Friday, September 23, 2011

on my shelf: spiritual midwifery

This is the third in a series called "On My Shelf."  In this series, I talk about the books I have found indispensable in growing and birthing a little human.  For other book reviews, check out this, this, and these three links.

Today, it's time to get serious and talk about Ina May.

My midwives were very uncomfortable with me keeping up my normal pace as the end of my pregnancy neared.  I wouldn't say I was quite put on bedrest, but I was instructed to stop working and spend as much time as possible laying on my left side.  This helped ease some of the load on my kidneys and keep the fluids circulating around my body a little better.  I didn't really mind (especially because none of my shoes fit anymore and that made it hard to go anywhere!), but I also didn't really heed the advice.  I still worked half-days, and I still left the house pretty much every day.  I hadn't totally made the connection that the stress that permeates my life and profession had crept from my mind down to my body, and was making my womb a less-than-perfect environment for my little one.

One of the places I went frequently was to the library.  Topeka has a fantastic newly-remodeled public library, and I decided I would take advantage of all this free time I had on my hands all of a sudden to read books I'd always been curious about.  Ina May Gaskin's books were on that list.  Ina May is somewhat of a hero in natural childbirth circles.  She's a lay midwife who began her training when she and her husband Stephen traveled around the country in a caravan of buses, seeking an alternative lifestyle "off the grid."  They finally settled in rural south central Tennessee and created The Farm.  When we lived in Nashville and worked at camp, we were very close to The Farm, so I always felt a special kinship when reading about their adventures in that part of the country.

Ina May learned how to deliver babies from delivering babies, and from old obstetrics textbooks.  Over time, she trained many other midwives.  Her rates of intervention, cesarean, and extreme pain in childbirth were remarkably low.  In my opinion, this was due to a number of factors:  the low-stress alternative lifestyle advocated by Farm members; the excellent nutrition and care that pregnant women received; and the lack of fear that surrounds the experience of birth in their culture.  She even invented a special position called the Gaskin Maneuver to help ease a "stuck" baby's shoulder around the pubic bone. 

Her amazing book Spiritual Midwifery is part history, part textbook, and part testimonial. 

She explains how she came to be a midwife, how women who want to learn how to deliver babies should treat their patients, and she allows women to tell their stories.  Reading all of these positive birth stories was the perfect curative for the anxiety and impatience that were wracking my brain as week thirty-seven dragged into week thirty-eight into week thirty-nine.  Plus, you can't help but get a kick out of their special Farm dialect:  everything is "groovy," "far out," "orgasmic." 

Reading this book helped me realize a few things during birth.  Her main emphasis is that the feelings and movements that get the baby in are the same ones that get the baby out.  She encourages physical closeness and touching between father and mother during the birth.  She wants the mother to embrace her own power and strength in bringing new life into the world.  She also claims that all of the different sphincter muscles in the body are connected in a way.  If you keep your mouth loose, your cervix will loosen faster.  I found this to be true in my experience.  As long as I kept my mouth and jaw loose, things progressed well.  (The pitocin didn't hurt either.)

If Dr. Bradley was like my funny old-fashioned but forward-thinking father, Ina May was my braid-wearing, patchouli-scented earth mother.  She told me I was capable of this thing I was about to do, and she kept it real.  Women who complained during birth or who said they were scared were often labeled "chicken s**t."  I loved that kind of grittiness.  It was like, "Yeah, this hurts.  Let's get past that most obvious fact and talk about the beauty and power of it."

Ina May still practices midwifery at The Farm, and my dream is to be able to birth there with her or another one of the midwives someday.  I'm not sure they'll ever take me, since I now have a history of borderline pregnancy-induced hyptertension.  (Part of what keeps their rates of intervention so low is that they really only accept perfectly healthy women to give birth there.  But, to their credit, this protects the safety of women who truly need the hospital to give birth safely.)  But a girl can dream, right? 

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