“I want a home birth,” Renee said. “I’ve hired some midwives.”
In my life, I have felt my anal sphincter clamp shut faster and harder after only three other phrases: “I don’t really like the original Star Wars movies as much as the prequels”; “I had a precognitive vision that we would be together forever, and then today you asked me out—how amazing is that?”; and of course “Wow, honey, that was actually even better than regular sex, but now it’s MY turn.”
Midwives. The very word conjured images of Berkeley hippies in floral skirts wafting into our home on clouds of patchouli. They would speak to Renee with an NPR announcer’s soothing, pastel voice, telling her that the earth mother’s psychic vagina power would get her through the pain. Pain so bad it takes gall stones and broken femurs for women to admit the comparison is kind of close.
We are a science-loving household. We laugh at chiropractors. We get pissed at homeopathy. We may have some anti-vaxers buried in the basement. We do zinc and Claritin when we get colds, not echinacea diffusers and chamomile. We take Vicodin when we have root canals. We don’t rely on aroma therapy or imagining our pain as a light with a dimmer switch.
We aren’t exactly the midwife types . Or so I thought.
Given how few midwives I’d ever actually met, I knew I was probably being unfair. When it comes to Renee’s health and well-being, however, sometimes my inner Richard Dawkins hulks out.
Because I’m “Uncle Chris” and not a co-parent, certain decisions get made without me, though being a parent/not parent leads to some charming benefits, like being able to say, “I think this one’s a blowout, so you ‘rents have fun”; “I shall wear white today”; or my personal favorite: “Welp, it’s my bedtime. Gotta get my nine hours since I stayed up late last night. Sleep tight.”
But it also means accepting that these are their decisions to make.
I can voice my opinions about things like midwives, of course. It’s not like poly really works if people are running around saying, “I really don’t give a sweet tinselly shit what you think,” so eventually Renee asked me what I thought.
It was a little bit like turning on a fire hose to have a sip of water.
“No way,” I told her. “I want fifty-seven doctors and ten times that many nurses down the hall who will kick open the door action-movie-style at the first sign of trouble. I want syringes with every drug known to science no more than fifty feet away from you so that should you turn purple and begin shooting magma out your ears, the doctor will calmly turn and say ’50 CC’s of antipurplemagmaproponol—stat!’ I want you to have a triple-redundancy epidural line attached to a retinal scan that watches your pupils for pain dilations and ups your drugs at your slightest discomfort. Renee, I want the machine that goes ping!”
But I didn’t get a vote. And at the end of the day, I would have to crack open an ice cold Coke (the ones from Mexico with real cane sugar) and shut the fuck up. My fears that without a doctor there, Tom would rip through Renee’s chest alien-style . . . and then explode, would simply have to take a back seat. And even after I begged to at least do a birthing center as a compromise (because it was a block from the hospital and had a machine with a digital display that spewed out very sciencey-looking readout paper), I ended up watching someone named Lavender set up a birth tub where my dining room table used to be.
We also met a doula named Meadow, and later we met our midwives from a little place here in Oakland called Nova Midwifery. I drank lots of Mexican Cokes and tried not to freak out too much at all the references to “sacred feminine power.”
In fact, I didn’t unclench until one day on our third or fourth meeting with our midwives. I was there, trying to play the supportive partner, and feeling like my science-loving inner Christopher Hitchins was getting bulldozed. I heard repeated references to how important “gut flora” is without actually being told how important it is. Was it going to make Tom have indigestion and be a little cranky for a couple of days? Or was it going to cause him to be a raging psychopath who could never find love? Or would he just explode in an incendiary wave that would take out half a city block? Scope matters when you’re talking about consequences.
Then they started talking about the placenta.
Not if, mind you, but what should be done with the placenta. I sat there trying desperately not to bust out into a few choice lines of Tim Minchin’s Storm while they were calmly discussing encapsulation vs. placenta stew with the apprentice midwife. It was just too much.
“So, is there any science behind this placenta stuff?” I asked, knowing full well there wasn’t, and that I was stirring the pot . . . at best (and at worst, being a class 5 ass). I just wanted to see how ridiculous the answer was going to be.
“Not even a little bit,” the midwife said in a relieved voice.
Wait, what? Was she . . . maybe . . . as uncomfortable as I was?
I watched the midwife’s eyes flick over to the apprentice—the one who was offering to do the encapsulation. The midwife bit the corner of her bottom lip a little, and then launched into a discussion about how a placebo you believe in has real power even if it is the placebo effect. “If it works, it works—even if everyone knows it’s a placebo.”
I recognized that speech!
That was the same speech I had given a hundred times when I said something just a little too skeptical in front of friends and I was backpedaling to avoid hurting their feelings. Tarot, Reiki, crystals, herbalism, naturopathic doctors—at some point I had said about all of them, “This is fucking bullshit!” and ended up backpedaling the same way the midwife just had. I would retreat into ideas of Rorschach interpretations, or mind over matter in the placebo effect, basically assuaging offense by admitting that some things work even if we don’t always understand why they work–that belief in personal magic and the power of the mind makes them work. It’s a speech that usually cools tempers and gets me an uneasy armistice with the folks who don’t like my skepticism.
Suddenly, I had an ally—a midwife ally who knew this placenta crap was something people believed in, took seriously, would probably get offended about, but had absolutely no science backing it.
And that’s when I realized Renee was going to be in good hands, and after six weeks, I started to unclench.
In fact, besides having a dress code that apparently involved distractingly sexy boots, Nova Midwifery was utterly down to earth. They were codices of APA and CDC guidelines; they could discuss risk factors in statistical terms; they recommended liver and kidney function tests; and they carried around this really neat portable ultrasound device. They took Renee’s blood pressure like every ten minutes.
And the boots thing wasn’t exactly a liability. Just . . . distracting.
There were still moments that earned the archy-est of Spock-arched eyebrows. When they told Renee to induce labor because of a high blood pressure scare, I ended up white-knuckling it in an acupuncturist’s waiting room, where a patient told the receptionist that “people who don’t believe in chiropractic healing are completely full of crap, man.”
But the important part was that Nova weighed the birth plan they knew Renee wanted against the cold, unmerciful science of medical reality and never flinched when it came time to face facts. To be honest, that’s all I really cared about. If Renee could spit out the hellion in a jasmine-scented birth tub with a cry of divine feminine power, fand-diddly-damn-tastic. But I didn’t want midwives with such a rageboner against modern medicine that they would be trying some twig root tea and cleansing incense while a critical second slid by.
There were complications. Tom’s head wasn’t angled right, and we became the “cascade of interventions” you hear about. Renee needed a midwife who could in one moment stand defiantly between her and our utterly obnoxious doctor and say, “Her hips are perfectly wide enough.” But she also needed a midwife who could, an hour later, be gracious enough to defer to modern medicine when it was time to admit that progress had stopped and exhaustion was kicking in. Labor was 80 hours long, and after Renee tried everything—including a vacuum extraction—to get Tom out vaginally, she squeezed the midwife’s hand one more time for luck and mouthed “thank you” before being wheeled off to her c-section.
If there’s anything resembling a take-home message (my editor demands that my meandering, stream-of-consciousness, self-indulgent posts should at least have something resembling a take-home message), it’s this: there really was a doctor who told us, “Well, you have three hours, and then we have to consider alternatives,” like she had literally stepped out of a “Doctors Suck” alternative medicine documentary. And there really are rage-against-the-machine beliefs that “big pharma is a tool of the global health care agenda to mind-control us with fluoride.” But somewhere between those two points, you can find a middle ground with midwives if you look, a middle ground where epidurals are a tool in the toolbox, and c-sections are done as emergencies instead of scheduled before a shift change*—where interventions are not “eschewed failures,” but simply medically prudent steps.
And even a skeptic like me can be comfortable there.
*[Author’s edit- It has been pointed out to me that “scheduled c-sections” is something of a trope in the polemics surrounding the natural childbirth debate. I want to clarify that I was not generalizing with this statement about doctors or c-sections. We really did have a doctor who told us after one hour she would give us “two more” and who then tried to pressure us rather aggressively to have a c-section before the shift change from day to night staff. Alta Bates also offered to schedule our c-section when Renee was still in her first trimester. I was aware of the stereotype, and my reaction was “Wow, apparently this really is a thing.” But I absolutely have no experience beyond my own, and I didn’t realize my experience was going to have so much emotive force. I would have been more clear in the original post that it was strictly a personal experience if I had known. Apologies!]
I suspect that those midwives I fear do exist out there somewhere, wearing Birkenstocks and washing their hair with breakfast ingredients. Maybe they give women enemas of black cohosh when it should be time for a transfer, or do sacred feminine power chants when it should be time for a c-section. But with our midwives, the choice between a natural birth and grounded science became a false dichotomy.
In the aftermath, while Renee slept in the recovery room, and William went upstairs with Tom to NICU, I asked Meadow what happened to women who couldn’t push a baby out 200 years ago.
“Usually the baby died,” she said. “If it was the heir to the throne or something, they might kill the mother to get to the baby. A lot of times, neither one made it.”
I can look across the room and see Renee nursing Tom right now thanks to “modern medicine.” And I’m so very glad we found the grounded midwives who never, ever thought it was the enemy.