Written by Molly Mendota, BABS Doula Supervisor
We spend a lot of time here at BABS talking about why Birth Matters. We often hear people say, “All that matters is that you end up with a Healthy Mom and a Healthy Baby.” We agree – we wish for all moms and babies to be safe and healthy. We are working to create an expanded cultural definition of “Healthy” to include the whole person and family: mothers’ emotional and psychological health, healthy parenting relationships, healthy bonding between babies and their moms and dads. Most of the time, we do end up with a physically healthy mom and baby at the end of it all. Most of the time, it’s our job as educators, doulas, and lactation consultants to support the rest of it so that moms and families emerge feeling confident and successful.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the other end of things: what happens when the birth outcome is not “Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby.” Several years ago I met a woman in her 70’s who, when she heard what I do for a living, told me her own birth stories. She gave birth six times, and four of the six were good experiences. Two of her children were stillborn – but she only described one of those as a “bad” experience. With her first stillbirth, she was not allowed to see or hold her baby, and she felt alone and scared during and after the birth. With her second, she was supported by her husband, and was allowed to hold her baby. Of her four live births, three were positive and one was not – the difference being not what happened during the birth, but having – or not having – the support and information she needed. Obviously, she said, it’s horrible to lose a baby, but how a mother (and family) is treated during that process can be the difference between heartbreak and lasting trauma. It can mean that the emotional and relationship health of a family is preserved, even when the physical health cannot be.
Then there are moms and babies who survive against unbelievable odds, making us deliriously grateful for clinicians, technology, timing, luck, divine intervention – whatever circumstances come together to create a positive outcome. And for those families, too, I wish health and healing beyond mere physical survival.
In many ways, we’ve made huge progress. We have bereavement programs in hospitals, wonderfully sensitive nurses, and lots of emotional support services available. Still, women and babies don’t always come through birth healthy, safe, and alive. And women are traumatized every day by clinically “normal” birth with safe outcomes. That breaks my heart. The goal of “Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby” is not enough, unless we are working to support health in all senses of the word.
A midwife said to me once, “Birth is as safe as life gets.” That statement has haunted me, because it is so true, and because it is both reassuring and unsettling. Life is not really all that safe, nor is it predictable, controllable, or understandable. Birth reminds us of that every day. That’s why we’re here: to help celebrate the joys and grieve the losses, to help navigate the unknown and accept the unexpected, and to honor each mom, dad, and baby whose journey brings them through our doors.In honor of Alison Calhoun, and in memory of Madeleine Emigh-Sullivan (names used with permission) http://www.preeclampsia.org