Sexy, Savvy, Natural Mama

a blog space for pregnant ladies, new moms, feminists, and interested souls

The Essential Pregnancy Library July 18, 2010

As a pregnant lady, you may be interested in getting some good books. I mean, the internet just doesn’t cut it. And as I said, a lot of those sites end up with a bunch of scary comments about miscarriages and illness. I have known of pregnant ladies who stay away from reading any books or sites, but as you might have guessed, I’m not really that type of person. In fact, I highly recommend reading a good selection of books — but you don’t need to go overboard.

You’ll need …

A great reference book. I totally do NOT recommend What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It’s not written by doctors, and it just kinda tells moms to avoid every little thing possible. It’s information light, and condescension heavy. Instead, I highly recommend the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy. This book is a true treasure — if you only buy ONE book for your pregnancy, this is really the one you need. It is divided into three sections — pregnancy, childbirth, and your newborn. It’s written by health care professionals, and has a non-conversational this-is-what-you-need-to-know kind of tone. It provides information on every option for pregnancy and labor, has charts for when you should call the doctor according to the week of pregnancy, and it tells you what to do with your newborn once you get it home. It’s well organized, well laid out, has lots of great information, and it will help you chill out when you perceive a potential problem.

For natural birth planners, you’ll need: Your Best Birth by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein. Ricki Lake — she’s at her least ridiculous in this book — and Abby Epstein are the minds behind the eye-opening documentary, The Business of Being Born (available on Netflix instant). (I recommend this for natural birthers as well.) This is the companion book, which details why pregnancy and childbirth are treated differently in the U.S. than in other countries, and it tells American mothers about all of their options when it comes to their own births. Ricki and Abby both tell their own birth stories in Your Best Birth, all of which are vastly different experiences (hospital birth with an epidural, home birth with no medication, and an emergency c-section). The best part about this book to me was the lists of questions to ask your doctor, midwife, hospital, and doula. They also go over how to write a birth plan and the things you may want to include. A quick, easy, fun and thoroughly informative read!

For the natural birth planner, you’ll also want to read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I’ve already written a full review of this fabulous classic, and yeah, I still think it’s pretty much the best thing ever. Ina May Gaskin is a total badass — a rogue, self-trained midwife who started her own birthing center at a commune in Tennessee. This book is her guide, her philosophy, and her experience. The best thing? The first third of the book is written by her patients, giving glimpses of their positive, natural birth experiences. Then, Ina May details all of the different ways and methods to cope with labor — particularly the more difficult labors. She is unflappably calm and amazingly creative, and gives you a lot of ideas to hold in your personal labor arsenal. For example, if you open your mouth during pushing, you’re less likely to tear. If you’re muscles are tight, and someone rocks you back and forth, you’re more likely to relax and have it easier. And you get to read Ina May’s amazing statistics for her commune birthing center at the end. Also, it’s well written and has a good sense of humor!

For coping with labor pain in a natural way, check out: Birthing from Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz and Hypnobirthing by Marie Mongan. Both of these books are designed around a “method” to deal with labor, so you may want to choose one ore the other. However, I think checking out a little of both is important because it gives you a chance to gather more tools for your labor arsenal. Birthing from Within does have some wacky stuff about creating birth art to express your fear, which I’m not really into, but some people might find cool. What I really liked about Birthing from Within is the varied methods of coping with pain and the suggestions for how to cope with post-partum stress. Hypnobirthing has a lot about the history of childbirth, and it explains the self-hypnosis methods for dealing with labor. It has a great deal of wonderful information about pregnancy, and it explains meditation you can practice and use during childbirth. Also very well written and engaging. Highly recommended!

Breastfeeders will need … A good breastfeeding book. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding By La Leche League International comes highly recommended. It’s the one I have, and there’s a ton of great information in it … but … it gets a bit preachy. If you are someone who knows you’ll get cranky at super preachy breastfeeding dogma (i.e. “There’s no such thing as not producing enough milk. If you’re not producing enough milk, there’s something wrong with you.”), then don’t get this one. I haven’t checked any other ones, but The Nursing Mother’s Companion comes highly recommended as well, and I would definitely give Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding a good try since Ina May pretty much rules.

Everyone needs … Baby Bargains! As you know, I totally support Baby Bargains. The authors claim they’ll save you lots of dough when buying your baby gear, but I’m not sure if that’s the main benefit of this tome. The main benefit? I found out about everything available on the market, got familiar with brands, and got good ideas for what I needed and didn’t need. From this book, I got the crib recommendation that led me to choose Westwood, the idea to purchase the Arm’s Reach Mini Co-Sleeper, and the suggestions as to what brands to include on my registry. That said, the authors, Denise and Alan Fields, are parents and not consumer reports experts. It’s also good to get opinions from other sources — I choose friends and family, and Amazon reviews!

And if you’re interested in a book for your partner … Get The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin. This is the to-go reference for the person in your life who will be supporting you through labor — significant other, friend, mom and dad … etc. This has all the information that that person can tell you throughout your pregnancy — exercises, health, nutrition, and all the stuff they can tell you about labor while you’re in it — medical interventions, options, and positions, and what you can expect after the birth — how to identify postpartum depression, how you can be supported in breastfeeding, and how to clean your baby. It’s good for that person in your life to have all the info. As much as you can cram in your brain, you won’t remember all of it, and it’s good to have someone there to remind you and make sure you’ve got what you need.

I’ll have another addition after Sam is born — the best books for having a baby!

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Fear of Labor July 13, 2010

For those of you who knew me before Eric and I started planning to get pregnant, you may have at least guessed that I wasn’t exactly a natural birth advocate. I thought the idea of a scheduled c-section sounded like a great idea, and the thought of breastfeeding totally creeped me out. I had a colleague who had had an all natural birth that lasted thirty-six hours, and that was enough to convince me that ALL THAT was something I did not want. After all, as Americans in the twenty-first century, we’ve been given the opportunity to do away with pain during labor. Why wouldn’t you want to do away with pain? Why wouldn’t you want to do away with the strangeness and ickiness of breastfeeding? Knock me out, and give me the drugs. That was quite and very much the way of my reasoning.

Fast forward to July 3, 2009. That’s right — almost exactly a year ago. Eric and I formally decided to go off of birth control that day. I only remember it because it was the one week in the summer that Eric was home from a business trip to San Diego (one that he thought I’d be able to go on, but that’s another story), and it was the night that we saw Away We Go, the day before the fourth of July. Yes, a baby. We decided we were going to have a baby in 2010. Exciting. As you might have guessed, I hadn’t given labor too much of a thought, except that I still thought it was a yucky, painful process. One that I clearly wanted to avoid.

And then I read this post on one of my favorite blogs. (And this one and this incredible, beautiful conclusion to follow up. If you read one of those posts, read the last one, please. Yes. So amazing.) And with those words, and her experience, I began to question what I once knew. When I went to stay with my husband his last week in San Diego, I told him that I thought I wanted a natural birth. Of course, he’s always been a big supporter of this, pretty much calling me crazy for wanting a c-section — I mean, that’s major surgery, and why would you want to schedule that when you don’t have to?

Fast forward again to January 2010. I find out I’m pregnant on the day that we go to visit Eric’s family. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting that weekend, and it only makes me nervous. After that, I start to do my research in earnest. I read everything I can get my hands on about healthy pregnancy, natural birth, and labor: Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin, Birthing from Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz, Your Best Birth by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, Pushed by Jennifer Block, Hypnobirthing by Marie Mongan, and The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin for my husband and coach. (And I just got The Birth Book by William Sears.)

I began to realize that I was seriously under-educated about pregnancy and childbirth. I began to realize that most of us — women and men — are seriously under-educated about childbirth. As Americans, we’ve also been seriously mis-educated, misled, and misguided about PAIN. We hear a lot of cliches about labor in particular, and we see them on our television and movie screens. We hear this: “You wouldn’t undergo a root canal without anesthesia, right?” or “It would be like trying to push a watermelon out of your nostril.” We hear about how painful it is, how it’s unlike any other pain you’ve experienced, how it’s pure insanity to go it without pain relief. We see women in terrible pain on A Baby Story, lying back as the doctors swoop in to save the day. We see Ellen Page in Juno and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up begging for epidurals when they go into labor (and Amy Poehler in Baby Mama celebrating her choice to have one in a rather public way). Think about it: do you see any positive portrayals of natural birth in the media? Do you see any portrayals of women being empowered as they choose the way their child comes into the world?

Let me know if you think of some. I can’t.

In fact, I would posit that we’ve been taught to fear labor, fear the natural signals of our bodies, and fear the pain that is associated with those natural signals. We’ve put our trust instead in doctors, who are incidentally, mostly dudes. (Side note: there are lots of great doctors, and natural-friendly ones to boot. But there are plenty who keep on pushing the fear.) By putting trust in someone other than ourselves, and by passively absorbing the fearful images we see in the media, we give up a valuable part of our birth experiences. We get swept away in the wave of fearing pain, and we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to become educated, take control, and guide our birth experience as captain, rather than passenger.

When you fear something, it gets a lot worse, right? It hurts worse, it feels more painful, it is more intimidating, more frightening … so it is with labor. If you fear it, you will automatically tighten up, which works against the natural contractions your body is producing to guide your baby forward. When you work against your own body, and cannot relax, it can hurt a lot worse. Common sense, right? But still, over nine months (and indeed, the many years before we get pregnant), we are developing an image of an intensely painful experience that we cannot cope with, that will control us, that is compared to an illness in the medical world. How can one be expected to work against that fear when it comes to the day of labor?

Adrenaline plays a role here too. If you see a bunch of people you don’t know in your labor room, you get scared at the onset of a painful contraction, or your doctor gives you a rough exam while you are laboring, it can trigger an adrenaline rush. According to Birthing Naturally, “Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone that humans produce to help ensure survival. Women who feel threatened during labor (for example by fear or severe pain) may produce high levels of adrenaline. Adrenaline can slow labor or stop it altogether.” And if your labor stops, you need the drugs, right? So say the doctors.

Well what’s wrong with the drugs? Pitocin and pain relief medications of all varieties help a tremendous amount of women through labor, but they can also mess with your body a bit in ways you might not expect. I’ll comment here about pitocin — it’s a synthetic version of the natural hormone that makes your uterus contract. But it doesn’t work in the same way that your natural hormone, oxytocin, does. It makes your whole uterus contract rapidly and all at once. You might guess that causes pain — not so great pain that might cause you to start seriously needing the pain meds. Pitocin also doesn’t trigger the natural pain relief mechanism your body has to offer — endorphins. So when you get the pitocin, you start needing the epidural, and the epidural, while innocuous to the body in many ways, can slow labor as much as 25%. And when labor slows? That’s right … “emergency c-section.” Sounds nuts right? It certainly happens.

Understandably, many remain frightened of the pain. But many remain unaware of the benefits of laboring sans drugs. You heal faster, you can walk around and try out different positions, you don’t have to have a catheter to pee, you can get in and out of the shower or tub, and you can sneak in a snack or a drink of water every once in a while. Too, you can listen to the signals of pain that your body gives you as positive markers of where you are in your labor. Finally, you are connected to the millions of women who have come before you — your ancestors — who labored naturally. But how do you cope with the pain in a society that tells you pain is unnecessary? Well, that’s the question. How can you?

In all the books I listed above, there are tons of relaxation techniques, exercises, and guided meditation that many women say can help. The Bradley Method encourages slow, abdominal breathing, while Hypnobirthing touts self-hypnosis. Birthing from Within tells about non-focused awareness. There are a lot of options out there. Hypnobirthing even claims that labor was never meant to be painful, and Mongan’s book all but promises a pain-free labor. (We’ll see about that … ha.) Whatever the technique is, the important thing to me is that I get to choose it. I manage the pain, and it doesn’t manage me.

I can’t tell you where I got so confident about this decision, but it happened early on in my pregnancy. I didn’t want this to be something that happened TO me, but rather a whole event that I guided in the best ways I knew how. I’ll state here that I’m not belittling anyone who chooses a different path — we’re all trying to be mothers in the ways that we think will benefit our children the most. I’m also not going to say that I won’t consider pain relief if I’ve been laboring for 36 hours. And I’ll certainly go with a c-section if my baby’s life is in danger. But the important thing to me is that I have chosen to become educated about my options, and not close my eyes in order to let someone else manage the process for me.

That’s all for now.