Reclaiming Our Birth Rituals: Part II

This is part II of this post.

We’ve gone over how our ancestors ritualized pregnancy and birth, saw their laboring mothers as strong, and gave them tools to find their own way through the maze of birth.

So what are our current birth rituals?

Weight obsession. Ask any pregnant mother how much weight she’s gained so far and she’ll be able to tell you to the pound. Not only that, she’ll be able to tell you what she thinks of the figure and probably what she’s doing to keep her weight down and plans to diet/exercise once that baby pops out. Forget the health of the baby – it’s all about “getting my old body back”. In my parents’ time, moms were told to try to keep weight gain to about 15 to 18 pounds – now thought to be a dangerously low amount. Now the optimal weight gain is thought to be about 25-35 lbs. for an average-sized woman. But in reality, weight gain varies much more than this. The first thing a pregnant mom does at her doctor’s appointment is to step on the scale, yet it tells a doctor very little about the health of the mother and baby. What message is this sending Mom?

The Baby Shower. Here in the western world, the celebration of a new baby starts with gifts. Baby clothes, baby gadgets, all this stuff that we can’t live without. The miniature baby things in soft pastel colors ultimately erupts in a celebration: the baby shower. (Side memory: When I was pregnant with Connor, I had two baby showers. I remember thinking before the first one – “I’m not ready to be a mother! I cannot have this baby! I don’t yet have a Diaper Champ!”) The baby shower, as the prominent celebratory birth symbol in our culture, has its merits and its drawbacks. It is wonderful that friends and family all gather together to welcome a child that has usually not come earthside quite yet. Babies can actually sense so much more than we give them credit for in utero, and I suspect that the baby can feel just how much love is in the room when the shower is taking place. But, first of all, why is this celebration all about the “stuff”? Is a baby just an excuse to redecorate a room in your house or to buy new clothes? Do we really need 50 newborn outfits that the baby will grow out of in a week – for every baby in the USA? How much space in our landfills is full of these outfits, and the high chairs, swings, bouncy chairs, etc. that could have been used again? I think it is interesting that most people dread the little games played at these events and want to get right to the gifts. Secondly – and this is my major gripe – it’s all about the baby. Rarely do we see a gift purely for mom, something to help her on her birth journey, or help her relax during precious moments of motherhood. Mom (not to mention Dad – poor guy is usually not even invited) gets lost in the shuffle.

The Wheelchair. On any sit-com on TV that portrays a birth, you always see Mom being wheeled in, huffing and puffing, in a wheelchair. Who is ill? Pregnant women are actually encouraged to walk during labor – gravity and the gentle rocking of the pelvic opening helps ease baby down to the proper position for birth. Not many hospitals still use wheelchairs for admittance, but I know several that still use them for discharge.

The Fear. Sit in a room full of childbearing-age women, and it won’t take long before they start telling birth stories. This would be great if the stories were productive – we need to learn from those around us – but the current ritual is for moms to try and one-up each others’ scariest, most painful, most dangerous birth yet. “My baby’s cord was wrapped around her neck – she almost died!” (Hardly dangerous.) “Thank God for that epidural – why would anyone want to give birth without one is beyond me!” (Teaches that the pain will be unbearable for anyone.) “I just didn’t dilate well – my body just isn’t made to give birth.” (Self-doubt is common in these stories). Still many men (and women) hold a belief that birth is dangerous, that many things can go wrong, and that death is a very real, strong possibility, when in fact it is now extremely rare for a woman to die in childbirth. A woman is set up to have a negative birth experience before her first contraction.

The Hospital Gown. Almost all women don a hospital gown when they are admitted to Labor and Delivery. It is extremely convenient for doctors and nurses – it gives them quick access. But what other messages does it send? There is a subtle, probably subconscious message that the mother now belongs to the hospital. Doctors wear white coats or solid colored scrubs, nurses wear blousey scrubs with prints on them, and patients wear gowns which expose their backsides. We easily know the rank of everyone in the room, and who is subservient to whom. Another possible subtle meaning of the hospital gown is that you are sick and must be made well by the hospital staff. Finally you have given up your identity and appear as any other laboring women that has ever stepped through the hospital doors.

The IV Pole. Most mothers are hooked up to an IV the moment they enter the hospital. For a normal, healthy mother, fluids could easily be taken by mouth instead, by reminding her to drink some water or juice as she labors. The pole is another symbol that suggests Mom is sick and must be treated by those around her. Most of the time we don’t see IVs in arms of anyone but the unwell. It further could be inferred subconsciously that mom is “broken”, and without the hospital staff to treat her, she is incapable of birthing on her own.

The Monitor.  Mom is almost always hooked to a machine that measures baby’s heartbeat and her contractions.  This is in spite of the fact that monitors have not improved birth outcomes.  Doctors, nurses, Dads, and even Moms stare at the parabolas being produced on the monitor strip.  “That was a big one!” Mom is out of the spotlight, and all the attention is now on the machines.  Many women feel neglected.

The Funny breathing. Most brands of childbirth classes teach some sort of breathing as coping mechanisms for birth. I’ve seen and read about all kinds. We see women panting, blowing, and almost hyperventilating when we watch birth on television. Seeing these women huffing and puffing away sends a message to women, pregnant or not: silly breathing patterns are the only tool we have to get through the pain of childbirth besides an epidural (which is far from the case).

The Exams. Cervical checks are done periodically to check for labor progression. Mom knows that if she is not progressing the way the staff would like, she’ll need to get Pitocin, a synthetic version of oxytocin, a birth hormone, that makes birth much more painful than if it were to happen on its own. Or if labor is stalled for several hours, she might end up with a cesarean – a scary prospect for most. These checks often can put fear into a mother, and could potentially slow labor down if Mom feels stressed or on display.

The Stirrups. On television and in most hospitals, we always see mothers birthing flat on their backs, their feet placed in stirrups or being held by Dad and a nurse. But ask any women that has ever given birth what the sensation of pushing a baby out feels like and almost all will answer that it is very much like the act of pooping. Now – girls (and guys) – imagine needing to pass your bowels – but instead of sitting on the toilet, you decide to climb into bed and put your feet up in metal stirrups or have a couple of people hold your legs in the air. What is gravity doing for your ability to get the job done?

The Yelling. Even better, to continue the bowel movement metaphor, invite your spouse in to hold your hand while you lie on the bed with your legs spread in the air and your parts exposed. Don’t forget to bring in about 5 medical personnel in to yell at you. “Push! Push! You can do it! Get mad at it! Put your chin down…not yet…NOW! One! Two! Three! Keep going! Four! Five Six! Yes – good! Seven, eight, don’t stop! Nine! Ten! Okay…take a quick breath…again!” Continue the poop metaphor and add this to the mix. You wouldn’t be able to do it, would you. Sure, most people give birth this way, but they probably give birth in spite of the coaching, not because of it.

The Baby Warmer. Once baby is born, he’s carried for an exam over to a baby warmer, where he’ll usually be dried roughly, suctioned, get APGARS, a few treatments, and over to mom all bundled up. Interestingly, all these things can take place on Mom’s belly, but the warmer is often preferred by the staff. This may send a final message to Mom – that an artificial machine (the warmer) and other people (the nurses) are better at caring for her child.

The Nursery. Still on television and in movies, we see the little swaddled babes all wrapped up in their isolettes, attended by a nurse who holds the baby up to the window so family members can see the new addition. In US hospitals, this is rarely the case – most hospitals now prefer to have mother and child to room together to facilitate bonding and breastfeeding. Yet this image strangely is still all over the media we see. The glass could be seen as a way to keep the germs of the unclean (family members) away from the child, while the clean (the nurse) cares for the baby. It also symbolizes that hospital staff are more adept at taking care of the child’s needs, although mother has been caring for his needs in utero since the beginning.

Next up in Part III: let’s replace these rituals with more productive, positive ones.


6 Responses to “Reclaiming Our Birth Rituals: Part II”

  1. 1 womantowomancbe January 18, 2008 at 4:30 am

    Great post! I would just add that while you’re right about “rooming in” now being preferred instead of the nursery for the mom’s hospital stay, they still generally take the baby from the mom for those first precious hours after birth, leaving mom aching for her baby, and leaving baby to bond with the heat lamp. Seeing a nurse robotically diaper a baby and stick it under a heat lamp while the poor thing was just wailing was a very powerful image that cemented my desire to have a home birth. This particular hospital said that there were no exceptions to this rule. A friend of mine said that her hospital said, “For the first three hours it’s our baby; then you can have him/her for the next 18 years.” That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and made her decide to give birth at home.


  2. 2 Rachel January 18, 2008 at 5:46 am

    I’ve had a baby in American and now England. thought you might be interested in the “British Way”. In England, I had a very different birth experience.

    Weight: I was only weighed the very first time I saw the midwife.

    Baby Shower: Very rare! I’ve never heard of anyone having a baby shower here. I was given a ton of gifts once I had the baby though.

    Wheelchair: Didn’t get one coming in or out. the only time they used one was tranferring me from the room I gave birth in to the postpartum room.

    Gown: You’re asked to bring your own clothes to give birth in. (I actually took a long time shopping for just the right nightgown for the occasion!)

    IV/Monitor: No and no. Unless you’re having trouble you aren’t hooked up to either.

    Exams: I was given one upon admittance to the hospital and that was it. They don’t evendo this during the last month of pregnancy either at checkups. It’s considered intrusive. (This actually kind of annoyed me. I wanted another exam after an hour or so of hard labor to see if I was getting anywhere!)

    Stirrups: Didn’t even see any in the hospital!

    Baby Warmer: Nope..Mom’s stomach is used.

    Nursery: Doesn’t exist, except in the NICU.

    The only downside to a British hospital birth is you share a postpartum room with 3 other moms and babies. But, can’t complain if it’s free, right? 🙂 O

  3. 3 Agatha January 19, 2008 at 8:48 am

    fabulous post – do I have permission to post a UK one over my way?

  4. 4 Dan January 24, 2008 at 4:45 am

    sorry, hadn’t read the other comments before I wrote this so I’m repeating info a little:

    Interestingly enough many of the rituals you talk about don’t seem to exist in england, at least not the three experiences i have had of witnessing childbirth (two my own children, and i was once present at a section during my nurse training).

    We don’t have baby showers, or at least I’ve never known anyone who’s had one. Kerry has taken and worn her own clothes into hospital. Kerry wasn’t on an IV drip during either birth, and i don’t think it’s standard. Both births we didn’t see a doctor once and it was all done with the assistance of a midwife. When amy was born she was the midwife’s first ever baby as a qualified midwife, whcih was quite nice as it was special for everyone in the room.

    There was no baby warmer either. Both amy and evan were given straight to kerry and put on her bare chest – skin to skin. When she had to tend to herself they were given to me, which was lovely.

    and the UK hasn’t had nurseries for ages as far as i’m aware. You get put in a communial ward full of other mothers with babies which is so noisy it acts as an incentive to bugger off out of hospital.

  5. 5 Rachel January 29, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    Have you read ‘Birth As An American Right of Passage’? It is all about birth rituals. It’s a fascinating and enlightening read. Cheers!
    Rachel, homebirth midwife, nyc

  6. 6 Darellma March 25, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    i am gonna show this to my friend, man

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