Trigger warning: This article addresses birth and birth trauma and includes related images.
by Alix Bemrose
1. Real Birth
Jill, a yoga teacher from Texas, labored for 36 hours before her baby got stuck and had to be delivered by cesarean. “It was the only way he was coming out,” she tells me. She had hoped to have an intervention-free birth, and afterwards found herself grappling with a complex mix of emotion. “Of course I was grateful that my baby and I were both ok,” she says. “My labor and his birth were quite an ordeal. But I did have some feelings of disappointment. I was fit, healthy, I did everything I could to prepare!”
Years later, a colleague suggested that had Jill “stuck it out” she could have had a vaginal birth. And another teacher told her that “women who have cesareans aren’t able to deliver vaginally because they aren’t ready to be mothers.” Jill describes how these intrusions made her feel “stunned.”
“What they said had me reconsidering, rethinking at some level, something I thought I had processed and settled in my mind. It was only after really remembering how my particular birth experience played out did I see how they didn’t really have any authority, at all, to tell me how it could have or should have gone.”
As Jill talks, her eyes widen. Though ten years have passed since these encounters, the shock of them is still very much alive.
Such comments about birth are not uncommon in yoga culture. While plenty of people tell happy stories about the pre and postnatal support they received from their yoga communities, many others harbor memories of feeling let down and judged by fellow practitioners — especially in the aftermath of births involving intervention. Inger (a pseudonym), a yoga teacher based in a Scandinavian city, was alarmed by the “pitying, rude, condescending and nosy comments” she received after her cesarean birth. “The most bizarre aspect of my experience,” she wrote in a Facebook thread, “is that the friends I have outside the ‘yoga world’ are much more accepting and respectful.” Instead, it was other yoga practitioners who implied that her birth experience was lacking. Some wondered whether she could still teach prenatal yoga. One colleague asked if Inger felt like a “real mother” even though she hadn’t had a “real birth.”
This last remark exposes a prevalent split in yoga culture’s current birthing discourse. The “real” birth is vaginal, and intervention-free. It’s a “natural” birth, fueled by inner strength and intuition. In contrast, the “unnatural” birth employs man-made strategies like epidurals and cesareans which (so the story goes) rob us of our power, relegating us to the role of passive bystander. On one side is the birth that transforms, and on the other side is the birth we sleepwalk through, oppressed and unchanged. As a contributor in Yoga Sadhana for Mothers writes, “These days many women are scared to go through [natural birth] and program a C-section without giving themselves the opportunity to grow.”
Such attitudes find their roots in a troubling history. In the 1700s, midwives began to be pushed out of business by medical men who sought to standardize and technologize birth. The medicalization of birth eventually improved maternal and infant mortality rates — particularly for middle and upper class white women — but there was a sense that these improvements had come at a cost. By the 1950s and 60s, many women were feeling alienated from their birthing instincts by the indiscriminate use of heavy anesthesia and unnecessary surgical intervention, and it was out of this sense of alienation that the natural childbirth movement gained momentum.
For those who have been steeped in the empowerment narratives of the natural birth movement, the urge towards “natural” birthing may be rooted in more than a personal desire for a particular somatic experience. It may equally be about participating (consciously or not) in a politicized process that seeks to take birthing back from standardized medicine. Viewed this way, the split between “natural” and “unnatural” becomes even more charged, seeming to express a divide between “feminist” and “patriarchal.” For how has the intervention been made into a symbol of oppression? How does a cesarean birth, or a birth with epidural, make some of us feel as if we’re failing to free ourselves from a paternalistic system? Is this the politicized essence of the “real” birth? Is it what we imagine will take us beyond bondage?
Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born that “no more devastating image could be invented for the bondage of woman” than the birthing woman “sheeted, supine, drugged, her wrists strapped down and her legs in stirrups, at the very moment when she is bringing new life into the world.” It’s a searing image. There is truth in it, too: some of us have been traumatized by a medical system that sometimes puts its own anxieties before the idiosyncratic rhythms of labour. However, Rich’s evocation of a generalized female body replicates the very problem she critiques. As Glosswitch writes in her article “Birth Wars: The Politics of Childbirth”: “Female bodies aren’t real bodies, not even to feminists. They’re the grounds upon which we test out our theories of power. They’re the paper upon which we write our stories. The laboring body — ultimately female, ultimately other — can be used to prove whichever point you want it to.”
So it is with Rich’s nameless woman, who has no voice, no history, and no social context. She is a faceless object pinned down not only by a cool medical gaze, but by the point of Rich’s argument, too.
I have been that woman, pinned down. Twice.
My first cesarean birth was traumatic: I felt myself caught, specimen-like, under the fluorescent eye of the operating room. My flesh was stunned by death’s nearness. But I recognize now that the physiological trauma was amplified by the narratives which preceded it. Long before giving birth I had internalized Rich’s faceless woman; I had come to believe that interventions were automatic signifiers of subjugation. In other words, once my birth began to look a certain way, my disempowerment became a foregone conclusion. As I began to resemble Rich’s woman, I simply assumed I had become her.
The second birth was a planned C-section. I had weighed my options and I had chosen to be there. That second cesarean counts among the most empowered experiences of my life. From the outside, it may still have looked like subjugation: on the inside it felt like anything but. Later, when I told people that I had had a healing cesarean birth they politely tried to hide their confusion. “Really?” they said. And I knew they were thinking of Rich’s woman, too.
When we consider births in terms of categories, we are privileging abstractions, not real people. On the one side are singular figures, radiant in birthing tubs, and on the other side legions of faceless victims immobilized in hospital beds. But such symbolism erases the specificity of each birth, and of each birthing person.
Ironically, the natural birth movement has replicated a number of the problems that it purports to push back against. According to Sasha Padron, an Ontario-based pre and postnatal yoga educator and doula who has supported women in birth for over twenty years, in many ways we’ve continued to apply goal-oriented attitudes to how we “should” give birth. So while the natural birth movement has “freed” (primarily white and middle class) women from a highly problematic context, Padron describes how it simultaneously “placed them in another confined space, with a very linear way of approaching birth and approaching what women need and want in birth. And we’re discovering how we actually get left in a fairly similar place, where we’re alone and isolated and confused about what happened, and why it happened.”
The natural birth movement has also sought to increase choices in childbirth only to link that sense of “choice” to a birth that looks a certain way. As Jennie Bristow writes in “The Politics of Childbirth”: “[…] choice in childbirth tends to be assumed to run in one direction alone — that is, the choice to have less medical intervention, rather than more.” And there’s a tendency to assume that births in hospital are always over-managed by fear-mongering doctors. Again, this is sometimes true. But according to a 2013 US national survey of women’s childbearing experiences, “Mothers generally rated the quality of the United States maternity care system very positively.” 83 percent of respondents were happy with their care, with 47 percent saying it was “good”, and 36 percent saying it was “excellent.” Such statistics suggest that while there is always work to do in terms of improving medical maternity care, many women are already framing their hospital births in positive terms.
The over-simplified split between categories of birth has made it hard to talk about experiences that don’t fit the mold: joyful births with epidural, or empowered cesareans, or traumatic home-births. Lila (a pseudonym), an Ashtanga yoga practitioner based in Finland, decided to ask for an epidural. This was despite having a fellow yogi tell her point-blank: “You don’t need the pain medication.” But Lila knew her history with anxiety in medical settings and she intuited that pain relief would help her manage that anxiety. “Overall, my birth experience in a hospital with pain relief was an incredibly positive one,” she tells me, “which is not a story I see portrayed in the yoga community very often.”
And then there is Gavriella’s story, as told in Amy Tuteur’s book Push Back. Struggling with postpartum depression (PPD) after a traumatic, intervention-free birth Gavriella called a PPD hotline. She recalls how the midwife who answered “seemed genuinely confused as to how I could have gotten PPD when I had a natural birth, because it goes so against the narrative. She also didn’t get why I was so upset about my birth experience. […] Interventions are the traumatizing stuff, not unmedicated birth!”
Pre-existing ideas about birth are literally obstructing our capacity to listen to each other. I do believe there is another way. But it will mean noticing what automatic associations arise when we hear the word “natural” or “epidural” or “cesarean.” It will mean recognizing how an experience changes when we name it. It will mean understanding that “women” do not make up a single, uniform class with universal needs. And it will mean examining the ways in which an outcome-based, categorical approach to birthing has shaped our assumptions and our stories, hurting many of us along the way.
2. You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman
Many of us seem to assume that the way we birth says something decisive about who we are. In modern yoga culture, where what a person’s body can do is regularly confused with who we imagine that person to be, this sense of correlation may be especially hard to shake. As Kundalini teacher Gurmukh writes in her book Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful: “As a woman lives, so shall she birth.”
In a 2012 interview with New York Times Magazine, pioneering midwife Ina May Gaskin was asked about epidural rates at the Farm (the rural Tennessee commune and birthing centre started in the 1970s by Gaskin and her husband). Gaskin, whose books are featured regularly on the reading lists for prenatal yoga teacher trainings, answered that among the 3000 women who have birthed at the Farm, only one has ever transferred to hospital for an epidural. And the reason for this was clear to Gaskin: that woman was a “princess.” That word, which evokes a lesser, weaker, more childish woman, is a bullying jab in the midst of a subculture that prides itself on its feminism. It’s clear that what’s being privileged is not the power to choose, but Gaskin’s own agenda.
Many of the yoga and birthing resources I’ve come across communicate similar attitudes. The dominant message is that there is a right path to choose through birth. In The Yoga Birth Method, Dorothy Guerra doesn’t use the word “princess”, but she might as well. She urges against becoming “high maintenance” in labor: “When you become high maintenance, you exhaust everyone around you in a negative way. This is considered stealing energy from others. You have to trust your ability to cope. Your support team is there to help you manage pain and create comfort for you. Embrace what they have to offer without being selfish.”
Of course, in this instance, trusting “your ability to cope” means sticking to a natural birth plan. Guerra describes a laboring woman who begins to consider pain medication. But “by choosing truthfulness as their birth intention, her partner is able to remind her that discouraging words are not part of their plan and encourage her to speak in positive words.”
This is a glaring example. But even in more moderate resources, personal identity and birth experience subtly intertwine to communicate a clear preference for “natural” birth. In fact, the premise that natural birth is best seems to be such an accepted norm that there tends to be little, if any, critique of the idea. For instance, Yoga Mama, by veteran yoga teacher Linda Sparrowe, offers many good practices and suggestions for healthy pregnancy and birth. But even so, you can feel Sparrowe shake her head as she describes a group of women touring a local birth centre. Again, there’s an echo of Gaskin’s “princess” comment: “All they wanted to know was whether they could still get pain meds if they chose the birthing center and how quickly they could get them. A couple of women even wondered if they should simply schedule a cesarean birth so they wouldn’t feel a thing.”
“Sadly,” she goes on, “these women aren’t an anomaly.”
In yoga culture, we have so internalized this presumed link between identity and outcome that many of us are left to assume a birth with intervention means something shameful about who we are. “The biggest thing about my C-section was feeling like a failure,” writes Lindsay, a yoga teacher in Hamilton, Ontario.
And Maria, a yoga practitioner in Russia and an editor at the Russian Yoga Journal, tells me that in her community “having a C-section was seen as a sign of failure as a woman and a mother, and actually that’s what I felt. Apart from the pain, grief and guilt, I felt almost shame for messing up a home birth.”
3. “Natural” Privilege
Approaching birth as a means of self-development and self-expression — and expecting that everybody else should be able to too — requires tremendous privilege. As Meghan Murphy writes in her article “Choice Feminism”: “More privileged women always [have] greater access to reproductive choices compared to more marginalized women.”
When it comes to birth, the majority of the world’s women have had — and some continue to have — no illusion of choice: you either get the baby out through your vagina without pain meds or other interventions or you and/or your baby will likely die. In countries where modern obstetrics aren’t readily available, there’s a 1 in 15 chance that a woman will die giving birth during her lifetime, and about 7 percent of babies die at birth. Thus the fetishization of birth as a critical stage in self-evolution rests on the privileged assumption that we, and our babies, will survive the experience. As Alison Phipps writes in The Politics of the Body: “In rejecting a medicalized birth, middle-class activists confirm their elevated social position since only women who know they are able to give birth safely are able to reject the trappings of technology.”
Political scientist Candace Johnson goes further, describing how middle-class women appropriate the aesthetics of birthing in poverty, while assuming none of its risk: “The fantasy of Third World women’s natural experiences of childbirth has become iconic among first world women, even if these experiences are more imagined than real. This created multiple opportunities for exploitation, as the experiences of Third World women are used as a means for first world women to acquire knowledge, experience and perspective on ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ birthing practices, while denying the importance of medical services that privileged women take for granted.”
The pressure to give birth “naturally” as an act of empowered identity expression is particularly prevalent among white, middle-class women. This privileged demographic has the most faith in its birthing safety, because it is this demographic that can best expect to receive good, timely medical attention should it be required during labor and to more generally feel supported by the dominant social structures. But within a structurally racist, classist, heteoronormative and ableist system, do people of color, LGBTQ people, or people with disabilities share equally in this faith? Is the glorification of ‘natural’ birth in fact a middle-class, white feminist luxury?
As Dianne Bondy, a woman of color and yoga accessibility activist, tells me: “[Birth] is not a singular experience for people, and [the current] view of it is really narrow. Where can you start to look at your privilege, your filter, your lack of diversity?”
It can be a life and death matter. In her article “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be,” Dani McClain writes: “Black women [in the US] are almost four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than our white counterparts, and black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday.”
Dr. Joia Crear Perry adds depth to this statistic in her article “The Black Maternal Mortality Rate in the US is an International Crisis”: “Black women cannot buy or educate their way out of dying at three to four times the rate of white mothers. Maternal mortality rates persist regardless of our class or education status. Deaths among mothers extend beyond the period of pregnancy or birth. Nine months of prenatal care cannot counter underlying social determinants of health inequities in housing, political participation, education, food, environmental conditions and economic security—all of which have racism as their root cause.”
McClain puts it succinctly: “Research suggests that it’s the stress caused by racial discrimination experienced over a lifetime that leads to black American women’s troubling birth outcomes.”
In other words, the embodied and systemic impact of racism substantially affects pregnancy, birth and postnatal care. But these structural realities are never addressed in prenatal yoga resources or by mainstream natural birthing narratives. And this failure of acknowledgement implies that these resources are really just for white women. In their ignorance of structural inequality, white people are free to reframe privilege as superior moral choice.
McClain points out some of the ways in which birth prep courses often present the middle-class, white experience as the norm. In her white-dominated hypnobirthing class, McClain recounts how, “we were told that the number one reason for pre-term birth is dehydration.” But, she continues, “Thirteen percent of black women deliver babies before they’re full-term—and that’s simply because we’re thirsty?”
And on April 22 2017, at a seminar hosted by the Texas Birth Network, Ina May Gaskin was asked about the impact of systemic racism on the US’s maternal and infant mortality rates. Gaskin answered by suggesting that Black women’s drug use was a primary reason for their higher mortality rates. “Drug overdoses, cause number three—that’s a biggie,” Gaskin said. “And I presume these are illegal drugs. Not prescription drugs, but those are also going to be a problem.” She also suggested, absurdly, that Black women might also look to prayer and home-grown food to remedy higher mortality rates.
Ambreia Meadows-Fernandez sums up the racism of Gaskin’s response like this: “In that moment, Gaskin did two things: She denied the reality that Black mothers are disproportionately affected by poverty, crime, and other causes of stress that undermine infant and maternal health; and she bypassed the fact that not only are Black birth workers competently serving our communities now, but they were also historically responsible for serving Black and White families in the South, delivering and raising White babies as their midwives and caretakers.”
Gaskin also failed to say “I don’t know.” A transcript of her meandering response makes it clear that she’s grasping at straws. But accustomed as she is to her position as lauded teacher, she went ahead and played expert anyway. It’s a mistake that many of us might learn from. Too often we pretend certainty in the face of others’ birth stories, as if we think we know what “women” as a singular class should want and need. But those of us who occupy the privileged position granted to us by middle-class whiteness can get better at making space to witness and learn from experiences that are different from our own.
We can get better at saying “I don’t know.”
4. Eve’s Sin
While the natural birth movement frames itself in terms of woman-centered empowerment narratives, natural birthing as an ideology finds one of its primary sources in the post-war work of Grantly Dick-Read, a white doctor with anti-feminist and racist views. He wrote that “woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfill her biological purposes.” In “The Misogyny at the Heart of Natural Childbirth” the bloggers at We Are Skeptixx describe how one of Dick-Read’s primary goals was to “convince middle and upper class white women to have more children and abandon their demands for political, economic, and educational equality.” And Amy Tuteur writes in Push Back about how Dick-Read, fearing a decrease in the white birthrate, believed that “women must be socialized to return to the home […] or the white race risked ‘race suicide’.”
In an unpublished manuscript, “Account of visit to USA 1958,” Dick-Read claimed that when “tribal women” died in childbirth it was “without any sadness…realizing if they were not competent to produce children for the spirits of their fathers and for the tribe, they had no place in the tribe.” And he suggested that “primitive women” did not experience pain in childbirth. If white, middle-class women experienced pain it was only because they had committed the sin of becoming “overcivilized”, by pursuing higher education, or working outside the home, or becoming politically active.
But despite these views, Dick-Read’s work continues to be celebrated today. In her 2013 Ted Talk, Ina May Gaskin makes it clear that Dick-Read’s book Childbirth Without Fear was a central resource for her. And in Midwifery Today the book is touted as being “as timely and important as it was forty-five years ago.”
Another key figure in the ideological push towards natural childbirth was French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze. In the 1970s he introduced techniques designed to manage labor pain through psychological conditioning and breath work. These techniques were popular in the 1970s and 80s, and would likely have been well-known to many of the mothers of middle class white women giving birth today. But Lamaze was anti-feminist, too. Tuteur describes how he ranked women’s “performance in childbirth from ‘excellent’ to ‘complete failure’ on the basis of their ‘restlessness and screams’.” He believed that those who “failed” did so because they were under-prepared, or doubtful about their own capacities. According to Lamaze, the more intellectual a woman was the more likely she was to “fail” due to her tendency to ask a lot of questions.
These underlying politics complicate ideas about birth. As it occurs in the context of individual lives, intervention-free birthing may absolutely be an empowering experience for some women. But “natural” birth as a fetishized experience is not inherently more feminist, more empowered, or more progressive than any other kind of birth.
5. Towards a New Paradigm
We are in need of a new birthing paradigm. The current model, though it may work for those whose narratives it serves, is leaving too many people, and experiences, out. And it’s contributing to too much isolation and shame in the aftermath of difficult experiences. As Tiffany Rose, a yoga teacher and trauma sensitivity educator, as well as a former doula and childbirth educator, tells me, “the expectations around having to have a natural birth can cause trauma for women when they can’t do it.”
At the heart of the existing paradigm is the assumption that there’s a “right” kind of birth to have. In yoga culture, books, classes and other birthing resources are often sold on the basis that they will help us “achieve” this correct birth. In The Yoga Birth Method, for example, Dorothy Guerra writes that her method “will make your birth a positive and natural experience.”
Impossible-to-keep promises like this have turned “natural” birth into something we imagine we can control, and even purchase. We are told that with the right preparations, mind-set, techniques and accoutrements we can choose and actualize the optimal experience. More subtly (and seductively) we are also often being sold the transformed future self, which is the supposed by-product of giving birth “as nature intended.” In yoga culture, especially, where a tendency to spiritualize pain often coalesces with the belief that certain kinds of extreme somatic experiences will bring us closer to transcendence, the idea of “natural” birth is equated with the cultivation of a new and better self. As Guerra suggests, “divine empowerment” in birth is only to be accessed by those who do it “naturally”: “By choosing a natural birth and allowing divine energy to guide you there, you surrender to the power of your soul to birth with faith and trust.”
She goes on: “By committing to an enlightened birth experience you embody a strength that encourages you through the natural process. You accomplish enlightenment when your child is born.”
In other places, the new and better self is described in less spiritual (but no less appealing) terms. In one of the online natural birth prep courses that I audited, the facilitator (who is a naturopathic doctor and a yoga teacher) suggested that “natural” birth is like “super glue” for your relationship. The choice to birth without intervention benefits your partner too because “he’s engaged and it makes him feel important. […] It improves his experience of the day as well.”
The facilitator continued, alluding to the more loveable self that will apparently emerge through “natural” birth: “The other beauty about your partner being involved in your natural birth and benefitting from your natural birth is that he can now see how deep you are, how deep you go, how much strength you have, how much grit you have, how hard you’re able to work.”
“It does really prove to him how amazing you are.”
Such sexist (and heteronormative) generalizations have much more to do with selling attractive hopes than with actually supporting individuals in birth. This is perhaps the most troubling part of the current paradigm: it pretends to serve people while actually serving an ideology, turning well-intentioned service providers into mouthpieces for an unconscious anti-feminism. And these ideological pressures can make it hard to cultivate genuine support. Many of my interview subjects describe the ways in which they have felt silenced and shamed by colleagues and community members who subscribe to the idea that “natural” birth is a better kind of birth.
Megan (a pseudonym), a prenatal yoga teacher in a Canadian city, says that “there’s a lot of pressure on giving birth naturally when you’re a spokesperson in the wellness and yoga industry.” She admits to me via Skype that in part due to this pressure she experienced so much shame after her two cesareans that she has sometimes chosen to re-write her story, telling others that she’s had one cesarean and one intervention-free birth: “I felt so ashamed about speaking my truth to women who I knew had just squatted down with their mothers and their sisters all around them, that I made the choice to lie about it.”
Lila says she avoids mentioning her epidural because she knows that her fellow yoga practitioners “see it as ‘unnatural’ and view bearing the pain as a kind of strength.”
And Gabriela wrote to me from Mexico to describe how she is dismayed by the way people in her yoga community automatically psychologize her cesarean birth experience, rather than simply listening to her tell her story. “You will need to do a lot of therapy work with your child since he is a C-section kid,” one colleague told her.
Sara, a yogi in New York City, articulates the biases that she herself felt during her own pregnancy. When a pregnant neighbor expressed the desire to labor with “as many drugs as possible,” Sara recalls her reaction: “I remember thinking, wait, she’s not even going to try to see how it feels? No trial of labor? She’s just going to capitulate to the industry? She’s going to be a pre-subscribed sucker to the belief that women can’t do this without disempowering drugs? So I judged the shit out of her, like it was a sport. She was completely confident in her decision.”
Since then, Sara’s views have changed significantly. “I always knew intellectually, but perhaps not actually, that I had no right to be the arbiter of anyone else’s relationship to pain,” she tells me. “I had hoped I would make it through my birth without drugs or interventions– but left a bookmark for emergencies. And that was exactly what I got. I remember when I was rolled at top speed down to the OR for an emergency C-section. All decisions I had made about the birth became irrelevant. The most powerful moment was when I shouted at the top of my lungs, even though no one was asking, “I give my consent!” I realized that all we have, no matter how we exercise it, is our agency and trust. And this changed how I saw everything.”
The experience also changed how Sara thinks about that word “natural,” which for many of us has become the conceptual source of our preferences and judgments and self-blame. “What exactly are we calling ‘natural’?” she asks. “Is it natural to die in labor, also? Is it natural to panic, to fear death, or to be unable to cope with the pain? Is it natural to want whatever resources are at your disposal to manage the pain enough that you can stay present with your experience?”
When we judge each other’s attitudes about and decisions in birth, we are saying: we should all be the same, and we should all want the same things, and we should all be able to cultivate the same kinds of experiences. We are saying, I know what you need better than you do. In place of the never-completely-known person, we erect an essentialized image of female biology as the primary source of meaning and power in birth.
But we are not all the same. We are not only people with babies inside us; we are also socially constructed beings, with differing histories, attitudes, social contexts, desires, and needs. We each have our own relationships to pain, to our bodies, to gender, to the structural realities of privilege and racism, to the medical system, to the idea of asking for and receiving help, to fear, to trauma, to authority, to safety, to family. Not only that, but our babies are of different sizes and in different positions, our pelvic floors are differently toned, our pelvises are differently shaped, and we are differently healthy and differently abled.
As Gloswitch writes in “Birth Wars: The Politics of Childbirth”: “We have people who will never know what it is like to live in our skin telling us just how much pain our nerves can stand, how much that skin can stretch, how much a woman should bear for the sake of the greater good. It is pure misogyny.”
Because we don’t know how birth is going to go, or how it’s going to feel, for the person who is giving birth. And when we wholeheartedly embrace the reality of that uncertainty we begin to honor the actual person who is giving birth and not a symbolic “individual” onto whom we can project our hopes and beliefs about what is best. Such a shift involves a change in focus from the isolated, neoliberal “individual” of consumerism (who is accustomed to being told how to shape identity through purchasing power) to the relational individual who is always uniquely embedded in the world with others. Such embeddedness generates a sense of a subjective self who does not and cannot conform to pre-formed meanings.
Tynan Rhea, a doula and sex educator in Toronto, frames it this way: “Whether [it’s] a C-section that makes you feel safe, or natural childbirth, or unassisted birth, or homebirth, hospital, birth centre, whatever — we need to try to shed any kind of messages around what any of those choices mean. Because there’s what they mean within a society and culture and then there’s what they mean to me as an individual with my set of experiences. And we need to get better at looking at people, rather than telling them that they’re making a political choice. It’s like, take the politics out of my fucking body, I just want to birth right now in a way that feels safe.”
For doula and birth educator Sasha Padron, this shift means moving away from a one-size-fits-all, goal-oriented approach to birthing: “We’ve been trained to figure out how to reach a goal by following step 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. And that method can be very effective and useful when the outcome is controllable. Like building a house or writing an essay. But applying it to something as mysterious and unpredictable as birth sets us up for disappointment or feelings of failure because success is attached to getting the birth we wanted rather than the birth we got.”
Canadian birth educator Annyse Balkwill agrees. “We give women a contradictory task. We say create a birth plan, but then be open to it not happening. Perhaps a formal plan is not what we actually need. Maybe we could focus on creating feeling states that aren’t dependent on what the birth looks like? Like, what do you need to feel safe? Who needs to be in the room? What needs to happen when you are starting to feel unsafe? Who needs to know that information?”
Padron continues: “Birth is working with mystery and the unknown. So our power actually comes from letting go of the ‘how am I going to make this happen? How am I going to achieve this goal?’ And going to a place of wonder and curiosity. I actually don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I’m going to discover it as I go. And my power comes from a place of receptivity and a willingness to allow the process to unfold without needing to know how it’s going to go, or to have it go a particular way.”
This receptivity is clearly embodied in Anna’s birth story. A yoga practitioner based in Mexico, she had experienced trauma earlier in her pregnancy. “I could have birthed naturally,” she tells me. “I was physically capable but I was an emotional wreck after being abused and fleeing Guatemala at 7 months pregnant to a country where I had no support at all.” Anna labored for twenty-four hours at home before realizing she needed to choose a different path: “I elected to have a C-section to get out of the emotional darkness that was my birth.”
“I don’t regret it at all,” she says.
It is this kind of moment-to-moment, ideology-free responsiveness which needs to form the heart of a new paradigm. As Padron says, “a slight but profound shift in orientation can open up the full potential for what birthing can offer us. It is the difference between, ‘I want a natural birth’ to ‘I want to stay present, grounded and connected to my innate power while I birth my child’.” And part of staying present means knowing we have a range of tools at our disposal, from sophisticated technology, to clean operating rooms, to safe medications. “Relative to days past,” says Padron. “We can have complex surgery safely, we can get assistance safely, we can birth in our homes safely.”
And those of us who support the birth process as partners, doulas, midwives, doctors, birth educators and friends are there not to help “achieve” a birth that looks a certain way, but to respond to the needs of the person who is giving birth, as those needs emerge and change throughout the process. “The choice,” says Padron, “is actually about us as a community deciding that the woman is right in the centre of the entire thing and that the choice she is making is not so much about which birth option she wants but how she takes her next step [in labor], and how we support her in that.”
But who is this community that gathers around, and what kind of diversity will it be able to support? Will we be able to envision this new paradigm as more than just another lifestyle ideal for a privileged few? This challenge provides yet another opportunity for yoga culture to look at whether real social equity is amongst its core spiritual values.
Padron imagines the new, “ideal” birth like this: “Everyone is coming around the woman, and she’s the one who’s going ‘this is what I need next’.”
She pauses, and for a moment closes her eyes, as if to conjure the voice more clearly, in all of its infinite variability, and how it cuts through both expectation and inequality. She speaks again, slowly, with the fierce emphasis of a new mantra: “This is what I need next.”
Photo credit 1, 3, 4: Cassie Rodgers (www.anandawithin.com); 2, 5 Sara Kleinsmith, used with permission.
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Alix Bemrose is a writer, mother, psychotherapist-in-training and occasional yogi living in Toronto. She is a life-long student of movement and stories. For awhile it seemed to her as if yoga was the answer, but it turns out that it — like most other things — is only a part of the puzzle. She lives with her partner Matthew Remski and their sons in Toronto.