As Minnesota’s change in season begins to show signs of death–longer periods of darkness, bare tree branches and frosted crops, last night, I had the opportunity to attend a talk delivered by Ina May Gaskin that addressed the joys and sorrows of birth. Considered “the midwife of modern midwifery,” she was exactly how I imagined her to be. I was enlightened by her easy-going presence and her dedication to empowering people through education and social activism.
Starting with a rather intense Youtube video of an elephant giving birth, she captured my attention right away and reminded me that like an elephant, my body has an innate knowledge and wildness that can also give birth to great things. But before recognizing the beautiful wildness of the human species or any species, she laid some facts down about the reality of what it means to give birth in the United States.
Ina highlighted some pretty astounding facts about our progress (or lack thereof) in the realm of infant and maternal mortality rates. While we have made steady improvements over the years, currently the U.S. ranks 41st worldwide in newborn death rates, and the maternal death rate is also rising (to be fair, USA Today kindly provides a defensive view on this figure). Regardless of where you stand, the numbers speak loudly. In 2010, according to a World Health Organization report, the U.S. ranked 50th of 59 developed countries. Ina mentioned from 1996-2006, maternal death rates tripled in California which has caused a number of people to be concerned, as they should be. This figure was alarming enough for the state to ask the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative to perform a statewide review, which later discovered that nearly 40% of these deaths were preventable–which is big enough in itself for another day’s blogging.
While all of these facts are interesting and somewhat surprising, I already understand that we need a more holistic approach to birth and that mothers need more options (midwives, doulas, etc.)–what spoke to me the most from the talk was Ina’s comment about how powerful our minds are in the process of birth. When talking about pain related to birth, she mentioned that pain is accentuated by fear and that most women are fearful of giving birth because society has trained them to be. She mentioned that its common practice to pick on pregnant women and scare them. She added that we are pathologically afraid of birth even though a century ago, it was hospitals that were afraid of women abandoning hospitals to have home births, which was when midwifery was eliminated.
In addition to the fact society scares women of their bodies, Ina emphasized that education is lacking in the area of human anatomy and sex-ed. She said not enough time is spent teaching about preventative measures, how the body works and how miraculous it is. To improve this situation, she recommends junior high and high schools to teach kids early on about their bodies in a way that dismantles the dominant culture’s perception of the body and our ingrained belief that we need to control every aspect of it.
When Ina talked about being afraid of our bodies, I turned to the lovely pregnant woman who invited me to the talk, and we agreed that there were aspects of our bodies that we felt uncomfortable with. Never before had I really thought of why I was that way, I just accepted it. With a new perspective about myself and society, Ina challenged me to increase my comfort level with my own physical body and not blame myself for being a product of my cultural upbringing.
Ina lastly reminded me, as an environmentalist, that I need to respect nature in a way that recognizes that women are a part of nature too– that women have the right to know and accept that their bodies are wild and that’s okay. Ina left the audience with one final piece of advice: “Be as wild as you can”–like the elephant in the video. She added, “your instinctual self is in your wildness,” and that women must go to the wildness to remember and trust that they really do know how to give birth.
For additional details on the statistics provided in this blog, the following websites were used:
Stanford School of Medicine
California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative
Trends in Maternal Mortality Report