It’s one of the most basic, natural things in life, but over the years childbirth has been turned, twisted and dropped on its head.
Before 1900, women were pretty much on their own. Babies were born at home, probably with a local “midwife” present.
It wasn’t uncommon for women and babies to die during childbirth because of complications that couldn’t be addressed, or shortly after from infections or illnesses brought on by exposure to germs.
My grandmother was delivered this way, but both she and her mother somehow survived the experience. When my mother came along, babies were still being born at home, but by then, a doctor almost certainly was on hand. However, of the seven children born to my grandmother, only four lived.
I was born in a hospital. My mother arrived at the hospital, was rendered more or less unconscious for the actual delivery, and didn’t see me until 24 hours later.
Everything was antiseptically clean, and no one was allowed to hold the baby but the mother. Even then, she had the baby only for carefully supervised feedings. My mother said she cried the whole time she was there.
The childbirth death rate fell dramatically during this time, but as a consequence, childbirth was treated as an illness. All the drama and emotion involved in giving birth were stifled in that antiseptic atmosphere.
By the time my own children arrived, there had been another dramatic shift. I chose natural childbirth, but to be honest, it wasn’t natural at all. I was tethered to a hospital bed by monitoring equipment and visited by a constant procession of people who came in to check everything from blood pressure to dilation. After babies were born, they were allowed to stay in the room with their parents, but nurses constantly hovered and there was little peace and no privacy.
Today’s expectant mother has many more options than ever before, not only when the baby arrives, but in the months before and after. It’s a brave new world out there -- and it’s about damn time.
Trinity Faye Brotherton was born April 18 at 5:29 a.m., weighing 9 lbs., 12 oz. and measuring 37.5 centimeters in length.
Her father, Cody, drove her mother Shelley all the way from Ludowici to the Family Health & Birth Center in Rincon. “We were pulled over by a cop on the way here,” Shelley laughs.
It didn’t take the officer long to figure out what was going on. The family was allowed to continue -- without getting a ticket.
Why did they travel so far? Because the birth center is the only one in this area and the only standing facility of its kind in the entire state of Georgia.
Trinity’s big sister, Naxy Jane, was born Aug. 18, 2004, in a hospital. “I didn’t want to have the same experience,” Shelley says.
So the family, including Naxy Jane and her 15-year-old babysitter, headed to Rincon. “This time was much better,” Shelley says. “I was much more comfortable. Everything went a lot smoother.”
Trinity was delivered by a certified nurse midwife. “Her head was larger than most newborns,” Shelley says. “They talked at times about transporting me to the hospital, but we didn’t have to do that. I liked this setting much better.”
Because Trinity had such a large head, the next time -- and Shelley says there will be a next time -- she’ll probably choose to have the baby in a hospital, although she wants it to be delivered by a midwife.
Shelley remembers the frustration she felt when Naxy was born. “They wouldn’t let me walk around,” she says. “I wanted my water to break naturally. If they had told me that after the IV I couldn’t get up, I wouldn’t have wanted it.”
Shelley has nothing but praise for her husband. “Cody was a wonderful birth partner,” she says.
“I got to interact with her more than at the hospital,” Cody says. “I didn’t know a lot about childbirth centers, but I was open to the idea. It sounded like a better choice. It was much more private.”
“Here, there are only a handful of people, although that night was a busy night,” Shelley says. “Another woman delivered her baby here at 12:30 a.m.”
Shelley arrived at the center at 2:30 a.m. and Trinity was born just three hours later. While she labored, Shelley could walk around and do as she pleased.
After the baby was born, Shelley was allowed to stay at the center as long as she needed, up to 23 hours. “We ended up staying longer than we needed so we could get Naxy’s nap in,” she says.
The Brothertons returned to the center the next day for a quick check-up of both mother and baby. The whole family was comfortable there, walking from room to room as they wanted. Naxy quickly found a big box of toys to play with.
“I’m happy I got to do this here,” Shelley says. “It was a very good experience. I’m thankful the midwives also deliver at the hospital.”
Trinity was delivered by Gina Crabb, a certified nurse midwife with the Midwife Group of the Family Birth Center. “A birth center is a safe haven,” she says. “We approach pregnancy, birth, even conception naturally. If they’re educated, women have a much easier time during labor. Women find resources in themselves to make it through. Sometimes I’m in awe of these women and their strength.”
Not all patients at the birth center are convinced they have such resources. “We had one patient who just didn’t think she could do it without an epidural,” Crabb says.
“But she had the most beautiful delivery. She was crying, her mother was crying, I was crying.”
Giving birth in a hospital is wonderful, too, Crabb says. “But each pregnant woman in the hospital gets the same care,” she says. “For the most part, when they have two to three patients, they are treated the cookie-cutter way.”
Crabb delivered her son 21 years ago in a military hospital and it was a miserable experience.
“I was strapped down with monitors,” she says. “I threw up with every contraction, and I had the most hateful nurse. It doesn’t have to be that way. It won’t be that way for any patient I’m taking care of.”
Midwifery isn’t an easy job. “I’m awake with the patient while she labors,” Crabb says. “If it’s five hours, I’m with her. If it’s throughout the day and night, I’m with her. I call in assistance for the actual birth.
“I go without sleep and drink a lot of coffee,” Crabb says. “I have to shift gears a lot. It’s worth it in the end when I pass that beautiful baby from my arms to the mother’s arms.”
The birth center was founded more than 20 years ago by Margaret Dorroh and Nancy Belin. “Midwifery is here because of Margaret and Nancy,” Crabb says. “Margaret was doing midwifery even before the center evolved.”
The center is always growing, Crabb says. “Over the last couple of years, midwives have gotten hospital privileges at Candler and Memorial.”
That means even high-risk patients can choose to have a midwife deliver their babies. “We can now take patients into the hospital where they can be observed more closely,” Crabb says.
At the birth center, more patients 35 and up are being seen than ever before. “Women are much healthier today at that age than they were 25 years ago,” Crabb says.
Because the center is the only one of its kind in the area, patients come from as far as Atlanta, Charleston and Jacksonville to give birth. “We had two women who drove together yesterday one hour and 40 minutes to get here,” Crabb says.
The center works with two consulting physicians, Reginald Robinson and Cliphane McLeod. “We get wonderful support from them in our midwifery,” Crabb says.
Of course, before delivery, nine months of gestation occurs. For years, pregnancy was shrouded in secrecy, with the mother confined at home or swathed in layers of clothing designed to hide her condition.
Today’s expectant mother can be loud and proud. Kelley Boyd, founder and director of the Savannah Yoga Center, helps pregnant women commemorate their pregnancy through bellycasting and a program called Birth Art.
“These are people who are performing the ultimate act of creativity -- giving birth,” Boyd says. “The bellycasting has really taken off. You don’t have to have gone to art classes or be an artist to do it.”
In bellycasting, women make castings of their pregnant bellies, then decorate them as they wish. “I’ve had some people who made lamps from theirs,” Boyd says.
Boyd, an artist and yoga instructor, got the idea for the bellycasting classes from a book called Birthing From Within, by Pam England. “It’s an amazing book,” she says. “Bellycasting is just one of the examples she talks about in the book. She looks at being pregnant in a whole different way.”
The bellycasting classes are held monthly, and the next one is set for Saturday, May 5. “I had a couple of friends and family members I did this for first,” Boyd says. “Everyone gets together for the camaraderie and to have fun.”
The process takes about two hours. “You have to oil every piece of skin that is going to be touched by plaster,” Boyd says.
‘Four-inch plaster strips are cut to go over the belly,” she says. “We do layers, about three layers. By the time you get to two layers, underneath it has already hardened. The castings are dry enough to take home the same day.”
Women who take the class have the option to come back later and decorate their casting. “The ones I’ve seen have done all kinds of stuff,” Boyd says. “Some women have waited until the baby was born, then done collages with photos of the baby.”
Some participants have put paintings on their castings. “It is a good way to preserve their shape,” Boyd says. “Many won’t remember that they were once so big. It makes such a difference when it’s 3-D.”
While bellycasting sessions are held once a month, Boyd also will work with women who can’t come to scheduled sessions. “People can call me and schedule a time and I’ll go ahead and help them do a bellycasting,” she says.
“They also need to know that it is not completely 100 percent necessary to bring someone with them,” Boyd says. “I want people to know we are open to all women.”
In addition to bellycasting, Boyd also offers Birth Art. “It’s a four-week series,” she says. “We meet once a week and explore different kinds of techniques, including painting, drawing, collage. We even make a little jewelry.”
Participants make a bracelet from glass beads that is to be worn when they are actually giving birth. Women also can choose to have henna tattoos painted on their baby bump.
For information visit www.savannahyoga.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 441-6653.
How do women know when it’s time? To get a bellycasting done, that is. “The bigger the better,” Boyd says.
Ann Carroll is a banker by day, and a pregnancy yoga instructor and labor doula by night. She became certified to be a pregnancy yoga instructor after a local obstetrician/gynecologist asked her to. She went on to train at Kripalu in Massachusetts.
After becoming certified (Carroll already was a certified yoga teacher) she began teaching classes at the doctor’s office. But soon, the class outgrew the waiting room.
“I’m working out of an office building I have access to at 7116 Hodgson Memorial Dr.,” Carroll says. “No one’s there after 5 p.m. so we can use it.”
The class usually meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-7:15 p.m. “The body changes so much during pregnancy,” Carroll says. “Yoga helps them be comfortable while they’re pregnant. We do a lot of specific visualization. I have them visualize rocking the baby out and in when they breathe.”
After taking the class, women are physically better equipped to handle labor and delivery. They also get companionship from each other, Carroll says.
“You get a group of women who are meeting every week and who share what’s going on with them,” she says. “Some come in with symptoms and often find a solution right there in the group.
“It also helps them begin thinking about thinks they should be thinking about,” Carroll says. “Do they have a support system at home after the baby is born? They come up with things are truly unique.”
Sometimes bonds are made that last after the class has ended. Carroll says two women learned they lived just blocks from each other and now are good friends.
Pregnancy yoga is open to any pregnant woman, though Carroll says she doesn’t recommend starting it until the second trimester if you haven’t already been doing yoga or some other fitness regimen. “They can take the class until they deliver,” she says.
Carroll says the class is fun for her, too. Teaching pregnancy yoga led to her becoming a labor doula because women in her classes began asking her to help them during labor and delivery, so she took training to become a certified labor doula. The certification process includes a requirement to assist with three births.
“Since December, I’ve helped six babies be born,” Carroll says. “All girls, for some reason.”
“Doula” literally means “servant,” although today it also has come to mean someone who helps a pregnant woman through labor or deliver.
“We don’t help in any way medical. We work with the mothers to educate them, explain what is likely to happen. We offer education, comfort and support, not only for mom, but for dad and any other family present,” she says.
Carroll says today’s mobile society makes doulas’ services necessary. “The way we live today, we don’t have a lot of family around us,” Carroll says. “People get job transfers and move somewhere where they don’t know anybody.”
When a woman is pregnant, that can be difficult. Their husbands or partners also benefit from a doula’s presence.
“It takes a bit of the pressure off the men, too, to have someone there who knows what to do and what is going to happen next,” Carroll says.
Carroll suggests that women who are interested in finding a doula start with dona.org or cappa.net/.
“The most important thing about the birth is that it happens the way the mother wants it to,” she says. “Doulas support her in her decisions and do everything possible to make it happen. It’s such an honor for a doula to experience a birth. It’s one of the biggest days of their lives and it’s wonderful to be a part to it.”
What will childbirth be like in the future? Crabb has a humorous story to share that might shed some light.
“One time, a 5-year-old girl was sitting beside her 12-year-old brother when her mother was delivering a baby,” she says. “The brother said to her, ‘Just think, someday you’ll be doing this,’” Crabb says. “She said, “Oh, no, my husband gets to deliver my babies.’”
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