the next few days were hell on earth. I’d gone from believing my baby was dead to watch her attached to every machine known to man; stuck in a plastic box, with me unable to hold her or breastfeed her.

So much about her start in life was avoidable. Avoidable by me having a different consciousness. And avoidable by the medical profession learning to ask questions instead of making assumptions! Much of her ‘treatment’ was based on them assuming she’d gulped in water during the birth and so was prone to a lung infection. Her face never even made it in the water! (And if it had, babies don’t suck in water at birth).

Her birth, though emotionally traumatic and painful, makes me a very powerful advocate for change. It drives me to push for gentle birth.

Birth is a fundamental rite of passage for the mother and baby. It is, without doubt, one of the most physically challenging things we will go through in life, regardless of how gentle it might be.

Emerging through the birth canal, from relative darkness, to light; feeling the labour as a massage against our skin, is a journey Nature designed us to make. Going through this experience prepares us for life in our physical body. There are rare (very rare) times when, for the sake of the baby and mother, a caesarean is indeed a necessary and life-saving operation. We live in a culture which suggests that 1 in 4 babies or more are at risk of dying if they’re not brought out in this way. We’re teaching our daughters that birth isn’t natural. We’re taking away the one time in a woman’s life when she really discovers who she is in a way that no other life experience can come close to matching.

If we think it miraculous to conceive a baby (which clearly it is), this almost pales into insignificance compared to the feeling when we’ve birthed our babies rather than have them delivered from us.

Our culture is one where people can play ‘pretend’ God. There was a time, not so long ago, that we didn’t have the Hero’s tools to ‘save’ babies or mothers if something went wrong in childbirth. Now, because of advanced technology it would ‘appear’ that we have changed the mortality rate. But I wonder.

Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I do believe that if a baby/mother is meant to survive the birthing experience, then surely that destiny is going to happen with or without the Hero’s toolkit? Just because we live in 2006 doesn’t mean your baby will survive, if that isn’t the life path it has chosen.

None of us really know the ‘why’ of some life experiences. What I do know is that every one of us on the planet, goes through the experiences of birth and death ~ that much is guaranteed. And for some people these major experiences are often key times of spiritual growth. We do every mother an injustice by comparing births as if it is a competition. That should never be our focus.

Each birth is unique and every incoming soul has its own journey. Our job, as mothers or birth care ‘professionals’ should be to aid the transition from soul life to physical life, however that baby co-creates the experience. A woman’s spiritual growth is as valid through trauma and tragedy as through joy and triumph.

My passion for natural birth is really about gentle birth. The Californian Crime Commission found that crime rates are significantly higher in those who had a violent/medically managed birth. There is so much truth in the statement that ‘peace on Earth begins with birth’.
Midwives like Miss B. and Dora in The Birth House, help women to find the power within themselves, their only other aid being from plants that grow in the garden or woods, and the soft, sweet words of another woman. A wise woman.

There is no price you can put on this support. There is, however, a very high price though, when inviting the Hero to your birth party. And it isn’t just counted in £$£$.

Disempowered births, aka medically managed and controlled births, are BIG MONEY. Not for the mother, clearly, but for the HERO. There is no incentive in our medically managed birth culture to empower women to birth as nature intended. I am in awe of midwives who come quietly to birth; who know that the birthing ritual isn’t about them. I love a midwife who can come into the birthing room and sit on her hands. She is priceless. Egoless midwifery is very much needed. Sadly, many midwives these days are stand-in doctors in terms of tools, pressure and bullying.

The Birth House has quite a number of characters in it, as you would expect, given the nature of the story ~ midwifery in a community. Some characters have you wanting to wrap your arms around them...and then there are the doctor and Dora’s husband…the sort of men you’d quite happily you’d elect take a knife to… ahem, say no more!

I asked the author, Ami Mckay, who lives in Canada, what/who inspired The Birth House?

Ami: A little over six years ago, I moved into an old farmhouse on the Bay of Fundy. It's in a village called Scots Bay, a beautiful place with about 250 year-round residents. It wasn't long before I was pregnant...and when I started to show, the older women in my community began to share the history of my house with me.

Although we didn't know it when we bought the place, the house had once belonged to the community midwife, Mrs. Rebecca Steele. She not only went out to women's homes to assist with births, but she invited mothers to come to her home for childbirth and "confinement”. She was quite a midwife and a healer, and she insisted that the women stay at her home for at least a week after a birth, and let everyone in the village know that they needed to have the mother's house clean and prepared for the homecoming of mother and baby (or sometimes, babies.)

I was so inspired by this history of the community surrounding every child's birth that I chose to have a midwife assisted birth at home, in "The Birth House" of Scots Bay. It was a beautiful day for my whole family and the women of the community carried on Mrs. Steele's traditions and took care of me for weeks after the birth, bringing food to the house and helping with anything I needed. Not long after my son's birth, I began the first notes that would later become The Birth House.

Veronika: Do you have a favourite chapter? Why?

Ami: I tend to write in 'scenes', and there are many scenes in the book that I am deeply connected with, for very different reasons. The telling of Mabel's birth is probably the one that is closest to my heart, since it is somewhat based on my son's birth. The baking of groaning cake, the support of friends and family, the gentle and confident wisdom of the midwife, Miss B., reflect the energy and joy that was in the house that day.

Veronika: Do you feel we are any further ahead in birth autonomy than the women in The Birth House?

Ami: I'd like to hope so, but sometimes I wonder. My first birthing experience was in the States, and to be honest, I didn't even know that midwifery was still being practised. I felt almost completely out of control in the labour was induced, one intervention led to another, and by the time the OB whipped a vacuum extractor out, there were three other OBs who had come in to crowd around my vagina (because they'd never seen an extractor used.)

My baby had a lot of hair on his head, they couldn't get the extractor to form suction and there was talk brewing of a c-section. The labour nurse finally whispered in my ear..."It's now or never. Ignore them and PUSH!" The baby came out with the next push, and "all was well"... Of course, over the years in talking with other women who have gone through similar experiences, I kept hearing the same thing; the women felt scared, they felt they had little say in what happened, it wasn't what they had wanted or hoped for, and in the end, they thanked the doctor because mother and baby came out fine and 'all was well.'
After my experience with my second birth - with a midwife, at home, with the incredible support of family and community - I realized that every mother and child deserves to have a sense of community around birth. In that sense, we still have work to do!

Veronika: You mentioned having a copy of Jeannine Parvati Baker's book, Hygeia's Herbal, on your desk as you wrote The Birth House. What place do you feel herbs have in modern births?

Ami: For me, herbs have a place in my life as a whole. Pregnancy and birth is no exception. There is much strength and healing that can be gained from the use of herbs throughout a pregnancy, during a birth, and post-partum. The beautiful raspberry leaf immediately comes to mind. What a wonderful thing it was to find wild raspberry canes tangled in the far corners of our land when we arrived! I've seen a naturopath work closely with a midwife, and I'm convinced the wisdom and healing power of herbs is needed more than ever. Thanks to women like Jeannine Parvarti Baker, this wisdom will live on.

Veronika: I really loved the character Miss B. Was she based on a living midwife?

Ami: Thank you! I love her too. Her 'voice' was one that simply arrived in my imagination, fully formed. (And she wouldn't leave me alone!) She's not based on any one woman, but more of a mixture of wise, outspoken women from my family and my past. Grandmothers, mothers, neighbours, friends.

Veronika: There are some incredibly moving moments in the book. When writing them, were you completely immersed in the emotion or were you able to detach yourself from your characters?

Ami: While the characters aren't 'me' or even specific people in my life, they did become a part of me. Some I cared for more than others, and it was very hard to put them into difficult situations. But, as in life, we often have to face adversity in order to grow. Much like an actor tries to immerse him/herself in a role, I did my best to immerse myself in the historical context of the book through research, and immerse myself in the emotional context of the characters by meditating on a situation. In my opinion, characters must be true to themselves, and as a writer, I have to be true to them as well. I can't think about what I would do in their situation, but only what choices they would ultimately make.

Anyone reading The Birth House would assume you had an in-depth knowledge of midwifery and the role of herbs in birth. Where did you gain these insights?

Ami: Some things, especially when it came to herbal remedies and healing, came to me from my mother, and her grandmother, and on through our family traditions. I've also been very fortunate to have had several wise women come into my life over the years. One was a neighbour when I was in university. Another was a friend I made when I moved to Nova Scotia. My experience with the midwife who assisted at my son's birth played a large part, as well as a dear friend who is a midwife/osteopath. Written treasures like Hygeia's Herbal, as well as guides to native plants of Nova Scotia, served as inspiration as well. Typing all this out just now makes me realize what the phrase "life's work" truly means!

Veronika: If you were casting a famous actress for the lead of Dora, who would you choose and why?

Ami: That's a tough one. Dora is 17 when the story begins, so it would have to be a fairly young actress who could transform into what Dora becomes by the end of the novel. Not to say I wouldn't LOVE to see a film version, but it would take an actress with a wide range of skill to play Dora. Sometimes I think the role might be best suited to a young woman who is unfamiliar to movie goers.

Veronika: I don’t want to give too much away about The Birth House for those who’ve not yet read it, but there are so many scenes that really stay with you.

Two of them, for me are: 1. the vibrator scene. I laughed so hard when I realised what was going on. It’s just not something you associate with women in that time in history. I really did have a good belly laugh!

2. When Dora gets married there was the issue of what to wear. Dora was the first girl born in five generations…and well, the women just didn’t keep their wedding dresses. What was the point? They simply cut them up and made baptismal dresses for their sons. I was moved to tears at the love that went into creating the wedding dress from …gosh, I better not say. Let’s just say it was very special. OK, ok…it’s a novel. It’s not real! Or is it? That’s the thing with The Birth House. You keep catching yourself wondering if it is someone’s autobiography. It’s rich, raw, honest.

I also love the sense of community around Dora; the love of the women in her area ~ you get a real sense of that bond.

I was challenged a lot by the marriages in the story mostly because I know that for many women today, their relationships are pretty appalling. Not much change there, either. Somehow it made the relationship Dora has with Hart even more special. Honest.

A primary theme of The Birth House is the sense of community amongst the women; the support, love and practical help needed during and after a birth being vital to an effective start on the parenting journey. For many women in our culture this is sadly lacking, and I can’t help but wonder if rates of Postnatal Depression would drop drastically if we were nurtured fully and thoroughly in those first weeks after birth.

Thank you so much Ami! I thoroughly enjoyed The Birth House and plan to put a few copies into birthday and ‘birthing’ stockings! Congratulations on such a page-turning novel. When I started it, I simply didn’t move until it was finished. My husband had a begging tone in his voice when he asked if he could put the light out in the deep of the night. There is no higher accolade for a book. Wishing you all the very best ~ and please, more books like this! If you'd like to go on a tour which includes rants, raves, photos and lovely things like a midwife's herb garden and radical unschooling.


Naptime Noter said...

Thank you V for sharing Eliza's story with us. I'm waiting for a new arrival to the Smith household. I have struggled with negative feelings and opinions being pressed upon me by a 'well meaning' midwife and relative for several months while my wonderful community midwife (and ex-IM) tries to undo such things. With just days to go I am now remembering what it was like to just give myself over to Hannah (now 3!) and let her birth in her own time and space. Some serious meditation and connecting with this baby soul is now needed before his move Earthside. Once again thank you. Hillie xx

flowerpot said...

WOW Veronika, thank you, i cried and cried when you wrote about Paul singing to your baby, i could picture it all well, after having 4 very traumatic births 3 of them at National Womens and one at Middlemore, can picture those rooms etc.
I got the book The Birthing House when you last mentioned it in your last Journal entry. I will have to find the time to read it now, it has been sitting by my bed willing me to read it.
Thank you for another great read.

Ren said...

"There are times when a book comes along that you really feel should be widely read; that it should be compulsory reading for midwives, doctors, mothers-to-be and anyone connected with remembering the power of birth. The Birth House is one such book"

I thought that was worth repeating!! Enjoyed the interview Veronika.:)

I also teared up reading about your dh singing to your baby... beautiful during such a traumatic experience.
Thanks for sharing.

Harmonious Living said...

Holding space for you as I read this. Thankyou for sharing. hope to see/feel it in the mother mag too.

Jenny said...


Thanks for sharing that you were sexually abused as a child.

I believe those of us who have been assaulted in that way have a very difficult time with managed births. We know that our bodies are being triffled with in similar fashion to what we experienced at the hands of sexual predators, and it is for this reason that so many of us get into unassisted and home birth.

Giving birth to my last two sons at home after doing my own prenatal care opened up the floodgates of my heart and not only brought up repressed memories, but also enabled me to courageously face the most difficult truths of my life. My little sons helped me in a very real way.

One sweet story is of the time before we even conceived our fifth child Benjamin. I was in a suicidal and homicidal state and really struggling with the overwhelm of everything I was remembering. (The memories of sexual abuse came up after the death of my brother).

Benjamin came to me in spirit form and let me know that I could not kill myself because he wanted me to be his mother. At that point the last thing on my mind was having another child, but I remember thinking that if someone up in heaven wanted me, a total suicidal basket case, to be his mother then perhaps I was not as sick as I thought, and I could heal from the traumas.

He was conceived seven months later, and was the vehicle for my mind and body to bring up some of the most difficult memories. I remembered many things in the weeks following his birth, and during the past four years have continued to remember extremely traumatic things that were done to me as a child and adult.

I agree with you that the most healing thing for survivors of sexual assault is to give birth in an empowered and holistic way.

Jenny Hatch

Veronika said...

Thank you to all of you for your sensitive, beautiful and caring comments. Hillie, let me know when Baby Smith comes earthside!
Love to all

rosehips said...
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