February 16, 2005    Education

“Natural” Childbirth

Birth Story

Five days ago, a baby girl came into my life through the process that now seems like a surreal dream. One learns extraordinary things through extraordinary experiences, and I certainly learned something extraordinary from it. Before the details of my memory fade out, I want to write them down.

For a few months before the birthday, my wife and I took a class on natural childbirth called “The Bradley Method”. My wife felt strongly about it, so I wanted to be supportive, even though I wasn’t even aware of what constituted natural or artificial in birth. In the class, Ina May Gaskin’s name came up often, as well as terms like “Active Birth”, “Midwife”, “Doula”, etc.. I read half of Gaskin’s book, “Guide to Childbirth,” and had to put it down. I felt like I was being feminized by reading it. It is important for women to set aside their feminism, and allow themselves to be feminine during childbirth, but this does not mean that men should do the same. Masculinity is just as important for childbirth, and there is no reason why men should act like women in the process of childbirth. No offense to Gaskin, but I do not think she understands masculinity. She seems to be surrounded by men who would rather abandon their masculine roles and behave like women; ones who become envious of mothers for being able to breastfeed their child. This is when my skepticism for the class started. I realized that, against my own natural instinct, I was being trained to think and act like a woman. Yes, this is a male-dominant world, and it is politically incorrect to speak for masculinity, but going in the opposite extreme is just as harmful. This is a characteristic trait of the Western society; everything has to be presented with one extreme view or another.

During and after the birth of our child, from all directions, we were presented with various contradicting opinions. One person would tell us that you can’t breastfeed a child for more than 10 minutes, while another would tell us that you have to let the child have as much as she wants. One doctor would tell us that a fever in a newborn is extremely dangerous, and another doctor would tell us that it is quite normal. Varying opinions and contradictions do not bother me, but it is annoying to hear people present their opinions as if they are the absolute truths. And, for some reason, in the medical and childbirth industry, it is rare to see people who present their opinions as opinions. Everyone seems to have a political agenda, and even someone who has none gets caught in the crossfire. Even worse; you are pressured to take sides. You are either for natural birth with nothing artificial or for medical birth with painkillers all the way. It is like George W. Bush’s ideology; you are either with us or against us.

The class textbook, “Active Birth” by Janet Balaskas, gave us the impression that one slip away from her ideology would lead to the collapse of the whole. For instance, if you take Pitocin to accelerate the labor, Epidural will most likely follow because you won’t be able to cope with the pain of accelerated labor. Once the Epidural kicks in, you won’t be able to move much, and it will stagnate the labor, which will eventually lead to Cesarean section. This image of one intervention triggering a chain of interventions was painted vividly in my head, and I wasn’t even an apt pupil.

At our childbirth, not surprisingly, the word “Pitocin” was uttered by our midwife after my wife had been in labor for 16 hours. My wife was clearly fearful of it, and she put up a good fight with the midwife. The latter was aware of the fact that my wife had taken a class in the Bradley Method, so she was expecting a tough fight. Eventually she did manage to convince her to take it. In retrospect, I don’t think the logical reasoning behind her argument had anything to do with the truth. She knew from her own experience that my wife needed to be convinced, or she would suffer an unnecessarily long, painful labor. The fact that my wife was a Bradley convert created a difficult situation for her.

About five hours later, seeing how exhausted my wife was, the word “Epidural” was uttered by one of the nurses. It scared not only my wife but also myself, because what we learned in the class was slowly but surely becoming a reality. At this point, I was thinking to myself, “C-section”. Because my wife so dreaded having a C-section, I really didn’t want it to happen. My wife started crying. I was on the verge of it too from seeing her cry. Eventually she gave in, and accepted her loss in her battle to win the experience of natural birth.

Once Epidural was administered, we quickly learned that it was not the evil our class made us believe. My wife was still in full control of pushing, and we discovered that we had the option of turning it off. It wasn’t like once you took it, there was no going back. Epidural was administered gradually through a catheter, and if you turn it off, you would go back to being fully “natural”. It took away the pain of uterus contracting, but not the pain of pushing. Uterus does what it does independent of your will. It does not need your conscious participation. Pushing, however, requires it. It is thus imperative that you are fully conscious and have enough energy to push when the time comes. Since my wife had been in labor for so long, we were running the risk of her being too exhausted to push. In the end, we felt thankful of the nurse who played the role of the devil by uttering the word “Epidural”. My wife delivered a healthy baby girl after 30 hours of labor.

Ideals and Contradictions

Once you construct an ideal in your mind, the whole world becomes divisive. Something that contradicts your ideal is a “problem” (Epidural). Someone who contradicts your ideal is your enemy (the medical establishment). When our nurse suggested Epidural, I confirmed in my mind, “Wow, my teacher is right. These enemies exist everywhere in hospitals.” You project a system of ideal onto the world, and seek confirmations to validate it. Thus, what you believe to be true becomes truer by a process of self-fulfilling prophesy. But life will not let you be deluded forever. It will persistently present you with situations that challenge your ideals, and your life will be full of compromises. You create compromises by creating ideals. It is the possibility of compromises that makes ideals possible. Where there are no ideals, there are no compromises. A mind habitually constructs idealized world, which leads to unnecessary fear, guilt, and anger.

An ideal can anchor, stabilize, and secure an otherwise chaotic life. The fear of chaos drives a mind to construct an idealized world. A mind is unable to float comfortably in a constant flux. It is unable to let things happen. It tries to stay in control, and with that effort, it further muddies the water under which there is the truth it wants to see.

The greatest lesson of childbirth may be that we learn to let it go, yet unfortunately we further try to control the very process of letting it go, for instance, by taking a class for it. A mind never ceases to control; not even the idea of not controlling. It detaches from one ideal by the means of attaching to yet another. A natural birth becomes an idea of “natural” controlled by our minds.

Identity and Contradictions

What makes me who I am to those who perceive me is a set of particular contradictions I expose intentionally or otherwise, not by a set of ideals. An ideal is a product of logic, independent of who I am. An ideal is consistent, logical, and immortal, and therefore capable of anchoring, securing, and stabilizing. That is why our minds are attracted to it. That is why we wish we could be defined by our ideals, so we can live forever. But we are not immortal. To live according to ideals is fundamentally dehumanizing and alienating. To be human, we must learn to embrace contradictions. This is not to say that we all ought to be hypocrites. To embrace contradictions means to consciously acknowledge one’s own contradictions.

For instance, I am superficial when it comes to brand name products. Quite often, I am willing to pay more for brand names, even if I know that there is no qualitative difference. If I see a SONY product and a no-name product side by side, I let myself enjoy the feeling of owning a SONY product. I know it is superficial. I do not make conscious effort to be more superficial, but at the same time, I do not make any effort to dispel my superficial nature either. I am what I am. I just let my superficial self be. If it goes away, that is fine, if not, that is fine too. As we were growing up, we all liked superficial things. We weren’t born reading Shakespeare. If it’s OK for kids to like Pokemon, it’s OK for me to like SONY too. Taking away Pokemon from kids and shoving a copy of Shakespeare isn’t going to make them any less superficial. In fact, it is your superficiality that makes you want to do such a thing to your kids.

Natural Experience

If you are not ready for something, you are not ready. You cannot rush to learn something substantial. You have to teach yourself and others the right things at the right time. The natural birth class I took might be great for advanced mothers who want to perfect their knowledge and skills of natural birth, but it can be crippling for first time parents. It is analogous to a beginner learning how to dance from a series of books without actually dancing; the theoretical knowledge of dancing will hinder his natural compulsion to move to music. In order for me to see childbirth for what it is, I needed to dispel all the preconceptions I had of it. In other words, there is such a thing as a natural way of learning something.

When you talk about a movie to someone who hasn’t seen it, you must be careful not to color your description of it with your own interpretations. You need to be journalistic and unbiased, otherwise you will taint his own experience of it with yours. Likewise, a birth class should be journalistic and unbiased, otherwise what could be truly natural would be artificially tainted by someone else’s ideals. Even if your childbirth is technically “natural”, without drugs or operations, your experience of it would be artificial, because you are experiencing it through someone else’s perspective. What is more important than being technically “natural” is for your experience of it to be natural. In this sense, you would probably learn something more substantial from naturally experiencing a C-section than from artificially experiencing a natural birth.

Through witnessing 30 hours of painful, unnatural labor, life literally forced me to see these artificial forces at work. Life is contradictory. No matter how forcefully and relentlessly you try to inject ideals into life, it deflects them. I am grateful to my wife for letting me see it.