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There’s a phrase that I’ve heard often when it comes to the topic of childbirth. Due to give birth again in a few weeks myself, I’ve heard it more often lately. I’ve heard it said to mothers of newborns, to pregnant mothers, and in a variety of situations. It’s the phrase “As long as the baby’s healthy”. I’m not at ease with the phrase myself for a couple of different reasons, one of them being because I think it can imply that the birth experience doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the outcome – a healthy baby at the end. I’ve known women who have had very traumatic births and have difficulty working through them, yet they feel they have no right to be upset about the birth because they got a healthy baby at the end. As long as the baby’s healthy they think. People can become so focused on the outcome of birth that they ignore the importance of the process of birth. And I’ve come to realize that yes, a healthy baby is probably the most important thing, but it’s not the only important thing. In fact, the experience of birth will likely stay with the woman for a long time, and it even has the potential to change the trajectory of her whole life. I know this, because birth changed me.
When I was pregnant with my oldest, my husband and I had very little money. He was a college student and I worked earning about $1000 a month. We had enough to pay our rent of about $325, pay for utilities, put gas in the car, and buy groceries, but it was a tight budget and we could afford little else. Then, when I was eight months pregnant, I was placed on modified bedrest and I could no longer work. I thought it was providence though that it happened at the start of summer. My husband could find a summer job and get us through until the baby was born in mid-August. Hopefully there wouldn’t be much time between when he had to start school in the fall and I could work again.
I expected my new husband to immediately begin scouring the newspapers and internet for job listings. I expected him to spend hours a day filling out job applications and delivering his resume to local businesses. I expected that he would apply for pretty much any job that he was remotely qualified for.
Those are all the things I expected. But as the days went on, it didn’t seem like he was really all that motivated to find work. He didn’t spend much time looking. Every possible job that I suggested he apply for, he would find something wrong with it and explain why he didn’t want to work there. I couldn’t understand this. After all, we weren’t looking for his dream job or lifelong career or anything. We just needed something that would get us by until Fall. There were bills to pay and we just needed something — anything — that would pay them.
It ended up that the whole summer went by and he didn’t actually get a job with regular hours and predictable income. He did design a couple of websites for some people that brought in a few hundred dollars here and there, and he had his work study at the college which brought in a couple hundred dollars but our intake wasn’t enough to cover our needs. I ended up editing a book for a local author which brought in another couple of hundred dollars. I felt very abandoned. I needed him to sacrifice for me and our child, to do whatever he could to take care of us. But he wouldn’t. I began to feel trapped. I began to think that maybe I made a mistake in marrying him and now it was too late. I wouldn’t be able to depend on him if I couldn’t take care of myself.
August arrived, then mid-August, and with it came my due date. I had been on an emotional roller coaster all summer – freaking out about money, fighting about it with my husband, being assured he would look for work, then repeating the process again over and over. Our child was going to be born any day and I was desperate. All my previous efforts to convince Chris to find work hadn’t had any effect. So I decided to leave.
I had a doctor’s appointment that day and I decided I would go to my doctor’s appointment, come home and gather some belongings, then leave. When he came home, he’d find the note that said I would be back when he found work. I was four days past my due date, which didn’t give him much time to get a job if he wanted to see his child being born. He was the father and while I knew he had a right to be in her life, I decided he wasn’t entitled to be with me in labor. I tried to prepare myself to birth alone.
I went to my doctor’s appointment and since I was four days overdue, my doctor wanted to induce me. I resisted at first, but she was convincing. She wanted me to get my hospital bags and meet her at the hospital. Would I go back to the hospital without informing my husband that I was being induced? Should I still leave the note? Could I do this by myself? In the end, I called him and told him that the doctor wanted to induce me, so that afternoon we grabbed our things and went to the hospital together.
I was fearful of what I would experience. Would I be able to actually give birth? Could I handle the pain? And after the birth, then what? I was having a child and we had no income and no way to support her. Then, labor began, and something happened. My husband showed great compassion for me. The concern on his face was clear. His attention to my needs was unwavering. He coached me and guided me through the breathing exercises he learned in our birthing class. Once he flubbed up in his counting mid-contraction, and not having that to focus on, I lost it and cried from the pain. But after that, he made sure to get it right and with his help I was able to handle the contractions. He wouldn’t leave my side throughout the labor and I was his sole focus. He held my hand. He communicated my needs to the nurse. His face became my focal point to get through the pain and when our daughter was born, he looked at me with genuine awe in his voice and said, “You did it.”
It was like the experiences of the previous two months vanished like a thin mist. When I was in pain and when I was at my most vulnerable, I could depend on him. He did care about me and he would be there for me. He was trustworthy. Those present at subsequent births have remarked on his attentiveness and the care he shows me in labor, with one nurse telling me that she’s never seen a husband so attentive and caring toward his wife in labor as mine was toward me.
The psychologist Erik Erikson, in his theory on “Ages and Stages” states that in the first year of life, infants learn Trust vs. Mistrust. If their cries are attended to quickly, they are handled gently, and their needs are met by their caregiver, they will develop a sense of trust. Though occurring well beyond the first year of her life, it seems to me that a laboring woman has in a sense the same task as the infant she is birthing. Many studies have shown that if a woman feels safe, respected, and given compassionate care, she will have a shorter, easier labor with fewer interventions. If a woman feels unsafe, threatened, or if she is fearful labor will stall (or even stop entirely) and it will be more difficult for her. Psychologically, the impact on a person of being in pain and being vulnerable, but also feeling safe and surrounded by others who she feels will protect her, defend her, help her, and respect her wishes should not be underestimated. Likewise, if she learns that her spouse, medical professionals or others will be indifferent to her suffering and inconvenienced by it, or worse, that they will take advantage of it, I feel the trauma will be profound.
Looking back to my first experience of childbirth, I feel my husband’s care for me during it set the tone for our entire marriage. We have since been happily married for ten years and feeling trust, safety, and feeling like we can work together as partners to handle any challenges that life brings us, is a big part of my marital satisfaction. And despite the fact that we got off to a rocky start, his care for me during childbirth had the power to erase his past failings. For his part, I feel I ought to tell you that he is now the breadwinner for our family and provides for our needs very well — financial as well as practical, and emotional. He has held jobs that he didn’t like in order to provide for us and he makes daily sacrifices for us all. The difference in him between then and now is quite significant. I don’t know what exactly caused the change. Maybe, being 21 when our oldest was born, he simply needed to mature a little. I tend to think that it was fatherhood itself that caused the change. As the old saying goes, “The moment a child is born, a mother is born as well”; perhaps one could also say that the moment a child is born, the father is born too. Especially since fathers do not experience pregnancy themselves or go through labor, often it becomes real for them when they actually see the child before them and they realize the enormity of the task given them.
Childbirth certainly changed me. Not only did I learn that I was stronger than I thought and capable of doing more than I knew, I learned that I could feel safe, protected, and loved in my marriage, and that I could trust others to care for me when I myself am unable to. And experiencing that allows me to move through life with more confidence, courage, and peace. For women who do not know their dignity, who have made poor life choices up to now, and women who have not had the experience of being protected, cared for, or their dignity respected, I can’t help but think that the process of birth is all the more important. I truly feel that childbirth is powerful enough to teach someone her worth and capability in a way little else can.
For the many women who have experienced a birth in which they did not feel empowered or respected by their caregivers and support people, or experienced the trauma of the birth process being physically dangerous for themselves or their babies or a labor that was overly painful, know that you have a right to feel the way you do. We shouldn’t be okay with not being respected or not feeling safe. It’s traumatizing to be in excruciating pain without relief. It’s traumatizing not to have our dignity respected and the momentousness of the occasion recognized and respected. For more information on birth trauma, you may wish to check out the links below.
“The way a culture treats women in birth is a good indicator of how well women and their contributions to society are valued and honored.” – Ina May Gaskin
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