Offering Better Choices for Childbirth

By Anna Almendrala 7-18-2008

In the first weekend of June I watched some au naturel how-to videos on the oldest profession in the world.

Anyone who's read The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, knows that I'm talking about the ancient practice of women supporting other women in childbirth. The assisting woman, whom today we would call either a midwife (medical training) or a doula (comfort techniques training), makes her first appearance in the Bible in Genesis 35 for Rachel's labor with Benjamin. And everyone knows of the heroic midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who in Exodus 1 defy the pharaoh's orders to kill every Hebrew male infant they deliver.

I'm trying to get my DONA doula certification, a process that, on average, takes about two to three years to complete. I took my first step toward certification with a doula childbirth class from a modern-day Shiphrah named Marilyn Hildreth. She's attended more than 4,000 births, both as a registered nurse and as a certified doula. When she talks about women's rights in the birthing room and best practices for the health of the baby, her eyes get bright and her voice trembles slightly. You could say she's passionate. All weekend long we went over the stages of labor, analyzed medical care standards, and practiced comfort techniques such as massage, laboring positions, and verbal encouragement. We also watched a lot of freaky birthing videos.

Better labor experiences for women mean a lot to me. It wasn't until a few years ago that I asked my own mother about the story of my birth. She said it was something so frightening and painful that she wept with fear in her heart when she found out she was pregnant with my younger sister. For women who could pay, Filipino urban hospitals in the mid-'80s were paragons of Western medical practice. Everything was scrubbed, shaved, and sanitary, and my mom received every industrial-world benefit she could have hoped for: her own room, an epidural, and an enema. After 24 hours of numb, lonely (no dads in the room!) labor, she was too exhausted to deliver me so the doctor cut into her vagina (an episiotomy) and used forceps to pull me out. While she slept, I was scrubbed clean and sent off to the nursery. It was hours before she could get up to see me.

Her testimony may not shock most women who read this blog, but after my DONA training I know that a doula by her side would have made a world of difference. Doulas have been credited with reducing the length of labor by more than 50 percent, reducing epidural use for pain relief by more than 85 percent, and reducing forceps use by more than 65 percent for every birth they attend. Massage isn't the only thing responsible for these rates. Women who employ doulas also receive education on their rights in the delivery room and the benefits, risks, and alternatives to hospital protocol before the birth takes place. That way, the birthing woman has more control over her own body and labor, as opposed to feeling trapped by a doctor-patient power dynamic in the heat and chaos of a delivery room. Quoting John Kennell, M.D., from the book Mothering the Mother: How a Doula Can Help You Have a Shorter, Easier, and Healthier Birth, Marilyn claimed that "if a doula were a drug, it would be malpractice not to use it."

If you haven't yet, I encourage you to talk to your own mother about the story of your birth. You'll be surprised at what you find out. If you're a mother yourself, please consider this blog a place to share your own childbirth stories.

Anna Almendrala is the marketing and circulation assistant for Sojourners.

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