Monday, June 30, 2014

On womanhood and power.

This isn’t a birth story; it’s more of a birth opinion editorial.

(It's also an announcement. Voila!  Here he is.)

I had this baby without an epidural.  I wanted it that way for a few reasons, but topping the list were these two:  1) I am alive, and I want to experience life to the fullest.  2) I have a magnificent power, a gift.  I want to receive that gift with open arms and holding nothing back. 

I used to think that unmedicated childbirth was for weird hippies who were afraid of modern medicine or completely OCD people who thought they needed to do everything the hardest way possible.  Or both.  I briefly considered natural childbirth, long before I had any reason to, and dismissed it as too high a standard to be reasonable.  Then I talked to my mother.  Then I did some serious pondering.  I talked to women who had given birth naturally about their experiences and motivations.  I did a lot of reading.  I did some self-analysis.  And from familiar facts I came to the startling conclusion that I wanted an unmedicated birth. 

Pregnancy and childbirth are astounding.  My husband and I collaborate on the design of a new human body.  That much we do together, but then I proceed to create it and bring it into the world, with the tender encouragement and support of my husband, but really under my body’s own power.  Not only do I have this power, but every mother has since Eve!  This is a defining characteristic of the human condition, of the feminine condition, and since it was being made available to me, I wanted into that club.  I wanted to do it all by myself, and I wanted to experience and remember the whole process.

It’s an awesome power to possess.  As a Christian it becomes even more meaningful when I consider the resemblance it bears, in infinite miniature, to the Atonement of the Savior.  There’s a reason we call baptism being “born again.”  Let me elaborate briefly:  a woman creates life.  She nurtures life.  At a certain point, that life cannot progress any further without her giving it further life. 
This process of giving her creation further life:
   -is very painful but the pain leaves very little physical mark on her body
   -involves a flowing forth of blood and water
   -generally pushes the woman just to the point of feeling that she cannot or would not do it, but it is 
    accomplished regardless
   -is very readily life-threatening (if something goes wrong), so the mother is in a very real sense 
    putting her own life on the line for the life of her child.
This is a gift I wanted to receive in the fullest sense. 

Additionally, in the sense that things generally oppose each other, that along the sinusoid of life you can’t have a peak higher than the depth of a trough, I had the thought that experiencing the full pain of birth might heighten the associated joy. 

I wasn’t terribly inclined to talk openly about my plans, but when it did come up it was often met with polite dismissal:  “I could never do that.”  It’s a hard thing to explain to another woman without sounding aloof and judgy and so I mostly kept my mouth shut unless directly addressed.  Besides, I hadn’t even found out if I could do it yet.

In retrospect what floors me is that I really wondered if I could.  But of course, that’s the secret.  The thing is, we women can do it.  Of course we can.  It’s innate.  In the moment, with no other options, women have amazing power and strength.  (In my opinion, the hardest thing about natural childbirth in a modern environment is the mental fortitude required to say no to relief when offered). 

Why did I doubt myself?  My first labor was long and drawn out, I was tense and terrified and uninformed.  I ended up choosing medical interventions after many hours, which led to complications which led to other interventions, and I was left with the feeling that without interventions, I couldn’t have had that baby at all.  That somehow my body had made a mistake and needed help. 

I think I doubted myself because the message from doctors, the message from current society, and certainly the messages on TV and in the movies made childbirth appear to be an emergency; a horrible, painful oppression; a terrible experience to be avoided; unsavory certainly, and impossible without medical intervention to “save” the woman from the whole process.  Not to mention a royal inconvenience.  In retrospect, this makes me so angry.  It’s so evil.  Childbirth is strong and galvanizing and wonderful--and I was made to fear it! 

It’s not that I resent the modern advances that allow birth to be so much safer and more comfortable.  Childbirth can be very dangerous when things go wrong and these advances are wonderful, inspired blessings.  What makes me mad is the culture that tells unsuspecting, uninformed women that they need help to do this thing their bodies were very specifically designed to do, or that this power, this beautiful life-changing experience needs to be attenuated to suit their fragility.  Or something.  It’s unbearably demeaning.  It tells women their beautiful, glorious power is an terrible, scarring inconvenience that should be avoided at all costs.  It goes to great lengths to prevent us from discovering just how powerful we are.  It strips women of our inherent power and offers to save us from something we’re strong enough to conquer on our own.  Are there women in the world who want more power?  Start by owning, by acknowledging what’s yours. 

At one point during this most recent labor I remember thinking, “This had better not get any worse or I won’t be able to handle it.”  And then I stopped and asked myself what not being able to handle it meant.  Was I going to die of pain?  Of course not.  How could I not handle it?  It was just happening to me and all I had to do was be still and observe and allow it to happen.  The labor pains were coming from my own body, so therefore the stronger they got, the stronger I was.  How could my body not handle what my body was itself producing?  People compare labor to a marathon and in some ways it’s like that but in others it really isn’t. 

Here’s what unmedicated birth is:  Painful.  Legitimizing.  Glorious.  Womanly.  Strong and tearful and loud and raw.  Goddess-like.  Difficult.  Deep.  Joyful.  Very human, and very, very real.  It is also:  Relatively short (a matter of hours or days is not the same as a broken bone, which takes months to heal).  Inconsistent (brief periods of pain interspersed with periods of rest).  Very hard, but very, very possible (if I can do it, anyone can).  If it weren’t, the human race would not exist.  It is also surprising in its emotional repercussions.  I birthed a child, but I was reborn myself.  It sounds so cliché to say, but I feel like before this birth I saw myself as a girl—now, I see a woman.  It changed me in a powerful way.  I have strength and power and self-confidence like never before.  I really feel like I have joined the ranks of my matriarchs.  I share in their power.  

It’s not so much that the experience that I had, in the moment of birth, was so much more meaningful than my medicated birth. Each time, I brought a new person into the world, and that is something momentous in any situation.  (Although without the epidural I knew I had experienced it fully and accomplished it unaided and that itself was a thrill).  It’s more that I learned something—I proved something to myself, about myself, and now I can’t see myself the same way anymore.  I know how powerful I am.  

I think this quote really sums up my feelings:
I wanted to "make [birth] a far more deep and memorable experience.  Everything is so cheap these days--in-your-face, mass-produced, common, and banal.  Yet within [her] own sphere, each [wo]man has the power to sacralize something--to take it back from being trampled under foot and make it something more meaningful--to turn it into something that will add a richness and texture to [her] life rather than just another run-of-the-mill experience in a tirelessly ordinary and worn out world." (Brett & Kate McKay)
Refusing the epidural helped me sacralize my experience.   
Or, from Emerson, more succinctly:  "Give me truths, for I am weary of the surfaces." 

So, that was my experience.  I don’t believe everyone will feel the same way I do, nor do I think that my choice is the right choice for every woman.  Medicated birth (I’ve done it both ways) is still a beautiful and life-changing experience.  But my goodness do I ever want to share my choice just the same.  Because what I would love to do is supplant the oppressive, demeaning, terrifying messages about childbirth with stories that share the good, the beauty, and the self-discovery that birth can bring.  Stories that celebrate the power of women doing what is and can only be women’s work.  It’s a glorious thing, to be sure, but the glory is buried in a landslide of fear and shame and self-doubt.  I just want women to be able to make an unbiased decision in the face of that landslide.   I was fortunate to have a woman very close to me plant the seed in my mind, and fortunate to know other women with similar feelings that I could learn from.  That’s what I want to do now. 

So, in the words of a friend who inspired me in my choice and preparation for unmedicated birth, let me just tell you:  “Girl, it wasn’t that bad.” 

To my sisters considering natural birth:  go for it.  I mean, if that's what you want.  Or don't.  An epidural is a miraculous pain-reliever.  I just want you to think it through, really put some thought into it, be an active participant.  Somehow, make sure you sacralize the experience.  Wield your agency with confidence--there's more than one way of doing things.  Read and be informed and make your own decisions.  Stop watching birth shows on TV.  (Seriously.  With the possible exception of Call the Midwife, which is fairly non-toxic and sometimes quite uplifting).  Stop listening to women who want to tell you their birth horror-stories.  Try to believe those who tell you how wonderful it will be.  Stop asking yourself ridiculous questions about your pain threshold and your physical strength, and start asking meaningful questions of older or more experienced women you trust.  All of us have imperfect bodies, and some of us have imperfect reproductive systems (my imperfections tend more toward hyperactive allergies and weak lungs and astonishingly bad enamel; we all have our issues).  But except in rare cases, our bodies generally do what they are designed to do.  WE ARE WOMEN.  Let us embrace that fact.  Prepare.  Study.  Practice visualizations, hypnosis, breathing, whatever.  But trust your body.  Decide to have your own experience.  Reach out broad and deep and really feel your life.  You can do this.


  1. Maria this is do beautiful and well written, I love your words. You completely express exactly how I feel about the empowering and cathartic experience that natural childbirth is- don't you really feel like you could do ANYTHING after that?! You are awesome, way to go mama!

  2. You are so hard core. And eloquent and hilarious. I loved this post!

  3. Amen Maria! Had the very same experience, and couldn't have said it any better myself!

  4. Maria you are such a gifted writer. I remember being blown away by your sacrament meeting talk on words that you gave in the Colony - it was very special reading something else that you crafted. Thanks so much for sharing your experience! Your intent with this post was definitely accomplished for me - after reading this I feel more like I COULD do a natural birth if that's what I decided to do in the future. And I definitely want to consider it more seriously. Thank you for painting a positive, hopeful, glorious picture for me to reflect on. And please keep on writing. :) I hope you guys are doing well!