Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reclaiming Birth Shakthi

Nora Kropp of BBN (Bangalore Birth network) contacted me to write an article on woman empowerment highlighting the story of Roopa Jude, one of the very few women in Bangalore to have had a homebirth. So I did, and here it is.
Google "cesarean rate in Bangalore" and you'll find a slew of articles bemoaning the disproportionate rise of c-section births in urban India. There are a host of reasons given such as doctors being too busy and unwilling to dedicate the time and availability for a normal birth, lack of staff and infrastructure (even in the poshest hospitals) to attend to simultaneous normal births given their uncertain lengths, the financial angle, and the ubiquitous fear factor that lead both the doctor and expecting mother to settle for a controlled surgical birth. There are even some blame-the-victim reasons given by defensive doctors that women these days are too unfit, too unhealthy, too fat, too superstitious, too old, too posh to push.
It's a minefield out there for a woman looking to give birth naturally in a setting that is designed for the convenience of the staff and the hospital. Even in a "normal delivery", women are subject to clinical medical procedure, stripped of all joyful and transformative aspects of birth for both mother and baby. In contrast with how interior the entire process of conception and gestation is, modern industrial birth takes place amid glaring florescent lights, impersonal stranger hands and gleaming sharp instruments - reducing to a pitiless emotionless ordeal what should have been the highest manifestation of strength and glory in a woman's life. Instead of feeling empowered and ecstatic with a new realization of her own capability, a woman comes out of birth feeling diminished and dehumanized, with a vague sense of having lost an irreplaceable rite of passage that was her biological birthright. Like the petals of a rosebud peeled back by gloved hands in a laboratory instead of blossoming naturally where it has grown in the light of the sun, the miracle of life is routinely reduced to a standard business-like hospital procedure.

In her brilliant deconstruction of societal attitudes regarding birth and parenting, Naomi Aldort, author of 'Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves', cuts right to the heart of the matter:
"Girls are shaped to grow up with no self-trust. They learn to believe that a doctor should “deliver” their babies. They are taught not to trust themselves and look for guidance from authority. They lost the ability to see themselves as the authority on their own bodies and birth giving.

Our modern mother is well trained to look for cues outside of herself. She does not trust her own body, does not know to feel it and in a way is disconnected from herself. She assumes that the doctor knows and that she does not know how to give birth. She therefore believes she must be in a hospital and follow instructions (as she was trained to do at home and in school). She believes blindly the story that birth is scary, unsafe and not possible without a doctor in a hospital.
In the hospital the mother who has been trained out of her self-awareness, is further stripped of any sense of being in charge and having power of herself. She follows instructions as she has been taught all along and is unable to recognize her own body wisdom. She signs her right off upon entering the hospital and she lays on her back (no power), often connected to machines, intimidated and with no privacy.

Stripped of body connection and inner power the mother becomes helpless depending on external instructions and hopelessly believing the “experts” and “professionals.” She misses the real expert: herself."
The season of pregnancy and birth is often the most liminal period for a woman, fraught with the one deep burning question of her existence: will she choose to internalize all the fears and cautions and rules that the world in the form of her family, friends and doctor imposes on her and thus be circumscribed by limits she has passively accepted; or will she choose to have faith in her own authentic inner guidance against all odds even in the face of the world's naysaying? Will she gravitate towards the choice that will not get her blamed in case of a bad outcome, or will she accept the primary responsibility for her child's and her own well-being with the spiritual maturity capable of living with uncertainty and unknowing without giving up? This will determine whether she will birth in a self-directed manner, listening within, fully engaged in the process physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; or default to being "delivered" by someone else according to their agenda.

The choices and experiences a woman goes through during this period of her life often changes her whole ground of existence, because she is indeed giving birth to herself as a new being, a mother. The nature of this new identity she forges will have far-reaching effects on how she perceives herself, how she nurtures and parents, how she lives and moves in the world.
This places the responsibility of the manner in which the child is born into this world squarely at the woman's door. In a deeper sense, our experience is going to be our own state of consciousness objectified. Truly, we birth as we live.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of 'Eat Pray Love', was asked in an interview, "What do you think the world needs from women right now?"
She replied, "I think the world needs women who stop asking for permission from the principal. Permission to live their lives as they deeply know they often should. I think we still look to authority figures for validation, recognition, permission.

I see women who have this struggle between what they know is right, what they know is necessary, what they know is healthy, what they know is good for them, what they know is good for the work that they need to do, what they know is good for their bodies, what they know is good for their families - all too often ending that statement with the upturned question mark: “If it’s okay with everyone?” Still asking, still requesting, still filing petitions for somebody to say that it’s all right. I think that, myself included, that has to be dropped before we can take our place in the way that we need to and the world needs us to."
Swami Vivekanada stated more than a 100 years ago, "The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence", and went on to say, "The highest manifestation of strength is to keep ourselves calm and on our own feet." Nowhere is this more relevant than in the domain of pregnancy and birth - womankind's exclusive privilege. And indeed, this warrior's journey from the "collective they" to the "authentic I" and onward towards the "compassionate we" is the consummation that all life tends towards.

Steve Taylor, PhD, professor of psychology at Leeds University, puts it this way, "I would argue that one of the most important tasks of our lives is to develop more freedom and autonomy. One of the primary ways in which we can develop positively and begin to live more meaningfully is to transcend the influence of our environment, and become more oriented towards who we authentically are. There is always a part of us with innate potentials and characteristics which is independent of external factors - even if that part of us may be so obscured that we can barely see it. But our task should be to allow that part of us to express itself more fully, which often means overriding environmental and social influences." This is very relevant to the fact that reclaiming autonomy in birth is not selfish or irresponsible or foolhardy as it is sometimes made out to be - it is an evolutionary imperative. It is the natural outcome of a rise in consciousness.
Talking of overriding environmental and social influences, Roopa Jude, founder and manager of the Bangalore Chiropractic & Wellness Clinic, is one of the few women in Bangalore to choose a homebirth for her second child. Her first birth was a regular hospital one that involved standard obstetric practices like prostaglandin gel, pitocin to speed up labour, and finally a forceps delivery when she was too exhausted from lack of food and rest to push. "The overpowering non-mother-friendly atmosphere in the hospital shuts down the body's auto mechanisms as far as birthing and labour are concerned. You are no longer listening to your body and along with the hospital staff become victims of the system, doing all the things that prolong labour and make birthing more difficult. You are denied food when your body craves fuel to gear up for the marathon effort of its life, you are confined to bed without the relief of movement even as the pitocin-induced contractions are pounding your body without let up, and you are subjected to frequent painful cervical checks by different doctors on shift. I was worn down by hours of this, and when the doctor finally produced the forceps, I was taken aback at how big and complicated the contraption looked. I was so exhausted from the delivery that I fainted several times during recovery. My only blessing was that I was not subject to a c-section at the end of it all which apparently would have been the norm, I was told, if not for the team involved in my case."    

Roopa connected with the BBN (Bangalore Birth Network), and met several natural-minded folks like chiropractors, midwives and a community of supportive like-minded women. Within her, a conviction started to grow that homebirth was the only way to birth with autonomy and bodily integrity. At about the same time, she discovered she was pregnant, and the hunt for a homebirth midwife was on. She found a nurse-midwife from Australia who happened to be in India for a year and got her on-board as her care-provider. Through the BBN, she found a doula and also support for her midwife who had never done a birth in India, let alone a homebirth.
Her path to a homebirth, however, was far from smooth. Her midwife was out of the country for a period of 3 months, and slated to only return on the day after her due date. At 34 weeks, urged by family as well as her midwife, she visited the family doctor who had delivered her first child. The doctor checked her and found that the baby was breech. Roopa was firmly told to come in and get admitted for an immediate cesarean if her baby had not turned head down by 36 weeks gestation, just 2 weeks away. Such was Roopa's unrelenting resolve not give up her dream of a homebirth that she never went back to the doctor, in spite of pressure by family and friends. Instead she researched natural breech births and was intent on birthing at home, regardless of the position of the baby.

"My husband and I had absolute faith that God, the Creator that had grown this child from a single cell to a full-fledged baby, would also take care of the way and manner in which it came out of my body", she states with serene confidence.
Roanna Rosewood, author of 'Cut, Stapled and Mended', echoes this sentiment, "The people and institutions managing birth have nothing to do with impregnating us. Our babies are a gift from something bigger, stronger, and more important than they are. The way that we choose to give birth is between us and the powers that entrusted us with this child."

Roopa and her husband at this point were simply taking it one day at a time.
At 39 weeks, a scan revealed that the baby had turned head down. But her happy ending was still not at hand. By week 42 she had still not gone into labour! Finally at 42 weeks and 3 days, labour began. She thinks it significant that just prior to the beginning of labour, she had an urge to sit down and polish off a heaping plateful of delicious pulav her mother had cooked, as well as a big bowlful of peanut pakodas. "I'd never eaten that much in my life before, and I generally don't like peanuts. My body was fuelling up for the effort ahead. All I did was follow its cues", she smiles.

A smooth 5 hour labour later, she pushed out her baby on all fours in her own bed. "When the head came out, everything stopped for 30 seconds to a minute. The baby actually coughed and blinked while he was still inside of me. After this mini-rest which seemed like a lifetime to me, in one last powerful contraction, his body slid out into the midwife's hands. He was so clean, hardly covered in vernix, and very alert, already looking around and taking it all in. The midwife said she was compelled to award him a 10/10 Apgar score because she had never seen a baby so perfect in skin tone, muscle tone and alertness immediately upon birth", recalls an elated Roopa. She did not even require stitches post-birth, and her recovery was stress-free and peaceful as the family bonded happily with the new arrival. She remarks, “Finally, the whole process gave me insight on how women in ages past could give birth to so many children. It is a very empowering experience that leaves no distaste for a repeat.”
This is the choice that lies before women at this critical juncture of time - will we continue to look outside for cues on how to lead our lives, or will we manifest shakthi, the innate power of womanhood, in every movement of our lives, including the profound responsibility of how we bring our children into this world? It is time women took that responsibility back. It is time women owned birth again. It is time women manifested "soul-force" as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, something that emanates from a deep truth inside of us and empowers us to act. 

The most gracious and courageous gift we can offer the world is our authenticity, our uniqueness, the expression of our true selves. Go ahead. Unleash the goddess within!