The WEIRD tendency to not witness births
I have never borne a child, but I work in healthcare and volunteered at a nonprofit that provided a mentor (me) with a refugee woman giving birth for the first time in the United States. My role was to help these women navigate the US hospital system, help advocate their birthing plan with their doctors, provide transportation to prenatal appointments, and attend the birth to support the women.
My first mentee was a Somali woman with a history of a traumatic birth in her home country (in which the baby died when she gave birth at home) and she also had a history of domestic violence with a restraining order against her husband at the time of her pregnancy. I became one of her key supports throughout her pregnancy and we had many moments of laughter together, especially after being sent home from the hospital because she was not dilated enough and getting a call from her twenty minutes later: “SARAH, LOTTA LOTTA LOTTA WATER!”
It was my first experience attending a birth and I’ll never forget it, especially being able to hold a ten-minute old baby and sing his first song to him. The attending doctor was also the mother’s primary doctor with much experience and tender care with delivering babies and taking care of the mothers—truly a master of his craft.
My second mentee was an Afghan woman, bearing her sixth child. Typical cultural practice in Afghanistan is that husbands do not attend births, however, her incredibly devoted husband wanted to stay by her side while she was in labor and interpret for her since she did not speak any English. At one point, he became distressed during her labor, saying, “I can’t believe I did this to her **six** times!!” When the baby was finally born, the husband turned a visible shade of green and declined to cut the umbilical cord, and gave me the honors instead—which I feel is a rare experience for non-doctor women in America since it is usually the husbands/partners of the mother who get this task.
I’m very glad that I sought out those opportunities to support mothers and babies, and to have gotten the chance to witness the birth of two precious children. I am single and childless, without wanting to be either, so it has also been a good experience for me to better understand and support friends going through pregnancy and early motherhood.
At the Minnesota State Fair one of my favorite buildings (both as a kid and now, as a parent) is called the Miracle of Birth. For 12 days it contains very pregnant, birthing and post partum farm animals of all sorts! My kiddo and I have seen cows and pigs born there, eggs in various stages of hatching and a half-birthed horse. It's *fantastic*.
I was 14 when my younger sister was born, and it was the most powerful experience I've witnessed. After watching a 15 hour unmedicated birth, the nurses joked that my parents had given me "the strongest birth control possible." Quite the opposite! Seeing the strength of my mother, the pride and compassion of my father, the support of our entire family waiting eagerly for updates, and the calm resolve of the nurses and midwife crystallized my sense of the magic and meaning of human life and community. The year after her birth I fell into the deep spiral of anxiety and nihilism that seems to plague teen girls so frequently now, and thinking back to my sister's birth was a bulwark against my fear of death and meaninglessness. Now, I especially want to have children and have considered getting certified as a doula.
I was shocked when my babies came and I found out what childbirth could be like - I had two very different deliveries. And now I feel like I want to tell everyone about my experience largely for reasons you describe here. People should know what birth is like. Historically men were lauded for being courageous and women were occasionally lauded for their "manly" courage - meanwhile, it's women who are risking their lives and handing over their bodies just in the normal course of things. I want people to know that it was no small thing that I did and endured.
I am a nurse midwife, so I have the privilege of witnessing birth nearly every day (and rarely, tragically, death). I have thought about it a lot, and I believe it would be nearly impossible to re-create anything close to the historic norm of witnessing even a few births before your own. We have lost the necessary framework as female social groups, notions of privacy and femininity have changed. Loss of tradition around witnessing birth is a huge loss for women. As individuals lose ritual (around birth), society loses reverence (for pregnancy, birth, matrescence)...
My husband grew up with sheep and worked with goats and cattle as an adult so he knows about "birth, milk, and all the rest." And I am grateful. When I was pregnant and saw a spot of something bright yellow on my breast, I frantically began googling what could be wrong and he casually said, "oh, that's colostrum."
Knowing that he had stayed up all night before, attending to nanny goats laboring and giving birth, was very comforting to me as I looked forward to giving birth alongside him.
I got to be with both of my grandmas when they died. My mom and I sang hymns with her mother the morning she died, and I prayed at my dad's mother's bedside with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Those times mean the world to me and prompted me to write out this prayer on paper and keep it in my wallet so if I am with someone who is dying in the future, I don't have to pull out my phone. I should also memorize it. (From the USCCB website):
Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you,
go forth, faithful Christian.
May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the Virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the Angels and Saints.
The other side, mortality? I have had experience with that. Both my mother and maternal grandmother died at home, and I was living there at the time. More recently, I had experience with my dad's end-of-life, although I wasn't present when he died. I used to be a hospice volunteer, and I'm hoping to get back into it.
There are different types of hospice volunteering, grounded in the volunteer being a companion to the dying person, ie. being present as death becomes imminent, or at the bedside at the moment of death. I've done the former, realizing that it can lead to the latter, and I'm fine with that.
Intellectually I can understand the strengthening of bonds that being present at each others' births must have been for the women in a community. You share each other's daily lives, you share chores, you share the perilous, momentous moments of birth with each other. All the same, I would not have wanted a woman I know to be present at the birth of my children, far too personal, icky and messy and I would be in their debt forever. Thank God for paid professionals, you can walk away and don't have to reciprocate.
I was present at my beloved grandmother's death, and it changed my outlook on death profoundly. I sat with her for so many hours and the very air in the room felt chared with the effort of dying and letting go. It was (and I am not trying to sound banal or cliché, I swear it felt like this) like a birth: a lot of work and intense concentration. She obviously wasn't in pain although she was struggling with the enormity of the task. I never wondered all that much whether there was a soul. When my grandmother died, I could feel that it was there in all its indestructible sparkle, and it needed to loosen itself from the body.
I am in a phase of life when I am busy with a school child and my own double shifts of work and what Ursula Le Guin calls "the art of the infinite" that is running a house and a family. But I am drawn to both birth and death, which are both such holy experiences.
I am a man so I have never experienced childbirth. I do live on a homestead and have buried chickens and I have buried beloved pets but nothing compares to seeing a young person you know die violently. One day I was leaving work and not far up the road came upon a bad wreck. I get of the car to go help, as only about 4 of us did, only to find one woman crushed in the car asking for help. She later died. There was really nothing we could do for her and not knowing her I was trying to help while keeping blood off my hands. I turn back to the body laying in the street and pick up the other ladies ID and realize it is someone I know. She married a childhood friend of mine and the girl and I had gone to college together. She was dead already thrown from her car. I was not part of the group of men attending to her car cutting her child out of the car, who also did not make it but had a huge head injury I was told and whose head was severely swollen. I then proceeded to call my childhood friends dad after 411ing the number. In only a coincidence that could be ordained by God he answered his home phone, or I believe it was his home phone. He was not supposed to be home just yet and it was really odd that he was. I told him that his sons wife was in a really bad wreck, I did not have the heart to say dead, and he needed to find his son. He at first did not believe me but this is a man I had known for nearly 20 years at this time and coached me in youth sports. He finally believed what I was saying or maybe he was just in shock at what I was saying and he left to find his son. He reached him before the police did, thankfully.
That basically ended my involvement in that and once real professionals showed up us amateurs left. I did direct traffic for a time. What is odd about my response to all of this is how I was able to function after this. I went and gave a talk later that night to some church ladies about a mission trip I had been on. Of course many of them had already heard the news. But the problems from seeing that did not arise util later. I am paranoid about driving in the passing lane now is the biggest problem I developed. I had no PTSD and don't often think of that wreck but I do drive past the spot 10-12 times per week. I often spoke of it for a time and still do think about it more than I should. But even writing this has brought upon some sort of sadness and heaviness upon me. This experience was much heavier and harder than even burying a beloved pets or yard chickens. I miss and love my past pets but that passes so much easier than seeing a young person die tragically. I have been with two of my grandparents in the hospital. With one I went home for the night and they died and with another they died while her family gathered around and were with her as she peacefully just stopped breather. I lived to far away from my other grand parents to be there for their death. But even compared to losing my grandparents and basically being there for two of them they don't compare to being witness to this death.
Oh and one last thing. Lawyers who will call up and ask about the car seat after a death of a child are the worst. I told them the truth. This was before I had kids and did not know anything about car seats and as I said I was not there for the child anyway.
Basically everyone I know is SHOCKED when I tell them that my siblings and I were all born at home, and that I got to cut my sister's umbilical cord (with supervision of the midwife, of course) when I was six years old. Sadly I was taking a final exam for a physics class when my brother was born, so I didn't get to do the honors for that one. But for him I certainly remember with very clear eyes the magnitude of care that a newborn requires, something that people my age often don't quite seem to grasp.
We didn't have any other mammals reproducing around our household, but we did have chickens and a huge koi pond. From the koi I learned that a lot of species like to eat their babies. From chickens, we learned not to give eggs to friends to incubate unless we wanted to get a mixed-up turkey chick in return...
Aside: once I was on a date with some poor boy and I mentioned offhand that newborn mammals have to be fed every 2-3 hours. His response was "Not human babies, though." Uh oh.
When my daughter was born by planned C-section, I was allowed to sit near my wife’s face, but they kept a sheet up between us and the surgical procedure, so neither of us could “truly” witness it. For me, the reasoning given was that they thought I might faint or barf if I saw it. Which was fair, but still led me to feel like I was missing out a bit.
What an excellent article! We are too far removed from nature!
I hadn’t thought about this in years, but when I was little, into teen years, I think, we had a cat who had babies several times a year. That was my only contact with birth before I had my own. Not entirely helpful as preparation for human birth!
But it was, at least, a connection to reality that is missing in our society.
I got mice for an 8th grade science fair project. It was terrible science, but the mice were cute and it was a sneaky way to get pets. But the store gave me a mixed group of male and female and they started having babies. I got to witness both birth and death. And the horror of the mother mice eating their own babies. (I still have some nightmares about that one.) Strangely, that's the closest I've come to natural childbirth as all five of my babies were born via c-section.
I am not a pet person in general though. And maybe those mice had something to do with my reluctance to have pets. Though the main factor is that seven people in a small house is cramped enough. But I do feel like my kids have missed out on something by not having that small contact with life and death of fragile animals.
My wife introduced me to the idea that birth can be seen as the most special and beautiful thing on Earth -- before encountering her perspective, I thought it was just a necessary and unpleasant means in order to welcome a child. Some weeks ago, she woke me up to say that labor hast started, we put on nice clothes and there was a sense similar to Christmas morning. When labour picked up speed, we picked up the boys from school so they could be with us for the final hours -- swimming around my wife in the birthing pool. Admittedly, they seemed just as taken in by the birthing pool and the possibility of watching youtube with less restrictions than usual as by the birth. But -- they got to witness it! What a magical, truly unique thing for them.
PS: Relatedly, I found this picture very intense -- It shows that the nativity scene was, well, about natality (well, the picture *is* very intense -- it shows Mary giving birth in realistic terms (no nudity though except for the legs)): https://images.saatchiart.com/saatchi/1697976/art/8153087/7219291-HSC00923-7.jpg
I'm reading KL right now (and am enjoying it) so it was cool that you quoted from it. Glad to hear you love the book as well.
Thank you for your writing!
Seems the millennials are distressingly cut off from the real world. If you swat a mosquito and don’t miss, the mosquito dies. There’s usually even blood. What’s the mystery here?
Too much ivory tower-ing? Too much education? Too much of suburbia? Underdeveloped imagination due to all the scientizing and specialized critical analysis?