by Kim Wildner
When Ricki Lake appeared on The View at the time of the release of The Business of Being Born, Barbara Walters that interested me. Lake is explaining how having a natural birth at home with midwives empowered her. Walters is confused by that.
This started me thinking about how many women do (or don’t) take childbirth classes and why that might be. Of course, partially that is because at the time I had a poll on my blog asking people if they took classes and why or why not. At the time of this writing, 52% did not take a class, and most respondents who didn’t take class said it was because they didn’t need one.
Of course, you know I’m going to ask ‘why’ next, right? Did they feel they didn’t need one because they figured they’d blindly trust whatever their OB told them? Did they not understand the purpose of a childbirth class? (Hint, it has nothing to do with ‘breathing’…you must know how to breathe already or you’d be dead and I hate to say it, but there is no magic breath that gets babies out.) Did they have a midwife as a caregiver, and had everything explained to them (and had actually helpful books recommended to them so they could educate themselves) so that a childbirth class was redundant? Did the non-hospital childbirth classes not market themselves well?
It was this last question that was on my mind when Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs came up in conversation. Now, this pyramid of needs has tickled the back of my brain on and off periodically. This time, I realized why it kept bothering me.
First, a nice visual of Maslow’s theory can be found following this link.
The basic idea is that when we make a decision about something, these are the factors that will motivate us. First, we are concerned with survival issues. If our basic needs are not being met, we don’t really care about the other stuff.
Next, we need to know we are safe and secure. We need some order in our life, some predictability and to be part of a larger whole. This is also about survival to a certain extent. Being part of the larger group is an evolutionary desire. We are tribal by nature. Solitary humans don’t do well, not just because we need others to be most effective at hunting, gathering, farming, etc., but we need social stimulation for the sake of our brains. If we don’t interact, we go a little bit nutty. Think of the movie Cast-a-way with Tom Hanks.
Beyond that even, we need to fit in with our family, peer and work groups. We have a need to feel appreciated and loved.
We can survive if the only the first two needs on the pyramid are met, but without the third, we probably would be slightly maladjusted.
Next, we have the need to feel special. We want to feel respected and to be able to feel pride in our accomplishments. Finally, we reach a state of enlightenment or our full realized potential. Some say not many of us get to that point.
Ok, so how does this relate to birth, childbirth classes and Barbara Walter’s bewilderment?
Here’s my theory:
Most American women are still making decisions at the first two or three levels. They believe birth is a dangerous, excruciating medical event. They want to be able to predict exactly what will happen each step of the way, even if the security is an illusion. If they do what every body else does, not only can they have a plan, but its familiar because it’s what everyone they know has done. They are following a blueprint. Sadly, because they do what everyone else does, they get the experience everyone else got, which is likely the painful medical event. But that’s ok with them, because they all have the same war story to tell. They fit in. They also get admiration for ‘surviving’ such a harrowing event.
Those of us who make the decision to birth at home, or who take a class that advertises gentle and empowering birth, are doing so because we are not operating from a place of fear. Make no mistake I am NOT saying we are ‘better’ or ‘higher’. I’m saying because we are confident that we are safe, and our babies are safe, we are not operating from survival need. Because we know what the research says BIRTH is safe, we are not operating at security need. Hence OUR confusion when someone says, “You birthed at home? Oh, you are so brave! I could never do that!” We, of course, are thinking, “Sure you could.” We don’t consider ourselves brave at all. We are just doing what makes sense, personally and per the evidence.
We are working from the ‘esteem’ level, because we can. We feel a need for a sense of accomplishment like anyone else. We feel a need to be respected by our spouse or our home-birthing friends and to feel unique. Now, we all have these needs, but what I’m saying is that we can make our birthing decisions from this level because we don’t have to worry about the first three needs. To try to empower a woman who is operating at a survival or security level will not work. She has other things to worry about. Not to mention, if she is in an unsafe environment, or doesn’t have access to nutritious food, or is in some way actually not healthy, she actually is at risk for complications, which means she’s operating at exactly the level at which she needs to be operating. This is why it is absurd when people say homebirth supporters are trying to ‘make people feel guilty’. Even the most strident homebirth advocates realize hospital birth is the only place to be for about 10-15% of women. Homebirth should be an option because it’s safe, not because it’s right for everyone.
Think about it like this: You feel education is important. You improve the schools, and you make attendance mandatory. But one kid just doesn’t seem to care. He is often truant, and when he is there he doesn’t make much of an effort. You try to tutor him. You try special classes. You try rewards and punishments, but nothing works. He just doesn’t seem to value education.
What if you found out the kid was homeless? What if he’s being beaten at home, or doesn’t get to eat every day? What if he was convinced he was worthless because he was told he was, every day? If you met the more basic needs, from the bottom up, he might be more interested, and able, to operate at a higher level on the needs hierarchy. Otherwise, he simply can’t. He has to meet his basic needs first.
So, when we talk to women about the empowerment of natural birthing, they are confused. Sometimes they’re angry, but they may not be sure why. I believe it is because there is cognitive dissonance because on some level they know that the fear they feel is disproportionate to the actual risk. Because there is someone who doesn’t feel that same fear, it makes them question why they have it. Not consciously, of course, but if they become aware that some women can birth with dignity, comfortably, maybe painlessly, even ecstatically, and still be safe, but they believe that they must sacrifice all that for safety, it suggests that their suffering was for nothing. That’s not a comforting idea. It would make me angry too.
This brings us to the question of how we can help them meet their needs so they can feel the ecstasy and empowerment we know is so transformative. Right now they don’t even care about that. You don’t know what you’re missing if you’ve never had it. You won’t even try for it if you don’t believe it’s really possible for you. Can you see how bubbling over with enthusiasm about your positively transformational birth experience comes across as lunacy to someone who is convinced they “would have died” if they’d done what you did? It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it’s what they believe.
It doesn’t matter if they had an epidural that caused a sudden drop in blood pressure, that caused fetal distress that required a cesarean that saved their life. The only part of that equation that is important is the last part. It doesn’t matter that the medical management of their birth lead to the problem in the first place. What matters is the medical management saved their life…and it did.
It doesn’t matter that they almost died of hemorrhage due to an elective cesarean, what matters is that modern medicine saved their life. Undoubtedly it did.
It doesn’t matter that their baby almost died from a cord prolapse that coincidently happened just after artificially rupturing the membranes. What matters is that modern medicine saved their baby from certain death. It did.
And because they are operating at that place of survival, it makes sense that is what they would focus on, it’s what’s important. They aren’t even going to question it unless they are operating from the 4th level. If they are, they are going to wonder how things got so askew. Many do. These are the women who have a couple of horrible experiences and then come to a HypnoBirthing class. Or, the women who hire CNM for VBACs after questionable cesareans. Or, the woman who has seen several of her friends suffer from birth-related PTSD who decides to explore the option of homebirth. No one is right or wrong; they are just making decisions based on their individual needs as they perceive them based on their own experience and beliefs.
It's a theory anyway.
My name is Kim Wildner. I am the author of Mother's Intention: How Belief Shapes Birth.