Pregnancy, labor, and birth bind women together. No matter our experiences or background, they put us on common ground with one another. Mike jokes that women can't get together and not talk about birth. It's like this magnetic subject that pulls all other topics to it--no matter where the conversation started, somehow it always comes around to childbirth.
I've written about my own children's births in great detail (Clark's is the only one that's here on the blog, but I'm always happy to email the others to anyone who wants to read them), and I've found that rereading them plus reading and listening to other women's birth stories is one of the best ways I prepare myself to go through the labor of love again.
And once more, that time is approaching. I've just reached the 28-week mark, and if the next 12ish weeks are anything like my other pregnancies, they will go both incredibly fast and impossibly slow--the great paradox of pregnancy.
So I've been seeking out birth stories to pump myself up and get myself ready. Aside from the scary stories, which I do try to avoid around this time because they tend to put me in a unproductive place mentally, most birth stories create a feeling of almost supernatural power: This is what my body was made to do. Birth is a natural process. I am strong. I can do it. And those feelings go a long way in helping me gear up for the real thing. Because often--definitely not always, but often--labor is one big mental game.
And that is why I picked up Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent. I've had it on my to-read list for a couple of years, and so I knew I wanted it to be one of the books to fulfill my reading goal of reading two books about childbirth.
But I wasn't expecting it to blow every other childbirth book I've read completely out of the water. It was the most interesting, entertaining, and, dare I say, helpful book on childbirth I've ever read.
It's not even billed as a childbirth manual, per se. It's simply Peggy Vincent's own memories of her career as first, a nursing student in 1962 (where standard practice in the hospital at Duke University was to wheel a laboring women into a large delivery room (complete with bleachers) where she'd be knocked out for a couple of hours and wake up to a baby), followed by a few years' stint as a public health nurse, after which she worked as a labor-and-delivery nurse, and finally ended with her following her passion to become a certified nurse midwife.
It helps that her writing is honest, funny, and just so beautifully accessible. She begins with one of her earliest patients, Zelda. At the time, she's a nursing student and not even sure if she wants to continue in the program, but then she does her rotation in the labor-and-delivery department at Duke University. Zelda is a young black woman, laboring with her third child, and, despite Peggy's pleas for her to lie down and be a good patient, Zelda dances her way through each contraction while standing on the bed.
Zelda begs Peggy to keep the doctor out as long as possible, knowing that she can labor just fine on her own, but as a young nursing student, Peggy doesn't have any real authority and is worried about the consequences that might come with defying protocol. When Zelda's cries become loud enough for the medical staff in the hall to hear her, she is forced onto a stretcher and rolled to the blindingly stark delivery room. Despite her protests, she is strapped down. Peggy can see that she's moments away from pushing out the baby, but they put a gas mask over her face anyway. Zelda rips it off, but they get it back into place just as the baby comes out. But instead of taking off the mask, they let her slip under, grateful to have her quiet at last.
That experience is the spark Peggy needs to propel her through nursing school, but other things help to fan the flames.
For example, several years later, Peggy is instrumental in establishing a birth center at Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, California. Many of the doctors are uncomfortable with the idea of women laboring on their own without pain meds. In fact, one of the doctors is quite irate about having nothing to do except catch the baby. Peggy protests, "But if the birth is normal, then what's there to do?" The doctor responds with something Peggy never forgets: "Normal birth is a retrospective diagnosis. No birth is normal until after the fact. All births are complicated until proven otherwise."
It is because of that declaration that Peggy takes the final leap to become certified as a nurse midwife. She has her own private practice in the 1980s where she assists in hundreds of home births while still enjoying hospital privileges: if one of her patients needs emergency intervention or simply wants to deliver in the hospital with a midwife by her side, she can do that without sacrificing anything in continuity of care. It's really the best of both worlds, and something that is actually not possible in many states today. (In Utah, you can either deliver with a lay midwife at home or a certified nurse midwife in the hospital but you can't cross those invisible barriers.)
With the other childbirth books I've read, I've found myself wanting to skim over some of the techniques or instructions so that I could get back to the actual stories. But not with this one. That's because Peggy already edited out all that other stuff so it's literally just birth story after birth story after birth story.
And these are some birth stories! In one home, Peggy has to fend off an ultra-protective, and maybe slightly psychotic, cat with one arm while delivering a baby with the other. At another, she has to navigate a slippery pier on the San Fransisco bay during a torrential rainstorm to help with a delivery in the leaky cabin of a sailboat. At still another, she coaches a dad through the delivery of his own baby, and he freaks out when the baby turns his head, opens his eyes, and looks at him: "Oh my gosh! It's a baby!" (I laughed at that one.) Some of the labors are loud and slow; others are silent and fast. Sometimes older children or a dozen family members are present, while other times the couple wants to be completely alone. Peggy learns to have zero expectations when attending a birth because there's just no way to predict how things are going to go.
Besides just the unpredictability of birth however, because she's practicing in Berkeley, she also has some very colorful clients with unconventional lifestyles and abrasive mouths. I have to admit that I wasn't entirely comfortable with every birth story I read, but Peggy took it all in stride and never cast judgment but just did her job.
And hidden among all these stories were the little observations or tidbits of info or helpful tips that made me stop and think, Well, isn't that good to know?! Such as:
- the changes in a woman's voice, complexion, and attitude when she's reached the pushing stage (besides when it's totally obvious because she's freaking out)
- the importance of pushing slowly and having someone support the perineum, even if you feel like your body has taken over and everything's out of your control
- the different clues that make each stage of labor obvious without ever checking the cervix
- the danger signs of a distressed baby
Personally, I've been in a bit of a weird place with my current pregnancy. For the first time ever, I'm vacillating between another unmedicated birth or getting an epidural. I'm not exactly sure why an epidural has even entered my mind; all four of my children's births have been overwhelmingly positive experiences--excruciatingly painful, yes, but ending with such crowning moments that they've made all the pain worth it. I've always had a similar view to Peggy's patient, Julie: "It hurt a lot, but it was my pain, and it wasn't something I wanted anyone to take away from me."
But this time, I also keep thinking about the positive epidural stories I've heard, and wow, I just can't even imagine what it would be like to be in the last stages of labor and still be able to carry on a fairly normal conversation (I'm sure Mike can't imagine that either). I guess I'm a little curious--I mean, here I am pregnant with my fifth baby and I've never experienced an epidural. Doesn't it seem like I should know what both sides are like so I can compare and contrast?
And yet, this is birth we're talking about--not a science experiment! And so I really want to do what will be best for me and for my baby . . . but I don't know what that is.
I was hoping this book would provide some answers, but instead it just jumbled up everything even more. I'd read one story and think, That sounds amazing. Of course I don't want an epidural! But then I'd almost instantly counter myself with, But an epidural? That just sounds heavenly. Why wouldn't I want one?
So you can see my predicament, and of course I'd love to hear about your experiences with or without an epidural. They might help me, and they probably won't make me feel any more conflicted than I already do. In the meantime, I guess I'll start another childbirth book in the hopes that I'll have an "aha!" moment and know what to do.