Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Views of Birth Reflected in Mirrors

Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. -Kahlil Gibran

I watched my first baby being born with a mirror. I felt like it helped me to see that my pushing was making progress, and I think felt a a little more connected with what was going on, despite my body being half-numb. I like watching babies emerge because I think it's amazing to see the divine design of the female body at work. I was not offered a mirror during my son's birth, but it didn't really matter because, being able to really feel it, him descending and crowning was very real--an intensity I couldn't possibly escape, even though I sort of wanted to at the time. But looking back on it, it was actually kind of cool. For me, birthing as connected as possible to the experience helped me appreciate my body and gave me confidence in my strength.

Recently I was telling a group of women about how my doctor had waited for spontaneous rupture of membranes at my son's birth (my water broke when I had only a lip of cervix left) and I mentioned how sometimes babies are born "in the caul" (with membranes intact), and I said I'd seen a video of it and it was really cool. One woman, who chose epidurals for the births of all the children she's had so far, said that she had never seen a birth video showing a baby emerging before and she doesn't want to see what it looks like, at least not until she is done having children herself. She said that declines to use a mirror when it is offered during the second stage. My friend explained that she deliberately distances herself from what is happening to her body--she doesn't want to know. She even said that it is because she has the epidural and can't feel what is happening that she disconnects herself from it, and that if she were to have an unmediated birth, she might not feel the same way about it. She also admitted that she may be making what happens worse in her mind than it actually is.

This woman's words taught me that although epidurals don't usually result in a "drugged" feeling like that reported by some women who take narcotics during birthing, the drugs don't actually have to affect your mind to cause a state of mental numbness. Being numb and disconnected from the experience must drain birth of some of the best parts of it. Numbness is all on one level, while the process of natural birthing has highs and lows.

When reflecting upon this conversation, I remembered another conversation I had with different group of women, about 4 years ago, before my first pregnancy when my husband and I were newlyweds. I had done no personal research into the subject of birth outside of maybe watching TLCs "A Baby Story." I realize that this conversation may actually have shaped a lot of my original perceptions about childbirth, which I discussed in my previous post, My Journey to Natural Childbirth. I remembered a woman in this group also saying she declined to use a mirror during her child's birth, that she did not want to see it happening. She had an epidural and trusted that the episiotomy her doctor performed was necessary. I also remember her saying that she was afraid of giving birth at first, but she explained that by the end of her pregnancy she was so miserable the idea of giving birth "didn't seem so bad."

These two conversations, which both mentioned not using mirrors during pushing, about 4 years apart and with women in 2 different states, reflected very similar views of birth--the view that birth is a "necessary evil"--something no one really wants to experience, but must because the baby has to come out somehow. This idea that the act of giving birth is undesirable would support withdrawing from it as much as possible, physically and emotionally. The view of birth as a medical procedure fits with this idea--it is justified to be squeamish about a medical procedure like surgery--I know I wouldn't want to know what was happening to me during surgery, and I avoid watching surgery on TV. I think our medical establishment has actually influenced us to think of birth, even if it is vaginal, as something like surgery. This may explain where the very small population of women opt for true maternal request cesareans are coming from, whether they give birth vaginally or surgically doesn't matter, because there really isn't much difference between a cesarean and a birth-by-machine. Medicalization of birth makes it scary, removes it from the realm of things women are expected to know about, and makes it something it is okay to be removed from.

If, however, we think of birth as a normal, natural process, then it makes sense that women might want to see it. Midwife Ina May Gaskin has suggested that we need to see images of other women birthing before doing it ourselves in order to know what our bodies are capable of and not be afraid. The woman who shared her experience 4 years ago has no idea what her body is capable of--she neither felt nor saw her baby come out of her and the doctor who performed her episiotmy sent her the message that her body is not capable of naturally stretching to allow a baby to pass through. These numb and mirror-less births, were the baby comes out of the mother's body without her really experiencing it, perpetuate the fear of birth because it remains an "unknown" to women, even those who have done it, and it is normal to fear the unknown.

Perhaps women's attitudes about mirrors in birth reflect back to us the truth about what the birth experience means to them?


  1. My first birth, I declined a mirror and had an episiotomy, all while being completely numb waist-down. I remember being able to see the reflection in my OB's eyeglasses and that was enough for me, at the time. But that experience did nothing to increase my self-confidence in my body and my ability to birth. Everything had been done for me. Yes, I pushed, but that's it. Induction, epidural, episiotomy. The 2nd birth required much more of me and I was starting from scratch. Well, not even from scratch. I was coming from the experience of not having had to work much or feel anything at all (after the epidural).
    I have still never chosen to have a mirror, but my goals and views have changed immensely, which reflects my experiences and increase in my self-confidence.

  2. I'm from and LOVE this post! Society has completely distances itself from birth and I think your're right on about how this has created the concept of it "being hard/painful/gross/etc". Our bodies were made to birth and women successfully birth all over the world. Why is it that so many think they are somehow broken?

    Excellent post!