If all goes according to plan I’m going to have a second kid in April. In fact, I’m writing this from the throes of my first trimester where nothing is more disgusting than the smell of peanut butter and a couple of times a day I find myself suddenly flattened like a Wile E. Coyote pancake, trying to peel my head up off the couch: what hit me?
From where I am I’d like to proceed slowly, since I’m still in the miscarriage danger zone, but I can’t help jumping ahead and planning for the birth and beyond. It’s hard to avoid because I live in Los Angeles and occasionally go to yoga, so the panoply of complementary and alternative services available to expectant ladies such as myself are everywhere. There are so many things to consider! Should I have my placenta encapsulated into pills I can take to decrease night sweats and perhaps slim my swollen uterus down to size ($275)? Will I need help drafting my birth announcement or email asking family and friends for support ($150/ hour)? Do I want to order a meal service that will deliver me a “positively charged” and detoxifying array of food, bone broths, and teas ($200 for three days of meals, or $65 for five 16 oz servings of broth)? The first time around nothing beat the sacred post-partum healing tradition of a chocolate shake from In-N-Out ($2.15), but I may have to forego it next time since their recent political donations to the Republican Party, so it’s good to know my options.
The other day I casually picked up the flier for a doula advertising at a Valley studio. This doula listed among her services helping her clients achieve a “primal” birth ($700, which is dirt cheap!). Birth is of course, always and already primal. Can it become even more so with the proper assistance? When women pay a doula to help them get one, I wondered, what kind of experience are they really trying to buy?
Maybe it’s to deliver the baby in a way that feels as sexy and generative as the act it took to conceive it. I get that. I’d like to imagine that during my second labor I’ll be prowling and undulating on all fours like a powerful lioness or dancing around to Lee Moses’s “Bad Girl” in some dark fever, channeling the forces of Shiva—you know, like Jemima Kirke in that scene from Girls—instead of standing awkwardly for hours and hours and hours on end like I did with my first, clutching at my husband with hands tightened into claws like a middle school dance zombie because it hurt too much to be in any other position.
Or maybe women are looking for something a little more straightforward when they think of primal birthing—no fuss no muss, no overthinking. The first time around I took a birth education class and we all dutifully watched videos of elephants and chimpanzees deliver their offspring. These were pretty low-key labors: the elephant’s baby just plopped right out, its fall cushioned by its amniotic sac. The seemingly blasé chimp reached down and pulled her own baby out while the dad chimp paced. These were nothing compared to the videos that followed of unmedicated first-time moms losing their shit, one being hosed down like a concert-goer on a bad trip, another shrieking in operatic terror before being told that what she was feeling was her own baby coming out of her body, at which point the yells dissolved into a kind of sobered existential bemusement. Those seemed like pretty primal moments, but I’m guessing it’s not the image the doula is going for.
If I sound cranky, you can blame it on the hormones. It would be antifeminist to rail against an industry that has developed to help women feel supported, informed, and empowered during a major life event and transition, right? Whatever floats mama’s boat. And I’m not against it. I used a doula, I’ll use one again, I did acupuncture and moxibustion, I tried to “spin” my baby by standing on my head, I plan to go for an unmedicated birth the second time around. So what rankles? I guess first of all it’s the idea that you can have, as the industry so likes to call it, the “birth of your choice”. That you can just decide that you want to have a “primal” birth, or as another doula was advertising, a “lavender birth” (a few tosses and turns in your grandma’s spare Provencal bedroom and out pops the kid already in a white frilly nightgown and bonnet), or a whatever birth. But here’s the rub; you can do all the belly sifting with your artisanal woven rebozo, pull together your perfect labor playlist, and this natural process still may find a way to throw you a curveball. And this isn’t just a bone I have to pick with the natural birth folks—a pregnant friend told me her Type-A, get shit done coworker asked for an elective C-section for her first birth because she figured it would be more straightforward and “less stress on her body” and whose doctor agreed, then went into labor earlier than expected and had to sit through six hours of non-medicated contractions at the hospital despite a desire for relief while they prepped the planned-upon spinal. You just never know!
Women might be drawn to the idea of primal birthing because we want to feel like the opposite of that shrieking mom, that temporarily foiled C-section mom—we want to feel like we are in control, doing something that we were made to do (that reassuring refrain from moms, sisters, cousins, midwives) how we mean to do it. But, especially for a first-timer, that’s not necessarily how it feels. I was quite startled when my contractions began to seem like I was being possessed by a demon, rather than the sort of effortful physical exertion I was expecting, like pushing myself to run one last mile.
You can’t just will yourself into a natural birth through a surfeit of self-care practices and positive thoughts. You can’t artfully curate the experience of your labor and delivery. As my prenatal yoga cohort graduated one by one into Baby and Me classes, mom after mom shared stories of unplanned interventions like inductions, forceps, and emergency C-sections, with guilty but relieved smiles and resigned shrugs. The babies got born safely. It was what it was.
Even so, I smugly figured that when my turn came I was going to rock it (meaning, do it “natural”)—I felt healthy and in touch with my body, both my sister’s kids came fast. The idea of having to get a catheter for an epidural scared me more than the idea of labor pains. But then I had contractions every four, and then every two minutes for almost 24 hours with no medicine, driving across town to UCLA on the 110 to the 10 to the 405 twice, the first time late morning and the second time my eyes squinted against the blazing setting sun, only to find each time that I had made almost no “progress” at all. Then I did about 24 hours more with all kinds of interventions including an exquisite epidural and, finally, an emergency C-section when things still hadn’t progressed and my baby’s heart rate started to drop.
Some people reacted with sympathy to the news of how it went, sympathy that I wasn’t not expecting, given the LA climate where women talk of having failed if they end up using medication and we are ominously warned of being traumatized by a hospital birth, but it was sympathy that I nonetheless felt put off by. So I couldn’t boast that my baby was born at home in an aromatherapy tub. I didn’t feel like the birth was disempowering. My baby was born safely. I was well cared for. It was what it was.
What’s really primal is giving up the illusion of full control that in some way this current birth support and education business tries to assure you will be able to keep. During labor you lose control over your own body, to a greater or lesser extent, and barfing all over your own house is just the start. As Maggie Nelson so eloquently put it, when you give birth you realize “that death will do you too.” And if you are one of many women who have some kind of complications and you hear those words—“baby in distress”—you are also faced with the fact that you don’t have full control over the fate of your child, that tiny precious cozy thing you have dutifully carried and for whom you are trying to provide the most state-of-the-art, nurturing, mindful entry into this world. Before you even have the chance to hold her in your arms you face the terror that death could do her too, no matter what you do.
This stuff is heavy. So of course, all women need care and support during and post birth. Our needs range from coping with the aforementioned existential mindfuck to the psychologically complex to the occasionally medically dire to the real basic (I need to take a crap! Somebody else has got to hold this baby!). But I don’t think as adult women, even healing from birth, that we need, as one alternative postpartum service provider in my area claims on their website, “as much care as a newborn.” And thank goodness.
My suspicion of these “primal,” “ancient”, “traditional” birth services goes beyond convincing women with extra cash to spend that they are in danger of not getting enough massages or fresh pressed juice once baby comes. It goes beyond stereotypically loopy LA ideas about health and wellness that aim to convey a sense of nurturance or authenticity through appropriated buzz words dislodged from actual cultural traditions. And it even goes beyond the amping up and performing of life experiences, like we’ve done with weddings and “babymoons” and etc. etc. ad nauseam, all neo-liberal-like, so that the right kind of birth will afford you some kind of social capital or cultural status. It’s also that the emphasis on vulnerability and the need for comprehensive care somehow hits the wrong target; it’s the paradox of affluent, safe, (mostly white) women with a gazillion options romanticizing the idea of giving birth in a situation where they would actually be much more vulnerable—possibly dead—even as they avail themselves of “sacred” luxury care. If imagining you’re a cave woman will help you get the baby out, that’s cool. But one in 41 women still die in childbirth in low-income countries. Or recall the Annie Proulx short story where the pioneer lady gives birth in her dugout while her husband is away, hemorrhages to death, and gets eaten by her own cat. Us middle class and above Angelenos are not in quite the same situation.
As Californians, we’re lucky; we have state mandated unpaid maternity and paternity leave, women can qualify for paid pregnancy disability leave before birth, and both partners may qualify for paid family leave after. Our maternal mortality rates are low compared to other parts of the US, which are not doing so hot, and failing African-American mothers in particular. What if, in addition to the burgeoning pseudo-spiritual support available for affluent women we had practical support for all women in this country? What if we had universal health care in addition to the competitive, expensive birthing trends for women who are already covered? Less guilt about modern “interventions”, and an acknowledgement that our empowerment as new mothers can be supported, not threatened, by reliable, accessible, comprehensive medical care? Am I making sense here or am I starting to sound like I have “pregnancy brain”? Maybe I should just go to a nearby spa and soak in their pregnancy-safe 98.6 degree hot tub for an hour ($80) and then take a power “pregnancy nap” there ($40 for 25 minutes) followed by a prenatal massage ($195/hour, up a whopping $75/hour since my last one in 2015) and I’ll feel much poorer—I mean, better.