Christiane Northrup, MD calls Ina May Gaskin's newest book, Birth Matters, "a must-read for anyone and everyone who cares about humanity." In this "manifesta," the mother of modern midwifery explains why birth matters not just to women and babies but our society as a whole. We all need to listen to Ina May. One day this woman will be on a postage stamp. But for now, enjoy this interview:
In Birth Matters you write quite a bit about fear and childbirth. Can you talk about how fear in labor works on a physiological level? Where is this fear coming from?
When we mammals become afraid, the brain causes a dump of adrenaline into our bloodstream that quickens our heart rate, makes us stronger and faster, and hyper-alert. This is called the "fight or flight" reaction. It's not the ideal state for giving birth. In fact, it's the ideal state for stopping labor once it has started. Since our skeletal muscles are in a state of hardness and rigidity when we are full of adrenaline, it should be obvious that it would be possible for a baby to push its way through such rigidity into the outer world. We humans suffer from the fact that we are the only species that has figured out how to scare each other about birth.
Fear of childbirth is a cultural phenomenon that has been pushed to an extreme degree in the US and other countries that have been influenced by our weird birth culture. I'm speaking of the very mainstream view that women's bodies are some kind of accident of nature, that are unable to give birth without technological assistance at each and every birth. Part of what makes our birth culture weird is that it so emphatically tries to convince us that we are different from all other mammals. That's kind of trap, especially when it comes to birth, since according to this superstition, they are built better for birth than we are.
Of course, we're the only species in which the male had any influence on the position taken by the female in labor. The male of other species limits his behavior to providing any protection against predators that might be needed and otherwise, letting the female get into whatever position she wishes to take to facilitate the process of labor and birth.
It's very easy to scare pregnant women. It's also easy to bother women in labor enough to interfere with the comfort and efficiency of the biological process taking place. Sometimes it stops altogether. Keeping high levels of adrenaline the norm in many hospital maternity wards has become the norm. Birth is often portrayed in the same way that emergency room medicine is shown on television dramas. The emphasis is on adrenaline and "what if" scenarios. Rarely do we see any example of birth in a relaxed female, and if we do, she is not likely to be a human.
While adrenaline is the hormone that says "Stop" to labor, oxytocin is the one that says "Go". Oxytocin flows when we aren't afraid. It suppresses adrenaline. We feel oxytocin when we feel nurtured or help someone else feel that way. Oxytocin helps the relevant parts of the woman's body to open enough to allow passage of the baby outwards. Good flow of oxytocin requires protected environments surrounding laboring women. The behavior of all of the other 5,000 species of mammals reflects this need for calm during labor. When we humans finally realize how important it is to create environments which favor the flow of natural oxytocin during pregnancy and labor, we'll all be a lot happier.
When you were invited to speak to students at Yale in the 1970s, your slides of mothers with their newborns were greeted with a "vehement chorus of boos and hisses" from the "young women present." Why were these liberated women so put off by images of birth and motherhood? And are we still dealing with that legacy today?
I think that those women had been reading feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone, whose writings expressed a strong disgust and loathing of the female body. According to this view, pregnancy was a trap for women, and those who fell into this trap were viewed as traitors to the cause of women's liberation. Firestone's strategy for women's liberation depended upon "extrauterine gestation" in test tubes (she was confident that men could soon create artificial placentas). Most feminist writers of the 70s, 80s and even 90s stayed far away from the subjects of childbirth and lactation. Mary O'Brien is an important exception (except she is less well known than she ought to be). She wrote, "It is from an adequate understanding of the process of reproduction, nature's traditional and bitter trap for the suppression of women, that women can begin to understand their possibilities and their freedom." (O'Brien, Mary. 1983. The Politics of Reproduction. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul). Whatever they were reading, the dominant view about pregnancy was that it represented a loss of control over their bodies.
MORE ON BABBLE:
4 side effects of pregnancy we were NOT expecting
63-year-old gives birth - how old is TOO old to have kids?
"Birth tourism" rises in the U.S. - should we be concerned?
What does a contraction *really* feel like?
Could too much pregnancy weight gain lead to future health risks?