Giving Birth: Three Ways
My mom is here for a visit and I’ve been trying to collect family stories. I do this every time I see her. Our people are very spread out all across North America and those family stories, the ones my son will one day ask me about, are at risk of disappearing if don’t make an effort to hold on to them.
When I was pregnant I asked my mother to tell me the story of my birth. I wanted to hear it because I thought it might give me confidence but also because I was looking for clues as to how my own birth experience might go.
That got us to talking about how she was born. What that experience had been like for my grandmother, a modern American gal living in Washington D.C. in the flushed first months after the end of the Second World War. My grandmother was married to a Naval Officer so she had access to a modern hospital in a major city. Her labour started normally until contractions hit the point of no return. Like all urban women in the United States in 1945, the moment her contractions began in earnest she was given a cocktail of drugs meant to wipe her memory of the process. This doping of women in childbirth began in the early part of the 20th century and led to a total disconnect from the experience. Many different drugs came in and out of vogue for labouring women but the end result was always the same, and remained so for my grandmother. With all of her previous children she had been knocked out flat and had come to with a baby in her arms.
By the time she was pregnant with her fourth child she begged her doctor to let her be conscious during the process. In the end her doctor refused, a needle was put in her arm and she never knew what it was like to give birth to her own children.
When my mother was pregnant with me in the 1970s the ‘twilight sleep’ drugs had virtually disappeared from most hospitals. Instead, ‘laughing gas’ was popular.
It didn’t take away a woman’s awareness of her circumstances nor did it put anyone to sleep, but it did take the edge off the pain — enough so that women could have a safe, healthy and bearable vaginal birth. It’s interesting to note that there has been a resurgence of the use of nitrous oxide during labour over the past few years in the United States and Canada. Women in the U.K. have been enjoying its non-invasive effects for years.
I wish I had thought to ask about it when I was in labour but my circumstances were more complicated than they had been for my mother.
When I gave birth to my son in 2010, on the eve the election of Rob Ford as mayor, I had a midwife; the plan was a midwife-assisted hospital birth. If my water had not broken and we hadn’t discovered meconium in in it I might never have seen a doctor. But because the baby was potentially distressed all parties agreed that I should be induced.
I still wanted to have as close to a natural birth as possible, something I recognized was no longer in the cards once I was hooked up to a Pitocin drip and a fetal heart monitor. My plan for taking baths, and stretching and moving to cope with pain went out the window. I quickly agreed to an epidural and then I was really done for. Stuck in a bed, free of pain but finding that my thoughts were wild with fear about what might be going on with my baby. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t feel my contractions at all.
As my body prepared to give birth I had to be told by the nurse that it would soon be time to push. Luckily the hospital staff were excellent and worked with my midwife, instead of against her. Amazingly, they turned down my epidural so that I could feel what was happening to my body and I managed a vaginal birth with the help of forceps on the final push (a detail I often leave out when I tell the story, probably I didn’t really have a say in it and wish it hadn’t happened).
Three generations of mothers and not one of us got to have a ‘natural’ childbirth. It makes me a little bit sad.