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Ricki Lake’s new documentary, The Mama Sherpas- How collaborative care is giving women back their rights in birth

My first birth was a standard hospital delivery. It was attended by the on-call doctor, a man I’d never met until my baby was practically spilling out of me. While it wasn’t abysmal, it certainly wasn’t what I thought the birth of my first child would be like. I was forced to labor on my back, like a lot of women, which felt unnatural to me and made my labor far more difficult to bear, let alone to be an active participant in. I was given an unnecessary episiotomy, so quickly I couldn’t protest. I was covered in uncomfortable monitors that dug into my contracting belly and had hands shoved inside me during back labor which was by far, the worst pain of my entire life.

Lastly, I didn’t see my real doctor, the woman I’d been meeting with every few weeks for nine months, until days after my baby was born. She stopped by the room for no longer than 60 seconds to press on my belly and tell me I was “good as new” and in a flash, she was gone, off to press on a dozen more bellies and deliver just as many babies before noon- that I understood. But overall, it was a highly impersonal, slightly degrading experience and one I had no plans of repeating in the future.

Unfortunately, this is not unlike a lot of women’s experiences with hospital birth and when I talk to other women about theirs, it seems that I was actually one of the lucky ones. The truth is, we live in a culture where it is not uncommon for women to suffer birth trauma because of how their rights in childbirth were violated or how their bodies were manipulated. Rates of unnecessary interventions are sky high, as are the rates of women reporting feeling largely dissatisfied with their level of care during birth. Some say they were seriously wronged during labor or perhaps that they didn’t feel cared for or even safe. Some women are even taking legal action after the events surrounding the birth of their babies.

After working hard to educate myself after what happened during my first birth, when I became pregnant with my second child, I sought out a drastically different option- a home birth attended by midwives. At the time, home birth wasn’t exactly legal in my home state of Maryland (though legislation has recently passed to change that), but I felt it was my best and safest option. The closest birth center was about an hour away and given this was my second birth, I figured it might move more quickly and I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of laboring in a car. I knew without question that I didn’t want to be back in a hospital, forced to labor in a way that my body objected to and be in a situation where I was at a huge risk of having major abdominal surgery (about 1 in 3 hospital births result in c-section, high above the recommended ranges).

After researching home birth success rates, I felt safe and informed in my decision. Still, I knew having my baby at home would give me some extra hoops to jump through, like having to fight to get my baby’s birth certificate (after about 17 phone calls and two home visits from a social worker and we were good to go), not to mention the social stigma of having your baby at home and finding a pediatrician who didn’t treat me like a negligent mother. But I was confident home birth was the right option for me. I’m glad to say that it turned out to be a wonderful experience and one I would do over in a heartbeat, mainly because the midwife care I received was so personal, nurturing and took my feelings about birth into consideration.

It goes without saying that my two birth experiences were drastically different and while I was thrilled with the outcome of my second birth, many women don’t get to experience that kind of liberation with subsequent births. This is especially true for women who have had a cesarean and are hoping to have a vaginal birth with subsequent deliveries (VBAC).  In many states, women seeking a VBAC currently have very few options. Some birth centers refuse them and many doctors will tell them they can “try”, but do little to support their choice. I know many women who have sought out a home birth simply because they couldn’t find a doctor or a practice that was supportive of helping them achieve a VBAC.

Every year, more women are choosing out of hospital birth because of the high rates of unnecessary surgery and interventions taking place in hospitals. In fact, even obstetricians themselves are choosing home birth, as is demonstrated in the documentary entitled Why Not Home? While I’m a huge advocate of birthing at home, I don’t believe this is the right choice for every woman. Simply put, women need more options when it comes to how and where to birth their babies. Some women have high risk pregnancies and other women simply wouldn’t feel safe giving birth outside of a hospital environment. It seems there needs to be a form of care that can support women who want a happy medium- care that is personal, evidence based and overseen by qualified professionals, whether that be a doctor, a midwife or both.

Fortunately, in some practices, this kind of care is now taking shape. In the new film, The Mama Sherpas, created by executive producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein (The Business of Being Born) and DC-based director, Brigid Maher, we are introduced to the idea of “collaborative care” which is where doctors and midwives work together to manage women’s health during pregnancy and delivery. In a country where these two professionals are often on opposite ends of the spectrum in regard to practices and policies surrounding delivery, this idea is pretty empowering.

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Women can now reap the benefits of what both professionals offer throughout pregnancy, labor and delivery. The result, as we see in the film, is care that is evidence-based with lower rates of interventions (such as cesareans) and maybe most importantly, women feeling respected and supported during such an important time in their lives. With women experiencing “traumatic births” or even suffering PTSD for years to come as a result of their delivery, I’d say it’s about time for this model of care to come to the forefront of the birthing business.

The film looks at one practice in Washington DC, GW Midwifery, which is embracing this model of care and working hard to support VBAC women. The film opens with the delivery of the thousandth GW Midwifery baby (though that number has now doubled), a milestone which the practice is shown celebrating. You can quickly see the outpouring of emotions as one mother thanks the midwives “on behalf of VBAC mamas” and for giving her “a real shot” at having her baby the way she felt safest. With a 93% VBAC success rate, it’s shocking more hospitals aren’t already embracing this model of care, but hopefully, practices like this one will soon be an inspiration to many.

The flimmaker, Brigid Maher, also had a VBAC in a hospital with midwives when she gave birth to her daughter, Josie. Maher claims the experience of achieving the birth, a birth which so few women are given the opportunity, was so inspirational to her she says (in the film) “about ten minutes after her birth, I blurted out that I had to make a documentary about nurse midwives.” Maher says she “couldn’t imagine” trying to take care of a newborn and her older child during what she expected would be another rough recovery if she were to go under the knife again.

In many hospitals, women still feel that their care is limiting, impersonal and lacking evidence-based policies. While the risk for VBACs and the risk for having multiple cesareans is about the same, women are often railroaded into having multiple c-sections without cause. For lack of better options, as a culture, we’ve come to accept the care we’ve been given. With this form of collaborative care now in the works, hopefully, a new trend is on it’s way in.

Midwives and doctors working together seems like a welcomed change that will greatly help to support families in pregnancy and birth. And on a personal note, as someone who experienced two very different models of care during my births, I got chills watching the doctors and midwives collaborate to give moms the best of both worlds. Collaborative care could be the future of childbirth and if so, it’s a great future for mothers and babies.

Watch the full film here or keep up the The Mama Sherpas on Facebook.

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If you don’t support women’s rights in birth, don’t call yourself a feminist

I recently read a post (and a slew of supporting comments) on a popular parenting blog about birth plans and why you shouldn’t have one. Yes, you read that right — why you shouldn’t. I get where the author is coming from. Can birth be unpredictable? Sure. Can having a vision of your ideal birth set you up for disappointment if it doesn’t go exactly as you had planned? Absolutely. The birth of a child is, after all, a day that most of us have thought of and wondered what it would be like since we were children. I know I did.

But you know what is likely even more disappointing than maybe not getting your ideal birth? Getting railroaded into unnecessary interventions during your birth because you didn’t know you could say “no.” Feeling completely and utterly unsupported during your labor and delivery because you unknowingly picked a hospital with an unprecedented 50 percent C-section rate. Suffering birth trauma or postpartum depression or anxiety as a result of what happened to you in the hospital on a day you spent years dreaming about, but no time planning for.

Continue reading at HuffPost Parents… 

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10 Reasons I’m planning a natural birth that have nothing to do with “something to prove”

Let me begin by saying I don’t care what kind of birth anyone else in the whole wide world has. I don’t care if a woman plans for an epidural or ends up getting one when the pain is more than she believes she can take. I don’t care if she gets induced or plans her c-section months in advance. I don’t care if her birth experience is a series of interventions (as long as everyone comes out safe in the end). Her body, her prerogative. Right? Right. 

I do however believe that the way we birth is a choice and in recent years that choice has been taken away from us in an often frightening and forceful way. But as long a woman’s choices are informed and not being forced upon her then it’s really no one’s business but her own what kind of birth she has. Hopefully, that much we can agree on. 

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Me and Pipes, Spring 2010

But with that being said, people these days, specifically women, really don’t seem to like the idea of unmedicated or “natural” birth as we’ve come to call it. Mention you are planning one and you will no doubt be met with eyerolls and “what if”s and “what are you trying to prove”s? Or simply “why?” Or even the forceful “why in God’s name would you ever want to experience that kind of pain!? Are you some kind of martyr?”

Having an unmedicated birth can be about a lot more than just trying to prove to the world how strong you are. You grew a human so we already know that anyway. There are all kinds of reasons that birth remains important to many women and we shouldn’t feel badly about that. Of all the things we are taught to feel badly about as women, this really, really should not be one of them. 

Here are ten reasons why I’m planning a natural birth that have nothing to do with something to prove.  

1. Because I want to feel my baby entering the world. Yes, I want to feel it and not because I’m a martyr but because, well, how is that not an incredible thing to feel? It’s a once or twice or maybe three times in a lifetime chance and as long as nature intends, I’m going to take it.

2. Because having a baby is nothing like going to the dentist. It’s not the same as getting a root-canal without being numb (as I’ve heard many argue). It’s just not because where are the perks to that!? I pretty much avoid going to the dentist (when I can) but birth on the other hand, I’m looking forward to. And I’ve done it once before and it basically sucked altogether so that’s saying something.

3. Because I believe the experience has value and is one that every woman should get the opportunity to experience (if she wants it). I believe the experience can be life-changing and I’m a sucker for feeling (and writing about) the real, painfully beautiful parts of life.

4. Pure curiosity. I don’t know about anyone else but unmedicated birth is a huge point of curiosity in my life. It’s something women and mammals have done for centuries and yet it evaded me once, multiplying my intrigue by about a million.

5. Because needles in my spine and other interventions take longer to heal from, both physically and emotionally. The battle scars from my first birth were all from the interventions that occurred, not from the natural course of things. Pain in my back where the epidural went in for about two years, an unnecessary episiotomy that took months to heal properly, not to mention feelings of distrust towards medical professionals who seem to undermine women’s choices (and sometimes health) for the sake of their own agenda.

6. To create the ultimate bonding experience with my child. To feel the oxytocin running through me, the hormone rush, the body’s natural response to childbirth. To not be numb to those things like I was once before. To have that “golden hour” with my offspring to begin our journey together.

7. Because at the heart of it, I’m not really afraid of birth. I have nerves about the pain of birth, yes but most of that comes from the lack of control I had during my first birth. I wasn’t scared before that and so I know that is where my fear comes from. When I really look deep down, I have far more confidence about birth than I do fear.

8. Because I was built for it. I can read all the books that Amazon has to offer, but when it comes down to it, my body knows so much more about birth than my brain and it always will. It has literally been preparing for it since before I was born. I don’t doubt what it can do when nature takes it’s course.

9. Because pain is beauty. I believe that sometimes we have to go through difficult things in life to reap the rewards.

10. Because it just feels right. In my head, in my heart and in my body (here’s hoping). They might not agree on much, but they’re all aligned on this one. 

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5 Unlikely celebrity role models

There are some gorgeous and talented celebrity moms out there who we all look up to. With their all-organic diets and their perfect bodies, they somehow manage to maintain million-dollar-a-month careers and be A+ parents.

But what about those that we see in the headlines most? You know, the ones we like to think are doing it all wrong. Personally, I think we’re too hard on these red-carpet-walking women. Not that I know from experience, but it sure doesn’t seem easy to juggle the emotional demands of mommyhood, marriage, work crazy hours and maintain so much as a shred of poise, not to mention a killer bod. If I even so much as I tried, I’d likely be off the deep end in a margarita haze at every waking opportunity.

Here are some celebrity moms I think we should give a break — and maybe even a pat on the back.

1. Nicole Polizzi aka “Snooki”

This lady may not have the same approval as the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Garner. I mean, she’s a reality TV star after all. She got famous by partying her bikini off on The Jersey Shore and her taste is a bit questionable. But there’s something I really like about old Snooki — she is a real person and totally herself. She quit the party scene and became a dedicated mama once the opportunity struck. I saw her recently onThe View talking about how motherhood helped her become a far better version of herself and couldn’t help but think, “Go Snooki!” She also wrote a parenting book called Baby Bumps — From Party Girl to Proud Mama and all the Messy Milestones Along the Way. Who knew she had it in her? Snooki did, that’s who!

Continue reading… 

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Why I’m definitely going to breastfeed in public

A few years ago, I was sitting at brunch with my family of three. Our 1-year-old daughter sat chatting in the high chair while my husband and I enjoyed some much needed mimosas on a late Sunday morning. It was early spring but the sun was so hot that I had to run down the street to find some sunscreen in a nearby store so my strawberry blonde, blue-eyed bobbin wouldn’t fry.

After chatting with a group of baby-clad ladies at the table next to us, I offered them the bottle of lotion. Their babies were all smaller and newer than mine. Having never used sunscreen on their porcelain skin before, they hesitated, scanning the label for parabens, the same as I had done a few months earlier. We talked for a few minutes about babies and the band Phish (one of the babies shared their name with the lead singer and our daughter’s name is a song by the band). Then one by one each baby got fussy and all three mothers began to nurse.

Continue reading… 

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Real men get snipped

Four years ago, a daughter came bursting into my world, splitting it, and me, wide open. The pregnancy was long and difficult, filled with nausea that lasted until the day she was born. When she arrived she cried harder than I ever knew such a tiny person could. I loved her instantly but she was one hard as hell baby.

Motherhood took a lot of adjusting for me. I’d been living a booze-fueled life for as long as I could remember. But my daughter became the change I never knew I wanted. Luckily, my relationship with her musician-by-night, electrician-by day-father survived the earth shifting beneath our feet and four years later, we were ready to “try” and have another baby.

Continue reading…