“I know why you call it Birth Empowerment! I felt so empowered, elated, wonderful – I was on such a high”, exclaimed one of my clients when we spoke on the phone after her birth. This woman was the last client I taught birth preparation to before immigrating to the UK in 1998, and it was actually a couple of years later that we had that conversation. She was due a couple of months after I left and my return trips to the US were busy times with my family, and I always liked to allow enough time to hear someone’s account. She had a fabulous birth and I could feel the exuberance was still there as she described her experience to me on the phone years later. In fact, she had just given birth to her second child four months before we chatted.
What was so interesting about this empowered birth is that it had three interventions that might have led to a different outcome. She was induced because she was two weeks late and her cervix showed no signs of effacement, and was admitted to the hospital overnight with a prostaglandins gel to soften the cervix. She told me that she hung on to something I had said in class: “I kept remembering you saying if you have to get an IV or something, it’s not the worst thing in the world. When they were threatening to induce, and I was getting nervous with people’s comments, that helped a lot.” When I taught birth preparation I always reminded people that just because an intervention is necessary, they did not have to abandon their desire for a natural childbirth altogether. In the morning, at 7:00 am her water was broken and induction was started, yet the feel of her labor does not have that hallmark. By 9:30 she was 3-4 cm, at 10:00 she was 6 cm, and by 10:30 she was pushing. She pushed for a half hour and her daughter was born at 11:00 am.
After teaching the Bradley Method® for ten years, I synthesized the best of my training with new material acquired over the years as part of my continued professional development into a new methodology called Birth Empowerment® Preparation for Childbirth. Back in the 1980s, empowerment was a relatively new concept when applied to birth. I knew that many women, me included, could emerge from the experience of birth with an empowered outlook on life. Birth is considered by some to be transformative, and healing, and when I was teaching and applied these transformative and healing concepts to birth, my clients were able to actualize powerful and healthy experiences for both mother and child. This comprehensive preparation for childbirth helped my clients understand what to expect and what they could do to have a positive birth. I taught this birth preparation for another ten years before I immigrated to England, for a total of twenty years as a childbirth educator at the end of the 20th century.
One option for empowering birth is a book by Katrina Zaslavsky called The Modern Woman’s Guide to a Natural Empowering Birth.
It pulls together a plethora of positive birth stories and expert advice that focus on what’s positive and possible in birth. Commonly pregnant women are burdened by the horror stories that experienced mothers like to share about their birth experiences, which has a negative effect on their perceptions of what birth will be like. It reminds me of the adage “it takes a village to raise a child.” It takes a village to help women give birth, which used to be the case when girls came of age in a village where women giving birth was shared and witnessed as ordinary life events. This shared wisdom was lost when birth was relocated into hospitals and became invisible. As I read Zaslavsky’s book, the birth stories are like a village of birthing women coming alive for prospective mothers. It’s not about someone telling you how to give birth; it’s a volume of insights that are demonstrated by the stories that real mothers share about their powerful experiences. These are the kinds of stories that empower women to create births like the one I started this blog with. It advocates for good independent birth preparation, the knowledge that eliminates fear.
As a doula (since 1978) I have watched how empowering birth can be when a woman is well informed and has the kind of support that facilitates birth going smoothly. Knowledge is important to eliminate fear of the unknown, and when it is paired with support, this is how empowerment unfolds. Most of the time support comes from the father or partner, and often a doula (a woman who assists the mother through birth and the postpartum period) adds a layer of support that allows the partner to be more engaged, providing emotional comfort while the doula provides the practical and physical support. The continuous support of a doula is known to reduce caesarean section rates, interventions, the use of medication, and for increasing satisfaction with the birth experience. It also takes the pressure off the father/partner to remember everything learned in classes! When a woman doesn’t feel supported in labor she can become overwhelmed leading to a traumatic experience that leaves a nasty imprint for the start of a new family. Good birth preparation and solid support are like insurance policies against things going wrong and having a lasting negative impact.
I believe the formula for empowered birth is: knowledge + support = empowerment. This is what led to the development of The Birth Empowerment Workshop®, a holistic weekend intensive that helps couples assimilate the emotional and spiritual aspects of giving birth and becoming parents. A sense of community is created within the group when we are learning and growing in a warm and harmonious environment. It is a great joy to watch the empowerment of those who take part – and this plays out during their birth experiences, while they are adjusting to life as parents, and in the depths of their relationships. It is known that for the vast majority of new parents, there is a dramatic drop in satisfaction with the relationship in the year after a baby is born. The Birth Empowerment Workshop® is a way to inoculate against this happening by helping to create strategies that bring us closer together to weather the storms ahead. The evolution of this workshop into a couples’ retreat that strengthens relationships before the baby is born is an aspect of empowerment that emerged from the process, empowerment as a couple. Here is a statement by one of the fathers who took part: “Birth Empowerment is about growth (both personal and interpersonal), about exploration, learning and discovery (both pragmatic and spiritual), but ultimately Birth Empowerment is about love; love and its most creative product: a beautiful healthy child and two ever closer growing parents enriched by the magical experience of birth.” (S. Kotansky)
Knowledge + Support = Empowerment
On September 1st, Empowered Birth Awareness Week begins as a reminder of the importance of reclaiming women’s power in the birth process. A few years ago Barbara Rivera started this week long advocacy for empowering birth that commences each year on ‘Labor Day’, and it’s an annual event. There are a number of events to celebrate empowered birth on a global scale, across the US and even in the UK too, as well as online. As an early adopter of empowered birth, I am so grateful that it has been embraced as a significant possibility for birth in this time of highly medicalized childbirth around the world. It is an important rebalancing of what’s possible for birth.
The combination of knowledge and support for birth is a package that fosters success and a deep sense of empowerment. Knowledge is power, and when coupled with loving support, the environment for positive birth becomes radiant and joyful. When we meet the challenges of birth with grace, this enacts a level of confidence that transfers to life’s other trials and tribulations. And there’s no better way to start the journey as a family than with a strong dose of confidence and empowerment.
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