I went into pregnancy and preparation for birth “willfully ignorant.” I’d never wanted to experience either, so my perspective on the whole thing was that of an outsider’s. As I started poking around about giving birth for the first time, I had some vague ideas about lowering the lighting in the room; maybe I’d wear one of my own gowns that I felt comfortable in. I didn’t want gawking strangers there while I delivered (I mean, how awkward is that?) and I thought it would be very cool if I could cut the baby’s cord, if it wasn’t too gross.
This was when I began hearing a phrase that absolutely astonished me: “They might let you…” or “Sometimes you’re allowed to” – referring to what the medical staff may or may not allow in the labor and delivery room.
I wasn’t talking about life-or-death decisions here. I was simply trying to find ways to make this terrifying, traumatic, first-time experience more pleasant or more “mine.” I was amazed to find that the prevailing attitude was that, in every little thing, I needed the permission of my health provider and hospital staff, and that they varied so widely in what they would or would not “allow.”
That factor alone – the variation in the policies among different providers and facilities– told me that health and safety weren’t the issues. After all, if that were the case, these policies would be standardized to protect moms and babies. There are laws, regulations, and scientific research on these things. Right?
No, this was simply a matter of preference – and not my preference, either.
What an odd concept, I thought. I’m an educated adult, and it is my body, my baby, and my birth. And, frankly, I’m a paying customer. If safety is not an issue, why don’t my preferences count in this very important life event? Why on earth wouldn’t I get to make these decisions?
The limit for me was finding out that “they might or might not” let me hold my own baby immediately after he was born, even if there was no medical reason, because some nurses preferred to get stats like length and weight right away. (As if those things would change if they were measured after I’d had a chance to meet my baby.) And if the medical staff was of the mind to isolate the baby after birth for any kind of monitoring–non-emergency included–I was told there was nothing I could do. I might see him minutes or hours later, even the next day; it was all up to the hospital. My best bet, I was advised, would be to drag myself out of bed to follow him to the nursery and keep asking for him until someone sympathized.
Mind-boggling. I could not imagine going through the process of giving birth, lying there exhausted and helpless, and watching my own baby be whisked away before I could hold him–because of someone else’s preference.
Finally, I asked the nurse who taught my childbirth class, “Can’t I say ‘no’? What is the law on this?” Was I somehow giving up my legal rights to my body and as a parent simply by going into Labor & Delivery? What were they going to do, arrest me for demanding to hold my own baby?
The answer to my first question, of course, is YES, you can say “no.” In fact, that’s one of your most fundamental rights as a patient and a human being. Your body is your own, and you decide what is done or is not done to it, and, as a parent, you have the right to make decisions about your baby. There are many options for birth, the majority of which are as safe as or even safer than standard practice.
In the end, I did get exactly the safe, uncomplicated birth I wanted for my baby, but it truly was a battle, and one I came close to losing. (More on that later.) I had to fight hard and, even then, luck came into play. So take it from someone who’s been there: educate yourself about your options and pick a team who will completely respect and enforce your wishes. Having to fight for yourself in birth is something no one should have to go through.
And taking back your birth may be as simple as changing your language. You don’t really need to ask permission, as if others have the ultimate authority over you or your baby. When you’re handed the thin, ugly hospital gown, you don’t have to ask, “Is it okay if I don’t wear that?” You can say, “No, thank you, I would rather wear my own clothes.” You can be assertive without being confrontational with the people who are there to help you. This principle applies to anything during your labor, delivery, and postpartum period.
Take back your birth. It truly is yours, and you don’t need anyone’s permission.
What has your experience been giving birth – good, bad, or indifferent? Did it matter, and, if so, how did it impact you and your baby?
Author Cristen Pascucci is the former Vice President of ImprovingBirth and is the founder of Birth Monopoly, co-creator of the Exposing the Silence Project, and executive producer of Mother May I?, a documentary film on birth trauma and obstetric violence. She is dedicated to promoting the rights of women in childbirth.