METROPOLIS “NATURAL” CHILDBIRTH? YOU CAN HAVE IT

Three pregnant women and their husbands sit in a semicircle. It is a summer night, and a ceiling fan whirs softly overhead as a woman in her thirties speaks to them in grave tones about the evils of childbirth.

Your doctors are not your friends, the woman says. They are busy, impatient, and lazy. They would rather be asleep or out on the golf course than delivering your baby. The nurses are worse, and potentially more dangerous, since they will be with you for all of labor and delivery. They will want complete control of you. They will ignore your wishes. They will strap you to the bed with a fetal monitor, probe your insides, and pump massive doses of deadly drugs into your arm.

The pregnant couples say nothing. This is pretty serious business.

The woman continues. The great majority of Caesarean sections are unnecessary-impatience on the part of doctors who will not let nature take its course. Hospital nurseries are baby concentration camps that cruelly separate newborns from their mothers. Fetal monitors are invasive. Epidurals are criminal. Circumcision? Downright butchery.

The only chance for a healthy birth experience, she insists, is a formal plan, a written decree, a manifesto, stating your demands and declaring your right to an unmedicated, natural delivery. Copies of the manifesto need to be placed in medical records and distributed to medical personnel and taped to the door of the labor room.

This will not be easy, she warns. People will fight you every step of the way. The system is geared to defeat you.

Welcome to childbirth hell.

THE WIFE OF A WASHINGTON POST MOSCOW correspondent recently flew home to the States nine months pregnant so she could avoid delivering in a Russian hospital. She may have had good reasons. But this is not a story about Russia. Or any other medically primitive place.

This is a story about Dallas, and my natural childbirth experience.

It is the story of The Bradley Method, a technique similar to Lamaze and Leboyer, which convinces ignorant, first-time pregnant women like myself that medication during childbirth is dangerous, but chicken broth and Gatorade are healthy-and all you need for a painless, if not exhilarating, if not orgasmic, childbirth. That’s right, orgasmic.

What a deal.

What a break.

What a lot of hooey.

One of the doctors in the big, yuppified North Dallas obstetrical practice where I am a patient says the idea that having a baby can be painless is the biggest fairy tale he’s heard in medicine. Childbirth is painful by nature. And if you don’t want the pain, then you should take the drugs. Period.

“We have spent years developing a way for women to have a more or less painless delivery,” says Dr. A. Jay Staub. “So why not take advantage of it? My patients don’t want pain. They want drugs. They want to be pampered. Fewer than 10 percent of my patients go natural.”

All of this would have made perfect sense to me had I not already been initiated into the mindset or The Bradley Method. Before Bradley, I had been a normal person-I gladly took the Novocain when I went to the dentist; I took the local when I went to the dermatologist; I wanted a general when I had any type of surgery or delicate procedure. But now 1 was pregnant, and, as a product of the Lamaze generation, I was convinced that if I did not follow the teachings of natural childbirth-which, in a perfect world, meant squatting in a dark wood while your husband played the guitar and your midwife built a fire with bugs and twigs-I would produce a child who, because of any one hit of Demerol in labor, would never be able to put the square block in the round hole, or worse, would perform modestly on the SAT.

I was nine months pregnant, alcohol-free, running three miles every other day, eating grain breads and spinach, and determined to be one of the doctor’s rebellious minority. After all, he couldn’t fool me. 1 knew who he really was now. He was my enemy.

MY HUSBAND. THE PRACTICAL LAWYER, never fell for any of it. Modern medicine was a blessing. Doctors saved lives. Hospitals were where miracles happened. In his mind, our incense-burning, Earth Mother, Wood-stockian instructor was off the wall and so was her method.

There were some clues to that effect.

For example. The Method taught that when the wife was experiencing contractions-which were described as bad menstrual cramps-the husband could literally “stroke away the pain” by gliding his hands along his wife’s arms and legs, or gently rubbing her abdomen, or, depending on the ferocity of the contractions, digging into the small of her back with a tennis ball.

And when the contractions became intense, the husband was supposed to say the following:

“Just let that big bag of muscles [i.e., the uterus] do its work.”

“Picture your cervix opening like a flower.”

“Feel a wave lifting you, carrying you along with its majestic strength.”

For this, we were paying $75 for five lessons. But having never done this, I was a believer. Even after the ice chest experience.

Her now-famous words, which we love to repeat, were: “Take an ice chest with you to the hospital.” We assumed the ice chest was for provisions-the items she assured us we would need to get through this: ice chips, popsicles, Gatorade, lollipops, honey, chicken soup, freshly squeezed orange juice.

But the chest, it turned out, wasn’t for food or beverage. It was for placenta. Afterbirth. That big blob of bloody mess that had been globbed onto the side of my uterus for nine months providing nourishment and sustenance to the unborn.

I remember vividly my reaction to this information: I didn’t want to see my placenta, let alone provide it a home. My husband’s reaction was a smirk. Why, he asked her skeptically, should we put the placenta in an ice chest?

Our instructor solemnly pointed toward the window. “Do you see that fir tree?” We did. “My daughter’s placenta is under that tree,” she said. “It makes great fertilizer.”

DESPITE ALL THIS, I ADMIT THAT I DIDN’T even start doubting The Method until the early morning hours of June 26, 1990, when I found myself hunched down on all fours, seized with pain, on the cold tile floor of the lobby of the Margot Perot Center of Presbyterian Hospital. It was 5:30a.m., and I had been in labor for seven hours. The contractions were coming every two minutes and lasting 60 to 90 seconds. I had had no sleep for more than 30 hours. I was not doing well.

The contractions felt nothing like cramps of any kind. They felt like a terrible 10-car pileup on Central Expressway, and I was the one in the itsy-bitsy convertible Mazda Miata. They felt like a can opener grinding its way, slowly and deliberately, across my tender innards. They felt like I was being dragged down the street by one end of my intestines.

My husband had employed the tools of The Method, at my rabid insistence. He had stroked my arms, my legs, my face, my stomach, my back, my everything-but my pain, which began in my middle and threw itself around my back like a noose, was far too great for that. He had dug and pressed and pummeled my back, but the pain marched on. He had tried, only because I screamed and begged, to murmur some of those magical words: “Just let that big bag of muscles do its work.” I drank a half-gallon of Gatorade. Nothing.

By 7 a.m., with no relief in sight and four more centimeters to go, I had retired to a labor room where I threw myself across a bed and, with every shatteringly painful quake of a contraction, asked myself why I was being a martyr. The instructor had warned us that when you started to doubt your ability to make it the rest of the way, that you were in the transition phase, which was the peak of the pain. This was the worst time to take drugs, she said, because you were almost home. But I didn’t feel anywhere near home. And I wasn’t doubting myself. I just wanted relief.

And so I opted to fail, marveling at all the women before me who had not. I took a hit of Demerol to get me through the last hour of labor. It wore off in time for me to push out a healthy baby girl like a true Bradley champion. But I won’t go without drugs the next time. Without reliving all the gory details, the delivery was even more disgusting and torturous than the contractions and the waiting.

The first person who called me in the hospital that morning was not my mother. It was my Bradley instructor. I admitted the Demerol. Her voice changed. I would not be the keynote speaker at the Bradley reunion.

The doctor who doesn’t like childbirth fairy tales came to see me, too. I enjoyed his visit. I had finally seen the enemy. And it wasn’t him.

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