Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born

While pregnant I like to read a new birth-y book every couple of weeks. I feel like learning and expanding my knowledge of birth does so much to open my mind and body to birth. I really believe our heads, as in thoughts and emotions, are SO hugely related to the type of birth we have that it's incredibly important to be in a good place and ready for birth. I also think that fear often comes from not knowing. No knowing what it'll be like, how much it'll hurt, if it'll be safe, etc. Knowledge and truth remove so much of that fear. I feel deeply that pregnancy is not an illness. Birth is not a disease. It's a natural physiological process and the more open we are to it emotionally and physically, chances are the better it'll go. I believe in the need for surgeons (Obstetricians) and am very thankful that our world has them. That being said, I don't want one delivering my baby, if I can help it. I want to birth my baby. Safely, comfortably, peacefully, and on my and the baby's terms. After Evangeline's amazing birth, I know that's possible.

I just read a seriously amazing book, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy. It was mind blowing. At times very difficult to read and horrific. I was reading clinging to the blanket with my mouth open in shock. Other times I read with a questioning scowl, as in how in the world could it have taken over 60 years, even with crystal clear proof, for doctors to admit they had to wash their hands between vaginal checks????? The doctors were too prideful to admit they'd been wrong, so they continued with no hand washing. Literally tens of thousands of women died of Childbed Fever. For years it was thought that many things caused it: women being negative and making themselves sick, milk ducts being connected to the uterus and causing the illness (Leonardo Da Vinci even drew diagrams of it), etc. Want to know why they thought of the milk duct theory??? Because at the Hotel Dieu in Paris, one of the first 'lying-in' hospitals (where women stayed there and layed there for a month during childbirth), they were required to do basic autopsies on the deceased. Upon cutting the women open they found 'milk' throughout the body cavity and internal organs. Surely it was breastmilk contaminating them!!! UH, no. The white stuff was puss and infection. The other totally nasty and shocking part of this is that not only did they not wash their hands between checking the alive, pregnant vaginas....they also didn't wash their hands after touching the cadavers. And so it went for decades, doctors without gloves putting their hands in dead bodies and then in 25 different vaginas without so much as a single wash. Ironically the low class hospital that took in prostitutes had much fewer cases of Childbed Fever. Doctors at the time said they were so depraved and disgusting as it was that their bodies could resist the illness. Really it was because the doctors didn't want to waste their time doing vaginal checks on prostitutes. It meant upper class women died more often and childbirth was actually safer for prostitutes.

During all of this, midwives were fighting to still have a place in society. They knew birth, they knew how to handle it and they'd been dealing with it for centuries. Yet in came Ob's, realizing they could charge 2x what the midwife did and because they had a certificate, they were considered elite and better equipped for birth. Actually, they attended classes at universities where wooden or metal dummies were the example of birth, with vegetables and other things standing in as babies. And because it was considered so ungodly for men to see a vagina, they were not allowed to view an actual birth. What they were taught was how to use forceps (extremely crude and easily deadly metal and wooden tools), how to avoid wasting time waiting for the cervix to dilate, how to stuff a drugged hankie into the mother's mouth so she'd pass out and not realize what he was doing to her, and many other such travesties. They were taught they the tools must be used and ended up harming most of the mothers they attended. Babies were born with limbs torn off and ears missing, all because the 'highly trained obstetricians' believed they had to yank the baby out with the forceps before the body did it on it's own.  I read all of this in horror. To think that this was actually our history? This stuff actually happened? And truly, much of it still does.

There was a period of time in history when rickets was all too common. The result was women who had a pelvis width of 2.5 inches and literally no ability to birth the baby she'd grown to full term. Nearly all of these babies died in the mother or were taken by craniotomy (a deadly, pre c-sect, way to remove a stuck or already deceased baby) or other such horrors. When c-sections came about they were sometimes tried but in most cases the mother and baby still died. One doctor tried something called a symphysiotomy. He cut through the clitoris, labia, internal organs and anything in the way until he got to the pelvic cartilage (and no anesthesia yet!), which he then cut. That would expand the pelvis a couple inches. He was able to get that mother's baby out safely, her first live birth out of 5 pregnancies. However, she was never able to walk again, pee normally, and had to use homemade large corks to keep her vagina inside her body. After some time he began to think that maybe the procedure wasn't a good idea because of how much long term suffering it brought to the mother. However, symphysiotomies are still being done today. Not in America, but in other countries, yes. That is shocking.

This book was a revelation to me. It made so much sense how America has arrived where it is today, currently ranked 25th in the world in terms of how many mothers die in childbirth. Countries like Qatar actually rank much better than we do. That is scary! But after reading the history of midwifery and obstetrics and even the history of fathers being around or involved with births, and breastfeeding, and all makes so much sense.

If you are at all into birthy stuff, I encourage you to read the book and learn. The author is a journalist and in that regard is not encouraging homebirth or hospital birth. She remains unbiased. There are also many, many pages in the back of the book with her documented sources. She relates the info in easily readable ways and most often recounts the true stories of real people and what happened to them. It's a fascinating read.

I borrowed the book from the library, but you can also purchase it used for less than $10 on Amazon-

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