Free Birth


I’ve been seemingly uninspired to write the past few weeks. Too tired, too content to surf and taste the words of others. Too, too, too…

I’ve been wanting for too long to write about the sadness I feel when women choose, prior to even laboring, to dull the shockingly awesome birth process with drugs. I have, and always, will stand strong for a women’s right to choose. But I firmly believe know that choice needs to be founded; on truths, on trust, on fair information, on love, on respect. I will also stand strong in my stance that our culture needs to step up to the plate and provide women with stories, images, and role models for natural birth. It should be intertwined in the fiber of our culture at least as much as the latest fashion trends, and recipes, and music. Is that too much to ask?

As a Mama who experienced post-partum depression, I can tell you that the overall numb feeling I encountered was no picnic. While my depression thankfully lasted only a few weeks, and was considered normal by most standards, I wanted nothing more than to feel again. Really feel the life that was going on in front of me. Whether it be joy, pain, sadness, fear, stress, or happiness, I would have been content to at least feel like a participant in that life rather than an observer. The greatest lesson was realizing that the overarching experience of depression is not about feeling “sad”, as I had previously and presumptuously assumed. It’s about feeling numb; as if watching a movie reel play while sitting in an empty theatre in the very last row. And worst of all the movie has no soundtrack to move you, to lead your heart and soul. Thankfully for me, I did have the physical pain of the recovery from an undesired C-section to remind me that I was indeed alive. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?

I fear this numbing is exactly what many mothers inadvertently end up experiencing when they agree to give in to the convention of medical birth. Sure, they want the pain numbed. However, knowing how important the sensations of labor and birth are to the body’s successful response (natural production of oxytocin = surges =opening of cervix= sensations of discomfort = production of endorphin =ability to cope and relax = feeling of safety = more flow of hormones + ability for body to “open” = birth) we must strive to feel and be an active participant in these sensations, rather than observing them on little, blipping screens. It just seems a bit freaky to me and sort of Matrix-like. Imagine: “Hey, Jane, now the machine is telling you your body is feeling joy! Oh look, now it’s digesting some food. Hey, Jane, you may want to go to the restroom now. Oh wait, we have a machine to take care of that for you too. How amazing. How did we ever survive without these machines telling us how well our bodies were working without us even feeling it?!”

Ilana Machover explains:

“Our society does not teach us to tolerate pain and we are used to taking painkilling drugs for the slightest discomfort. But painkilling drugs derail the natural process of birth by masking the body’s signals and blocking their pathways; this often makes further medical intervention necessary, leading to forceps or caesarian deliveries. In order to accept labor pain as normal, we have to understand its role: Labor pain is not pathological but functional, and should therefore not be eliminated. But a woman can be psycho-physically prepared to cope with it.”

Our society collectively thumbs our noses at those who take drugs to “dull” the pain and loss and sadness in their lives (note: I am not referring to those who take prescribed anti-depressants for clinical depression, etc. I certainly believe/know this is condition in need of attention). In fact, we mandate that these drugs are illegal. Why would taking drugs during birth, during the most transformative event in a woman’s life, be any different? Why would we encourage the use of such a thing (remember, I’m not saying we need to eliminate them all together)? Why would birthing women want to be a sort of “waking dead”, ready to greet their precious new souls with numbed, immobile legs, unable to feel the abdomens in which they are placed upon?

Should women in labor suffer? Absolutely not. Should we bombard them with images and stories and information prior to labor that says they most likely will suffer? Absolutely not. If we do such a thing, will they most likely end up believing they will suffer/are suffering? Absolutely. What if we provided advocates to birthing women, who whispered words of encouragement into their ears that they were strong, wise, and that ”the body that grew the baby knows how to birth the baby”? What if we shared with women that their sensations in labor were productive and meant their labor was normal? To me, the “sensations” of labor are like a sixth sense (i.e. “SENSE”ation), a primal key to birthing women to know when and how to follow their body’s lead. This sense is as critical to a birthing woman as legs are to a marathon runner, breath is to a swimmer, and hearing is to a musician. With the availability of medical interventions in today’s world, “pain” in labor and birth isn’t a necessity anymore but I would argue (as I did with the above analogies) that it sure makes the process easier.

We laud the feats of athletes who push their bodies to the limit, who successfully accomplish the unthinkable by training, working as a team, trusting their instincts and the abilities of their bodies. We celebrate with them as the cross the finish line, reach the top, or set a new record. Certainly, these athletes have felt the “pain” and “strain” their bodies endure to meet the physical challenges of their sport. And they pushed through it, embraced it, looked upon it as a means to the end. Dull the ability of a mountain climber to feel the work of her muscles and she may reach the top. But she will not have known when to push a little further, reach a little higher, breathe a little deeper. She would be watching, like an observer, as she placed her hands upon the rocks – disconnected from the ability to feel her efforts.

I always find it ironic that our culture encourages women to spend nine long months agonizing over how to grow a healthy baby, not taking certain medications that could be harmful or eating certain foods that could “endanger” the baby. Yet, the moment labor sets in, the same culture is pushing medication, pain relief, interventions, and fear-based information. Why the disparity? Where does the concern for the baby go, the concern for the welfare of the woman? And what does that leave us with? Hordes (nay – generations) of women believing that their birthing bodies didn’t work quite right, that they “failed to progress”, that they couldn’t “handle the pain”…

We deserve so much more than that.

I stumbled across a blog that linked to a blog that linked to another blog that linked to this insightful commentary from Anna Kiss:

“Just after I gave birth this last time, I was thinking about what birth is like, what birth feels like (emotionally) and I was wondering why anyone would want to not feel it. When we opt for the epidural, what exactly are we anesthetizing ourselves to? There are people though – lots of people – who anesthetize themselves to the way that they feel ALL the time.

My upstairs neighbor for instance is a whirlwind of different artificial scents. Her laundry reeks of petroleum-based cleansers and softeners, she has one of those little air fresheners in her car, and she herself leaves behind the scent of Tammy-Faye-having-exploded every time she passes through the hallway. And it begs the question – does she ever smell anything that isn’t manufactured? Why all the nose-blockers? What’s the need? Must be that the dirty, stinky, musky odor of everyday life is too much.

But think about it – a lot of people in this country don’t want to smell, feel or experience anything too raw or real. They want it compartmentalized and pre-packaged – we get our adventure at theme parks, we package up our dead and dying, our food comes pre-processed looking nothing like its origins, our interactions are reduced to 1s and 0s or hi-fi, fiber optic connections – we do very little that’s real. To get outside, we “pack up the jet skis and go up to the mountains” – it’s all prepackaged, pre-ordained, ordered, compartmentalized. We try very hard to avoid too much reality at all costs. I mean, crikey – look at our “reality” programming on TV!!! Argh!

So when mainstream America thinks of having babies, they think of little packaged babies smelling of powder, all clean and all bright, being handed over from the doctor/nurse. That’s the money shot of childbirth in all of our entertainment – that moment when the mother is sitting up in bed and is handed her little “bundle of joy”, all wrapped and diapered and clean.

Someone this summer who was newly pregnant wanted to smell my baby, who was all of 5 weeks old at the time. She said she loved the smell of babies. She came and sniffed his head and wrinkled up her nose, confused. He didn’t smell like a baby. I had to explain that we don’t use baby powder or disposable diapers and he drinks breastmilk, so instead of smelling like a nursery, he smells like a human. Personally, I love his smell. I love breastmilk-breath. I love the smell of his head, his little pheromones. I still sniff my 3yo’s head. They smell like mine.

There is a disconnect somewhere between baby and pregnancy/birth in this culture. It’s handled, it’s manufactured, it’s artificial. There’s no ritual for getting the mother from here to there, and it’s not talked about except in the terms and the language of the hospital. In order to get an experience out of it that is not handled by somebody else, you have to do a whole lotta thinking. You have to navigate it all yourself. That’s not right. There need to be rituals for this. Our rituals do not suffice. Our rituals do not honor the mother or the baby. Our rituals if anything, torture mothers and babies.

Women are not birthing in this country, they are being delivered. Just as there is someone who takes away our waste, treats and bottles our water, and freshens our air, there is someone to deliver us to motherhood in the most brutal manner imaginable. Who would not want to anesthetize themselves to that? The whole process requires that we dull our senses because there’s no way being delivered feels like the impossible transformation birth really is and deserves to be.

When we birth, we are bigger than ourselves. We are the beginning of the universe, the start of time and there is no way that the beginning of the universe is a clean, quiet ordeal. The beginning of the universe is an explosion, it is a swirling mass of cosmos. Our hormones, the blood, the poop, the mucous, the grunting, moaning sounds that we make, the gush of fluids, the stretching wide of flesh, bone against bone – it’s incredible, raw, messy stuff. I think the beginning of life deserves that.”

Deserving indeed, sister.

Free your Mind…Free Birth.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. amygeekgrl says:

    excellent post, leigh. so many of the things you said are things i have wondered silently or aloud over the past few years.
    “I always find it ironic that our culture encourages women to spend nine long months agonizing over how to grow a healthy baby, not taking certain medications that could be harmful or eating certain foods that could “endanger” the baby. Yet, the moment labor sets in, the same culture is pushing medication, pain relief, interventions, and fear-based information.”
    i will never understand this either.
    the current state of childbirth in our culture saddens me greatly, but i believe that by writing about it and advocating for change, we CAN bring it about. so keep doing what you are doing, my friend. you are making a difference. 🙂

  2. New Mama says:

    Amen! I find it so, so sad that our society never discusses the power and beauty of birth, in all its messy, raw, HUMAN glory. Toward the end of my pregnancy I commented to my mom that I would be sad not to be pregnant anymore, since I just loved being pregnant. She looked at me as though I had two heads and said, “WHY?!” She had only negative things to say about her four pregnancies and births. My sisters were the same way. I chose to educate myself and gave birth at home, and I loved the entire experience. We need more stories like mine, and yours, and Anna Kiss’, and every other woman who births from a place of strength and wonder. Thank you for writing this post!

  3. mb says:


    you are a bold and bright woman whom i thank for being a vessel for such serious truth.


  4. S says:

    You really articulated a lot of good points here. The idea of comparing people numbing the pain in their lives (through drugs — illegal or otherwise (my mother is a prescription drug abuser)) to women numbing the pain of labor. And for those who ask why a woman would experience the pain if she didn’t have to, I never would have thought to reply by asking why athletes willingly experience pain.

    My birth was incredibly long and painful, and I did it naturally. Not that I didn’t want an epidural, because I did. But my daughter was posterior and I was not progressing, and I knew if I was stuck on my back in a bed I would certainly end up with a c-section. I had the wonderful support of my husband and doula, and later, the staff of the alternative birthing center (within a hospital). It was only with their help and encouragment that I survived and perservered.

    Despite the overwhelming pain of my labor (made so, I believe, by the fact that it lasted for well over 24 hours), I plan on birthing naturally if I get pregnant again. In fact, I look forward to it, and will likely do a homebirth. I wish it was easier to open our society to these ideas.

  5. Michelle says:

    I am so happy to have come across this website and to have read the above blog entry. HOW SWEET THE TRUTH DOES SOUND! I am 5 months pregant and I have to say that I have been debating on a natural birth or going for the epi. I did have a natural birth with my oldest son at 23. It was such a raw and extremely painful experience, but I got through it just as you said. The body knows what to do….. With that being said I am more afraid at 34 then I was at 23. Matbe because I did not have so much life experience, but yes his world is scary with all it’s dramatized and fear based media. I am with you ladies on that one all the way.

    More power to all of us!

    San Jose, Cali

  6. leighsteele says:

    So glad to hear you found that raw empowerment in birth, even through the tough times. The upcoming birth of your next baby will no doubt be transformative and powerful as well. Surrender to that – all of those sensations and emotions – as they are all perfect.
    Sending you much love, much light, and the continued support of hundreds of generations of birthing women. We all stand beside you, honoring your journey.

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