Ina May: "I wasn't raised to think I was inferior to an animal"

Last night I went to a great event hosted by CEA/MNY — a discussion of modern maternity care between the awesome Jennifer Block and Ina May Gaskin.  

I can’t do justice to the whole event, which was so interesting, but I was particularly struck by the way Ina May described getting interested in birth in the first place.  She reported that when she was pregnant with her first child in the mid-1960s, she went to a doctor and was told she would have medication to knock her out, and a “forceps birth.”  When she asked why it was then-standard practice to extract all babies by forceps, the doctor told her that it was because “all” first-time moms had an “iron-hard” pelvic floor, which the baby would destroy like a “battering ram” unless a doctor cut her perineum and pulled the baby out.

A doctor who talks that way, whether it’s 1966 or 2012 is clearly trying to scare his patient out of further discussion, not provide guidance and counseling and safe, compassionate health care.  

Here was Ina May’s reaction at the time:

"I didn’t know about that.  But I did know I didn’t have any parts that were iron hard.  But I didn’t know that you could fire — should fire — a doctor who says something crazy."

Ina May was inspired by her own common sense — not at first (she did, apparently have the knocked-out-forceps birth that time), but later, after she became a mother, she became inspired to reevaluate the care she and others were receiving, and make dramatic changes.  

She began to think about medical advice and “what people said” about birth not only at face value, but in terms of whether it made sense to her.  She knew that “iron hard” does not sound like a description of any part of a woman’s body, and instead of concluding “I must be wrong about my body!” she began to explore the other possibility — maybe the person saying this is wrong, even though he is a doctor.  

And if so, then what?

The answer is, then I owe it to myself to to find (and ultimately, for Ina May, to provide) care that does make sense.

It’s inspiring.  At one point, Ina May added that another point of inspiration for her was that she had been “an English Major in college.”  Everyone laughed.  

She described how reading Tristram Shandy got her thinking about midwifery care.  Her point was not that reading 18th century literature is all you need to be a caregiver. Her point was that you don’t have to be a doctor to have a thinking cap.  Ina May felt confident that the intellectual gifts that served her in the rest of her life would help her understand enough about maternity care to make competent decisions for her own body’s care.  

You don’t have to become Ina May and start a Farm and catch 3000 babies in 40 years and become a birth guru.  But we can all take action in our own lives by insisting, with ourselves, that when it comes to the care of our bodies, that we use the common sense and intelligence we bring to everything else.  Birth (and breastfeeding, and motherhood) is not so haunted and mystical and weird and shameful that common sense and intelligence don’t apply. 

And when it feels too daunting to do that yourself, let that be a sign to you that you’re not supposed to figure all this out alone.  Childbirth classes, mother’s groups, breastfeeding support — all of these things exist to help you find the kind of care that will help you feel cared for while you do the transformative hard work of becoming a parent (or becoming a parent again!)