Just Thinking

Having babies today is a whole 'nother story

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Oh, to be expecting in the 21st century.

I don't mean "expectant" in the sense of Christmas Eve. I mean expecting in the sense of being with child.

I have two daughters, and both are with child. Yes! Both! I may look calm on the outside, but inside I'm clutching the upper arms of everyone I see and jumping us around. Both daughters! -- but never mind that. My point right now is that I have become sharply aware of the changes that have occurred in the childbirth industry since I gave birth to my two.

Changes are nothing new, I realize. When my mother gave birth to me, women still were expected to languish in the hospital for days on end, until labor and delivery were but a distant memory and their muscles were thoroughly flabby.

My generation changed all that. We were a countercultural bunch, and we weren't about to hang around the maternity ward one second longer than it took to give birth and collect our bags of coupons and free samples. Insurance companies applauded this idea -- they may have planted it in our liberated heads to begin with -- and in no time a person was lucky to catch a quick nap in the recovery room before being escorted out the door to start life anew as a parent.

Of course my husband and I prepared for childbirth by attending Lamaze classes. Lamaze was all there was in those days, and it was supposed to do for labor what No More Tears did for tangled hair. If you practice these techniques, you're less likely to start screaming, our Lamaze instructor said. Until that moment, it hadn't occurred to me that screaming might be part of the childbirth experience. Some women did scream, I knew, because I'd heard them when I visited the hospital for prenatal stress tests. But I'm not much of a screamer. Years earlier when a couple of teenagers grabbed my purse in my campus neighborhood, I'd whispered at them to stop. I didn't want to disturb the neighbors, I guess.

Leaving aside what this suggests about my claim to be liberated, I think it's significant that I hadn't considered the possibility of losing control until I attended the classes. Then it was all I could think about as my husband and I went through our nightly breathing exercises. "Hee! Hee! Hooooo! Hee! Hee! Hoooo!" I'd say while my husband kept track with a stopwatch. Often, having hee! hee! hooood! myself to a hyperventilating faretheewell, I'd glance over and realize my husband was sound asleep.

As it turned out, I didn't scream. The business of birth narrowed my focus to a pinpoint, and I was scarcely aware that I had a head, let alone lungs and vocal cords. By the time whole-body awareness returned to me, my daughter had arrived and been handed to my husband. His first thought, he said later, was "I'm going to have a teenage daughter."

Nowadays, this story seems almost irresponsibly simple.

Today, my daughters tell me, expectant parents prepare birth plans -- written instructions that specify a couple's preferences regarding everything: medication, positions the laboring mother plans to try, food, drink and birthing room music. The plan is shared with the doctors, nurses and anyone else involved with the birth.

This is a brilliant idea, and if it prevents people who absolutely do not want an epidural from getting one when they're too addled to object, a birth plan is a necessity. But I can't help making comparisons to the dressing room demands of celebrity rock bands: "A bowl of green M&Ms must be on the bedside table next to a pitcher of ice water with lemon. The mother will wear striped socks and her own Wallace & Gromit T-shirt. At the moment of birth, six girls in white dresses will perform a liturgical dance celebrating new life. The father will have a cheeseburger rare and French fries."

Doulas are another addition to 2000s pregnancy and childbirth. A doula is to expectant parents what a docent is to a zoo visitor. Doulas explain, guide, advise and reassure. They hold anxious hands and pat nervous shoulders. They may specialize as labor doulas or postpartum doulas, or waterbirth support professionals or lactation counselors. One of my daughters and her husband already have engaged a doula, who will come over when my daughter goes into labor and stick around indefinitely to coach, encourage and, maybe, duck.

Midwives are nothing new. Midwives once delivered most babies, until having babies in hospitals overseen by doctors became the mainstream option. Then midwives were forced into an alcove marked "alternative medicine, possibly kooks." But times are changing again, and midwives are back, not that they ever really left. They have practices and offices. They have framed diplomas. Hospitals employ them. For some people, this is akin to finally seeing jetpacks on department store shelves.

In short -- all these choices! Just as my daughters, in a glorious explosion of fortuitous fertility, start babies almost in tandem.

Oh. I'm afraid I must grab your arms and make you jump around in a circle. Both of my daughters are expecting! Both!

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