Having a birth plan, particularly a natural one, seems to be a punch line. Only naïve, first time moms would ever pretend to have a document that lays out how you want what is perhaps the single most significant event in two (at least!) people’s lives to go. Having a birth plan is cast as demanding, foolish, and maybe just a little much. Well, I had one, I was passionate about it, I did everything I could for months to increase the odds of things going the way I wanted them, and I got it, in all the ways that mattered. I will happily admit that good health and good fortune were part of the equation, but as Louis Pasteur said, “fortune favors the prepared mind.”
Telling women that no matter what they do, they’re at the mercy of a process – and a system – outside of their control is unhelpful and disempowering. That I should have felt compelled to qualify my desire for an intervention-free birth, or feel like people thought I was foolish for only wanting something done if I agreed that I needed it, isn’t right. Giving birth is powerful. Giving birth without drugs or IV’s or even a hospital gown (that part wasn’t entirely intentional) was empowering in a visceral way I had never imagined. I am woman, hear me roar – or scream, loud enough to wake the neighbors – every two minutes when the contractions hit.
I believe that everyone involved in the day-to-day process of giving birth in America has good intentions. But those good intentions still fall into a pattern that systematically disempowers women, telling us we’re selfish, crazy, or reckless for wanting to take up our female birthright and just have the damn baby. Now, let me be clear, my birth plan involved going to a modern, Western hospital – with my OB - both of which I was grateful to have access to. Granted, I (deliberately) only got to that hospital with less than an hour of labor left. (This was made much more comfortable by the fact that I had a highly experienced doula with me at home from the beginning.) But what it didn’t involve, what I refused to allow, was an idea that there was something wrong with me at the start of the experience.
I am tempted, even here in the middle of my empowerment rant, to put qualifiers in. To make excuses for my good health and tip my hat to the fact that “if you need it” you should do more. And yes, of course, that is true. We shouldn’t martyr ourselves on the altar of a natural ideal that could actually put us or our babies in danger. BUT. But being so quick with those qualifiers negates the power that we have to put ourselves in a strong position. We can exercise and build core strength during the pregnancy, we can work with doulas and midwives to help get and keep the baby in the right position, we can eat right and take our vitamins, we can prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally (or try to): we can take ownership of our pregnancies and our births in a way that the system simply doesn’t encourage or even acknowledge. And if we want to or need to, we can avail ourselves of medication and other intervention during labor, but that too should be a choice, not an expectation.
We’ve come a long way from the days of “twilight”, which was a mix of morphine and scopolamine designed to keep laboring women from being conscious of the birthing event, but the system into which American women birth our babies is still too disempowering. Instead of making fun of women for wanting to have their preferences heard, we should be educating them on what they might be able to realistically expect, what they can do to increase the odds of getting the experience they want, and respecting and empowering them as intelligent, strong, rational beings about to accomplish a major physiological miracle.
I am proud of myself for having my beautiful baby girl the way I had hoped to. But I’m not a superhero and it doesn’t mean that I didn’t question my ability to do so – particularly when I was leaning on my kitchen counter having contractions after my water broke but before we went to the hospital. But both my husband and my doula assured me I could do it, cheered me on as you would a runner on heartbreak hill, and I did do it. What if we were in the habit of telling marathon runners that if they get tired they should just hail a cab instead of encouraging them to finish the race? (Note: if the runner is injured, it’s different, we get them help. Same thing here.)
We don’t need to be afraid for women heading into childbirth any longer – that is it the amazing gift that modern medicine has given us and I gratefully embrace it. But we also don’t need to try to control them, or protect them from themselves or from their baby. We should be educating women about the power and capacity of their own bodies, empowering them to be fully present in their births and to confidently state how they hope it will be. And if that hope involves a birthing ball, snacks, and a few good photos, so be it. I’m not advocating for a “right” way. I am advocating for a woman’s right to express her preference for her own way, and to have that preference taken seriously.