Birthing from Above

From the desk of Jacquie's daughter:

Growing up surrounded by my mum's work in childbirth, I had a slightly different introduction to the subject of reproduction than most children. Instead of reading "Where Did I Come From?" I looked through a plethora of illustrated Sheila Kitzinger and midwifery texts. I thought it was fascinating that the egg that was fertilized to make me was in my mum's ovaries when she was born, and was thus formed inside my grandmother! Wild. When she taught prenatal classes, I would come along and play with the infant-sized dolls in her teaching materials, using the plastic pelvis as a cradle. Then, as she began to do more labour support, I would act as her secretary and run into the kitchen to intercept calls before anyone else, often to hear a flustered dad drop the phone, with his wife moaning in the background -- "Mum, it's for you."

It was only a matter of time before I felt the need to leave my role as an earnest spectator and take part in my mum's work. On New Year's Eve, 2006 -- just a few months ago -- I shadowed mum at my first birth as an apprentice doula. It brought to life everything that I had merely heard about for twenty-three years. This sealed the deal. I was sucked in and needed to learn everything I possibly could about childbirth. Or, more precisely, I needed to fill in the gaps of all the knowledge my mum had slyly been teaching me over the years. Little did I know that in giving me those midwifery texts, taking me to classes, and leaving me to chat with clients, she had been training me to one day work with her. Cheeky monkey.

So, with the advent of 2007, I began the final semester of my Master's degree in Literature at UBC and decided that I would complete my university career with a directed reading in the language of childbirth guides -- to both fill in the blanks and end my degree with a fun project. I received such a fantastic education from my mum growing up. She had given me all the right materials to read, but I wondered, what were other women reading? My guess was that most women don't pick up "Ina May Gaskin's Guide to Childbirth" during their summer breaks or watch "Homebirths in Holland" on Friday nights. I turned to popular pregnancy guides, the sort of books that you find on the shelves at Chapters or are lent by a friend. I pulled together a list of about 20 bestsellers, narrowed my focus to the hot topic of caesarean birth, and began reading with some questions in mind:

What sort of language do these books employ? What themes, messages, social beliefs, and institutions do the discourses in these books support? Are women reading from the perspective I was raised, that childbirth can be sacred, empowering, and, above all, normal? With caesarean rates reaching over 30% in parts of Canada, what are popular pregnancy guides saying about surgical births?

I won't give away my entire paper (please email my mum if you want a pdf copy,) but one conclusion I did reach after reading these popular books was that, on the whole, authors don't view birth as normal. They describe caesarean births as a medical solution to "pathological" pregnancy.

My first reaction was to get completely wound up and militant: "We've got to do something about this, mum! Our culture no longer cares about the natural processes of the body. We've turned into a fast food society that wants its babies to be 'delivered' from above. Yet all over the world women have babies at home with midwives, without medical interventions, and their births are statistically safer!"

Then I realized that there was a simple way to counter the line of thinking present in pregnancy guides. Use language as a tool to reclaim birth from degrading discourses. That's why I like the term "caesarean birth," as opposed to caesarean section, c-section, c-sec, or C, or capitalizing Caesarean. By changing the language we use, we change our mindset.

I've known my whole life that birth in hospitals or through surgery has the potential to be sacred and empowering. Mum helps make that possible with the language she uses -- clients reading this know what I mean. She translates medical terminology into something a woman and her body can understand. Using positive phrases and non-judging words, she attempts to take the fear out of birth and make it normal, relatable, possible.

Why can't pregnancy guides do this? Because in our North American culture, birth isn't normal, relatable, possible. And that's a load of bunk. Don't read them, just use them as doorstops (except those by Kitzinger, Gaskin, Gurmukh, and the Dr. Sears family -- they're a'ight). Just read books during pregnancy that shut off your thinking brain and allow you to listen to the rhythms and instincts of your body. Children's books and trashy romances work well.

Oh, and hire my mum.

And just wait until our book comes out!

- Sarah Munro

(In 2015, Sarah is a PhD Candidate at UBC. She is conducting an investigation of decision-making for birth after a caesarean. She is doing this research in partnership with health authorities in order to develop tools that support women and their care providers to make informed shared decisions about mode of delivery after caesarean.)