Monday, March 31, 2014

misconceptions: birth and fear

I'm writing some short posts inspired by Naomi Wolf's book "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood".  You can read my first post here.


I deeply appreciated the chapter entitled "Fifth Month: Mortality".  It begins with a Beriba Proverb,

A pregnant women is a dying person… An often-told tale depicts the ancestors in the act of digging the woman's grave throughout the pregnancy.  If she survives the days after the delivery, they begin to shovel the sand back; forty days after the delivery, the grave will finally be closed without her.

The Sudanese mamas would walk five miles each way in hottest sun to learn about their bodies and pregnancy and birth - education could bring life-saving knowledge to the women in their villages; a Nigerian father wails outside the labour room finding out his beloved wife was no longer alive; twin girls in India lost their mother to Eclampsia, she gave them life as she lost her own.  So much of the world knows that surviving your child-bearing years is somewhere between a hope and a miracle.

The statistics are fairly grim for reproducing women in the developing world, which is where 99% of maternal deaths occur.  Lack of resources, lack of education, poverty and powerlessness all put women at risk when pregnancy and birth don't follow the normal rhythms we expect.  People work hard to see these stats change - and they are changing - but having a baby in Australia (where I've given birth) is drastically different from the risks so many women face in other parts of the world - especially in areas of conflict, where women's access to any care available is obstructed by violence.


Deep inside me there has been a very real fear of death in childbirth - that I'll leave my husband and small children to live their lives without me.  That fear has nothing to do with the Australian statistics, the amazing care I'll receive during my pregnancy and the attentiveness and skill of my midwives during birth - not to mention the emergency personnel on hand at all times.   It's almost an instinct, a primal sense of vulnerability.  My son was born with an Apgar score of 2, he was resuscitated then transferred to a larger hospital to be 'cooled'; I hemorrhaged substantially and developed a uterine infection.  It all ended well and we were soon both healthy and bonded and relieved. 

When I faced the impending labour with our second child, I didn't have fears that she would die, my fear was for my own life.  I felt very, very ashamed of that, certain those thoughts were "bad mother" thoughts, as I should have been more concerned for my unborn child.  But that's what was real.

Naomi Wolf writes of her pregnancy,
Suddenly death seemed everywhere.... Why was I so surprised at this new sensitivity to the loss and decay of things?  Many cultures pair birth with death and treat women's fertility as the gateway to both states.  But our culture, by insisting on revealing only the life-affirming aspect of pregnancy and birth, seemed to make the darkness more palpable....From such cues that are so dismissive of one's fear, it seemed that it was acceptable to express fears of one's baby's death but impermissible to talk about or contemplate the not entirely unrealistic fears we had for ourselves.

The risks of death are extremely low for women in Australia throughout their pregnancies, but there is always still a risk.  Are some of us oblivious or free from sensing this?  Or do we all carry it as a secret we dare not speak out to our partners, family members and close friends?   Do we believe that to acknowledge such dark thoughts will increase the chances of the unimaginable happening?  What kind of sub-concious fear do so many of us bring to the birthing room?

I wonder if naming our fears is what sets us free from their power - not that the actual risk is lessened, but our fear of the future can be disarmed.  Before our second birth Chris and I met with someone we trust and respect, who has weathered a decade more time on the earth than we have.  We let our words flow freely, the things we assumed would shock or we believed should be brushed away.  We named our fears one by one, spoke out the moments from our last birth together that haunted us, shared the lies we'd believed about ourselves in those moments, how the world was spinning and where God was in all of it.  I remember crying as it was all welcomed, and I could see it laid bare on the table, the light shining bright, the shadows evaporating. 

I prayed out what I knew to be truer than all my fears, prayed the truth would bury itself in the places that those fears had left vacant.  I went into my daughter's birth with an urgent excitement, surprising joy and deep expectancy.  There was no promise that it would be easy or go as I planned or even some Divine assurance that my child and I would survive.  I wasn't looking for that anyway.  I just didn't want to be afraid.

There was a moment, around six in the morning after labouring all night with my daughter, when I burst into loud sobs as I rocked through another painful contraction.  My midwife ran into the bathroom where my friend and husband were with me.  As tears streamed down my face and I reassured her:  "I just feel so, so happy right now."  

The reality was that my daughter had turned posterior and my labour wasn't progressing as fast as the hospital required without intervention.  But my heart - it felt alive and hope-filled - despite the past, the present, and the future's possibilities.  My heart felt so very free.

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  1. Also, you should submit to sheloves. Send something to me and I'll pass it along. Please?

  2. You are one of the most courageous people that I know. Xx