I read my first pregnancy book nearly ten years ago, when my sister had a baby. She had a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting lying around, and I was bored. That book scared the crap out of me. At that point in life, I did not expect to ever have children– not because I didn’t want them, but because everything I had heard about childbirth from friends and family who’d been through it made me cringe with horror. And these weren’t even bad stories. These were all tales of “normal” births, with their attendant hospitalization, needles, IVs, anesthesia, hosts of total strangers watching and touching in a freakishly intimate way, routine episiotomies… The actual physiology of childbirth seemed pretty straightforward to me, and the thought of pain was no deterrent– by then I was a veteran migraineur and my periods resembled some people’s late-stage labor. But I got through them, it didn’t kill me, and I was pretty cavalier about mere pain. I still am.
But there are a lot of things more horrifying to me than pain, and among those are hospitals, with their icky smells, their inescapable chill, their lack of privacy, and their migraine-inducing fluorescent lights. I also have a pretty violent aversion to needles and anesthesia. Needles… I can get through shots and blood draws if I have to– I grit my teeth, squeeze my husband, and in a few minutes it’s over and I can go home. The thought of having a cannula or an IV drip installed for hours on end… that is just too much. I’d probably clock anyone who attempted it, rip the thing out, and leave. I can’t imagine voluntarily submitting to that for any reason other than immediate danger to my life.
I feel roughly the same about anesthesia. I do not like even the idea of being under the complete control and influence of others. There are precious few people in this world I have that much faith in. I had my wisdom teeth taken out under a local, while I was wide awake. It was no big deal. I’m not even comfortable getting drunk around anyone but my husband and my best friend: that’s two people, in the whole world. Why on God’s green earth would I allow myself to be sedated, drugged, or immobilized by someone I may not know at all? Perhaps I’m a wee bit paranoid, but I have a right to be.
Worst of all was the idea of so many strangers and near-strangers touching me. I practically jump out of my skin when random people brush against me on the sidewalk in a completely nonthreatening way, thanks to an overactive startle reflex. I am, oddly enough, not an abuse victim (though I understand many of them have similar responses), but during physical exams, airport security patdowns, and gyn checkups, I rapidly dissociate, and it takes me a while to come back. I hate this experience. There’s nothing particularly egregious about any of those procedures, but my physical/mental shutdown response to them is extremely unpleasant. After a recent bout with airport security, I lost the better part of an hour from all recollection. I flat don’t remember it. It’s like I wasn’t there. I’m glad my husband was there to make sure nothing bad happened, but all the same… not something I’d put myself through if I had any choice about it. The idea of that in a childbirth setting… multiple people I barely know, or don’t know at all, sticking their fingers up my hoo-hoo to check my hourly progress… no, no no! I’d rather not have kids at all, than put myself through that. It sounds like paying good money to be gang-raped by hygienic licensed professionals.
As for episiotomy– doesn’t that make any woman cringe? We all know how much worse it hurts, and how much longer it takes to heal if we cut ourselves shaving, than if we just barked a shin, even with wounds the same size and depth. Whose bright idea was it to cut us to “prevent tearing”? I’d prefer to tear, given the choice, thank you. And that was *before* I’d run across any of the more recent research indicating that an episiotomy actually increases your chances of a truly humongous tear– like the kind where you have to worry about anal incontinence THAT kind of humongous. But of course even the most barbaric medical practices don’t die out until all the people who learned them in med school die or retire, so… yeah, they still DO that. WTF?
Anyway, pregnancy books… everything I read in What to Expect While You’re Expecting confirmed what I’d already heard– and been horrified by– about childbirth. No, I did not want to have kids. Thanks, WTEWYE, for reinforcing all my fears. I would not recommend this book to anyone, ever.
Some years later, in a thrift store, I bought a copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery. Something about the 70s artwork and terrifically dated photographs intrigued me. It was a revelation. I was stunned to learn that, all along, there were other options. The way my friends and relatives had given birth wasn’t the only way. Childbirth (imagine!) was a natural process just like pooping or eating or sex, which in the right circumstances– i.e. when the mother is relaxed, unafraid, free to move around at will (i.e. not tethered to a bed and and IV pole), and has faith in her body’s ability to do what it was designed to do– works well without interference by modern technology and the professionals who operate it. Given the right environment, complications are rare and the need for intervention rarer. Nature isn’t stupid, and God didn’t make us broken. For the vast majority of births, we don’t need medical “help” any more than we need a catheter to urinate or an enema to poop every day– that stuff is for extreme circumstances. Sure, sometimes there are emergencies, but they’re a whole lot more rare than popular culture would have us believe. Ina May blew my mind. And even though I had no idea where to procure services such as hers, Spiritual Midwifery changed me from “I’ll never have kids” to “Maybe I could do that someday”.
NOTE: One fascinating thing I learned from Ina May: having the cord wrapped around the neck happens in something like a quarter of all births, and is not an emergency– it’s easily handled by any half-competent midwife or well-informed husband. We’re just used to thinking of it as an emergency because we hear so many people come home from the hospital after having C-sections or interventions out (or in) the wazoo, and they repeat the line their doctor gave them: “Gee! That was scary, I’m glad brave Dr. Whatsit was there to perform xyz procedure, because OMG the cord was wrapped around her neck THREE TIMES!” Now, of course, I cringe when I hear this. And I’ve heard it so many times! A nuchal cord may actually be nature’s way of preventing a cord prolapse (which is truly, actually dangerous), when the baby has a really long umbilical cord. It takes up the slack.
Once I found out I was pregnant, I was ravenous for information. Especially pregnancy information. Ina May has a lot of great things to say about birth, but the preceding nine months are a little sketchy in her books (I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all now– her guide to breastfeeding is fantastic). I went cruising for recommendations and read Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn, and hated it. While not as scary as What to Expect, it reads like it was written by a committee, exclusively for people with severe ADD. It felt patronizing in the extreme, and the writing was so choppy and dislocated it was difficult to read in anything more than five-second increments. It’s possible the eighth-grade reading level is right for some people, but not for me. I’m a reader. I actually *like* books. I don’t need my data chopped into bite-sized bullet points for me; I’m a big girl. And this was supposed to be THE natural-birth-friendly guide, according to the well-meaning folks who recommended it. Ack!
Anyway, at last I got my copy of Sheila Kitzinger’s Complete Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. It’s not perfect, but it’s the book I wanted. It reads well, it has exhaustive information on pregnancy, it doesn’t talk down to the reader, it is truly natural-birth friendly, and at no point have I tried to throw it at the wall. There are a few niggling errors that the fact-checkers and copyeditors should have caught, and because I’m hormonal and obsessive, these drive me a little nuts, but they’re not fatal. Basically, in the week-by-week part of the book, every other week or so it gives a “by now your baby is around x inches (n centimeters) long” spiel. But usually the inches measure and the centimeters measure don’t match up– according to my tape measure they diverge by anywhere from a fourth of an inch to half an inch. Are metric babies bigger than American babies? It also doesn’t tell you *what* is being measured. I had to do my own outside research to figure out that for the first fourteen weeks, the measurement given is from head to tail. Around 16 weeks it seems to switch to head-to-foot without ever saying so. One is left to assume that the baby grew a whopping 6cm in just two weeks. But that and a missing arrow on a chromosome chart are the only gripes I have with Kitzinger’s book, and for all I know they were fixed in some later edition. If you want a good, solid pregnancy book that won’t make you wish you’d had your tubes tied, this is it. Thank you, Sheila.