This blog is written by one of my dear friends, Shelby Shankland. I know her journey through her birth stories will affect you strongly as it has me and all who know her.
In ruminating over how to approach my piece for this blog entry, I wondered how it would make most sense to share my birth stories with you. I could write a term paper on the details of each, but I’ve already done that – partially to share the unique experience of birthing my second baby on the Farm, but also to process both birth experiences. I think what I’ve finally decided on is to write from the heart, about my journeys of faith, grief, and recovery as a result of my birth stories. And you might be seeing the word grief, thinking that I lost one of my babies – but I most certainly did not. And this brings me to my first point…
Healthy mama, healthy baby, that’s all we can ask for, right? So many well-meaning folks – mamas, daddies, family members and friends included – believe that by saying this, they are offering some comfort to a family who may have endured some difficulties in pregnancy or birth. And of course! We are always overjoyed when mama and baby come through a birth experience, both healthy and alive. But… what about the experience? What about the journey, and the expectations, and hopes and dreams this family – particularly the mama – may have had for their pregnancy and childbirth?
I would venture to say that mamas’ feelings about their experiences in childbirth are extremely important – extraordinarily important – but are given far too little attention in our society’s go-go-go-, back to work at 6 weeks, super-mommy culture. I would like us to stop a minute, and think about our babies’ births. Did you feel supported? Were you able to hold your baby right after he or she was born? Did you feel railroaded into decisions about your care that didn’t feel quite right to you, or did anyone make you feel like your body was flawed in some way? Even though I went to extreme lengths with both my babies to make sure I was educated, to make sure my care providers were supportive of my wishes, I have found myself grieving the loss of the childbirth experience I so badly wanted. Gentle childbirth is not in the cards for me. And I cannot express to you how sad that has made me.
With both of my babies, my first test of faith – in myself and in my higher power – was the waiting. Ohhh, the waiting. Any of you have gone ‘post-dates’ can relate. It is such a test of patience. We are reminded every waking moment of our little cherub’s disregard of the eviction notice we have placed in our minds, sometimes due to pressure from our care providers, sometimes due to pressure of our aching, swelling, hormonal bodies. With my daughter, my first child, I had chosen midwifery care within a hospital setting in San Francisco. For a hospital birth, this was absolutely the most natural-friendly, supportive practice I could have chosen. And yet, in order to let her choose her birth date, I had to keep going in for my ‘scheduled inductions’, listen to horror stories about the dangers of going post-dates, and then sign and Against Medical Advice waiver in order to leave and go back home to more walking, spicy foods, lunges, acupuncture, etc. to try to get labor started. Eventually, at 42 weeks on the dot, I went into labor and Zoe was born 18 hours later.
My son didn’t come until 43 weeks, and that waiting period was spent walking, lunging, eating spicy foods, with the lovely addition of screaming and crying into the wilderness from my cabin on the Farm. The waiting is just part of it for me. I wish I could say that knowing this made it easier the second time around, but sadly and as you might expect, it did not. It was a period of one foot in front of the other, of crying each morning when I woke realizing I had not gone into labor the night before, of being brought to my KNEES. I was not in control. I was never really in control. This was my preparation for motherhood, and it was exactly what I needed.
The birth of my daughter was at the hands of the most anxiety-ridden OB in the whoooole hospital, who happened to be on call when I arrived in the full swings of labor. After pushing for six hours, I was given the choice: vacuum in the operating room, or c-section. I chose the former, and the trauma and recovery from that birth was worse than that of a lot of c-sections. My daughter was born in the operating room, under bright lights and with my OB yelling at the midwives and nurses in attendance. I got through everything without any pain medication, but then submitted to a spinal block for a manual extraction of my placenta, which wasn’t coming on its own, and which was causing me to hemorrhage. My new baby girl was wrapped up and taken to the nursery after only spending a few minutes on my belly after being born. My husband was terrified that I might die and leave him and Zoe alone. There was nothing gentle about it.
Upon moving to Tennessee, all my doula friends in San Francisco were saying to me, “You can go have your next baby on The Farm!” I would laugh and say, “yeah right,” knowing the logistics of being able to do that were somewhat insurmountable (it’s 5 hours away, it costs money, it requires freedom from work commitments for an indeterminate amount of time, etc.). Little did I know that, upon becoming pregnant, that little voice inside of me was SCREAMING, “You have to go to The Farm to have this baby.” There was no other choice. I was compelled to find a way, and so I did. At 38 weeks, my husband, daughter and I moved to the Farm. To wait, and wait… and… wait…
My experience on the Farm was of the once-in-a-lifetime variety. This land in the woods of middle Tennessee has been home to spiritual seekers for 30 years. The original ‘Farmies’ came here to create an intentional community, one where everyone supported everyone else, where 4-5 families lived all under one roof, where love was the abiding doctrine (but not in the hippie summer-of-love way you might expect), and birth was a sacrament. The spiritual energy there is palpable, and the container for challenging personal growth is forgiving yet impenetrable. It was the perfect place to work through the Waiting, and then to bring my 2nd-born earthside. Every day – sometimes every moment – I had to relinquish my ideas, my desires, my sanity, lol, to God/Universe/Source, whatever it is that you call it. It’s a powerful practice to have in the moments leading up to childbirth, and again, it proved necessary.
Jack’s birth, as you might have guessed, was not the gentle birth I had so desired. There are many wonderful silver linings to the story – my desire to experience early labor was fulfilled (I went straight into active with Zoe), all of the people in attendance were amazingly supportive and loving, we never went to the hospital, my body was honored and protected. After a short active labor and about 40 minutes of pushing in the tub to the point of getting his head out, I heard the ominous voice of my midwife, very calm, saying to me, “Ok honey. We’re going to need you to flip over now.” She did not need to say any more. I knew what the Gaskin maneuver was. I knew that this meant that my baby boy was stuck, and if we didn’t get him out he may suffer permanent brain damage. It’s amazing what a 200+ pound mama in labor can do. With the balance of the assisting midwives, I flipped over, one of my midwives jumped into the tub (after taking her socks off – we always laugh about that) and pulled Jack out by hooking him under his arm. I held my beautiful baby boy, blue and lifeless, up out of the water while one midwife cut the cord and the other bagged him and began infant resuscitation. He was whisked to the bedroom next to the room where I was, placed on a the board we had been using to keep our jigsaw puzzles in the cabin, and worked on by one midwife, one assistant, and my husband busy at his feet, tickling him and trying to get him started. I see this time as sort of… a Matrix moment. You know when everything goes to slow-motion, and you drop into a different type of existence. I knew when I handed off my baby that we did not come all this way to have him die in childbirth. I refused the notion, and I prayed. Hard.
After the longest ten minutes of any of our lives, Jack finally began breathing on his own. But this is not the end of our story. Oh no, it couldn’t stop here. My placenta was not coming – again – and I had begun to hemorrhage. I had to climb out of the tub, get stuck for an IV so that they could give me Pitocin to promote contractions to expel the placenta, and nothing. I was just bleeding and bleeding. The same midwife that jumped into the tub now had to perform a manual extraction. She did it, I didn’t feel a thing that I recall, and then began the journey of eight feet from where I lay, to where my baby lay in the bed. It took me almost two hours to be able to crawl over there because I would get so lightheaded each time I tried to move in that direction. I did eventually make it, and mama and baby were reunited. Oh the joy – and the tears!!
He had no brain damage, and is a perfectly healthy and rambunctious two-year-old little boy. After about 2 months I recovered from my anemia and was fully back in action. I did not tear at all, and was blessed with a baby whose nursing actually caused me to lose weight (unlike my daughter). We are healthy and strong! Better than ever… but he was my last, and there will be no more babies to birth. My wish for a gentle birth experience is dashed. And I tried so, SO hard. I wanted this for myself, for my babies, for my husband – particularly after the first traumatic birth. But it was not in the cards for me. And that makes me incredibly sad sometimes.
Please don’t mistake me – My spirituality is grounded in a solid practice of gratitude. I thank God daily, sometimes hourly, for the many joys and blessings of my life. I have a wonderful husband, a roof over my head, healthy children, a healthy body, an amazing neighborhood, a great job, I could go on and on. Very little is lost on me, I savor every moment to the best of my ability. But my feelings of loss around my birth experiences are real, and deserve to be honored nonetheless. It is part of what makes me who I am today.
My first birth experience left me feeling incredibly empowered at first, and then with a growing sense of anger and disappointment in a model of care that does not support nature, but instead tries to shape it into something predictable and quantifiable, bowing to the demands of their lawyers and malpractice policies, even to the point of ignoring science and reason. This spurred me on to work with new mamas and babies, and into a life of birth advocacy. My second birth experience was different in that I was totally supported and loved through by son’s birth, but the gentleness I so desired was again, not meant to be. This has taught me that you don’t always get what you want, but you always get what you need. What you need in order to learn important lessons, what you need in order to fulfill your greater life’s purpose. In my case, I have a special gift of empathy for those mamas who need to process their experiences in childbirth, and to mourn the hopes that they may have had for that experience.
And both of these experiences have taught me that childbirth is Important. It is one of the few rites of passage that remains constant, regardless of culture or race or social standing. Women have the extraordinary ability to bring new human beings into this world, and the process of doing that should be honored and held in our hearts – ALL of our hearts – as sacred, and meaningful, and beautiful. It only comes around a few times in each woman’s life, and sometimes not at all. When a mother is in labor, I believe she is as close to the Divine as we can get, perhaps until we begin the journey of passing over into death. Honoring and loving a mother in that space should be of paramount importance, and holding her with love and grace through grieving what might have been lost in those moments at the hands of unpredictable trauma or demeaning care providers is absolutely necessary.
So the next time someone shares a birth story with you that indicates mama may not have been held in that space of love during her delivery, or she may have had some trauma during her childbirth experience, I ask you to hold off on the ‘healthy mama, healthy baby’ commentary. Honor her experience by validating her feelings and holding her hand. Healthy mamas and healthy babies are wonderful, but a mama’s loss of belief in her body or invalidation of her trauma by the people closest to her can cause a ripple effect that will be felt for years to come. Honor the mother, because in many ways it is through her heart that her family will gather its strength. And the shockwave of that strength and love will be felt for lifetimes to come.
You can find more of Shelby at New Mom Chronicles
All Rights Reserved, Kimberly Sebeck, Knoxville Doula, 2014