By Tracy McDaniel
An Appalachian native and former nomadic explorer of all parts flyover, Tracy McDaniel is a doula and public health worker residing in the mountains of New Mexico. Her multitude of children, jobs, dogs, and chickens leave little time for the exploration of the written word, but you can find McDaniel’s rather neglected blog here.
This is the first in a series of posts by Tracy McDaniel on woman-centered birthing and regional differences in US birth culture. Check back for more.
My great-grandmother was a midwife. I didn’t know that back then. In fact, I knew almost nothing about birth. What I knew of birth amounted to memories of round-bellied women disappearing suddenly and reappearing a week later, looking less round and more weary, walking gingerly and speaking of birth trauma in hushed tones. My grandmother has four children and doesn’t remember a single birth. Birthing in the time of ‘twilight sleep,’ she has no recollection of the moment she became a mother. My mother’s stories were ones of fear and confusion, of being told her body could not birth and that she was likely to die, stories of sitting all alone in a hospital bed, waiting anxiously for doctors to bring her babies into the world. That’s all I knew of birth when, at 24-years-old, I found myself sitting on my boyfriend’s bed staring at two little pink lines that would change everything.
Fortunately for me, something had happened between the time of my mother’s births and the time of mine. Ina May Gaskin happened. Penny Simkins and Henci Goer happened. During those decades, women had slowly begun to reclaim the rite of passage that is woman-centered birth, reclaiming the amazing power of birthing from a place of strength and peace. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know it as I happily arrived at my first hospital-based childbirth education class and watched a nurse with a kind smile and gentle handshake demonstratively ram a baby doll’s head repeatedly against the sacrum of a human pelvis and inform the class, “This is why you need pain relief,” moving swiftly on to topics of needles inserted into spines, catheters, and weeks of unbearable headaches. The only thing I knew at that moment was that I was going to faint if I didn’t leave that classroom immediately. I lasted through approximately 45 minutes of hospital-based childbirth education. I stumbled out of that building and told my child’s father, “There has to be a better way.”
I searched and researched and searched some more. I was living in southwestern Ohio at that time, and it took a significant amount of persistence, but I finally found someone I had read about in my pregnancy book, someone who could help. Someone called a doula. She was a plump, soft-spoken, veracious saint, who believed in my power before I did. During the next few weeks, I sat among a circle of pregnant women in her dimly lit den, surrounded by pillows and soft music, drinking herbal pregnancy tea, and learning not about “labor and delivery” but about pregnancy and birthing. I learned that our bodies are meant to do this work, and women are capable of bringing our babies into this world in a way that enhances feelings of power and control rather than diminishing them. I learned that what our bodies need more than anything is for us to welcome our birth and the energy that surges through our bodies during birthing. And when my birth day came, and every staff member in the Family Birthing Unit crowded into my delivery room to watch the unthinkable—an unmedicated childbirth – I felt powerful. They weren’t there because of my amazing obstetrician. They were there because of my amazing body. My body that had done exactly what it needed to do. My body that had performed the amazing feat of birthing both a beautiful 8lb baby boy and a powerful, self-assured mother at 9:45pm on February 27, 2004.
Knowing what I know now, I can only wonder what my great-grandmother, the Appalachian lay midwife, would have to say about all of this – the recent history of birth in her family.
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