How Women Become Mothers

"The Business of Being Born" was an infomercial for normal, physiological birth, and many of the women in the audience left with an impulse to buy.
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This may sound odd, but I really want to try childbirth. I felt this urge after the first birth I witnessed, and I think it was the desired effect of the The Business of Being Born, a powerful documentary about the politics of childbirth that premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The film has celebrity backing from Ricki Lake, whose bathtub home birth is one of several beautifully shot for the big screen. The women walk around nude or nearly so. They moan, groan, and sing through contractions. They hold on to their partners or their midwife, and then they squat, sit, kneel, or even stand--and deliver. Glistening babies slide out almost silently from beneath, oftentimes into their mothers' own hands, and come-to on their mothers bellies, at last on the other side.

The audience almost giggled with delight and what I think was surprise at each of these otherworldly moments--did that baby really just come out of her? Right there in the living room? Why is nobody screaming?

This was an infomercial for normal, physiological birth, and many of the women in the audience left with an impulse to buy. Even a family physician in the front row announced following the screening that he was so moved by the film that he wants to offer home birth to all of his pregnant patients.

Early in reporting for my forthcoming book Pushed, I had a similar conversion experience. I was in El Paso, Texas, interviewing the midwives at Maternidad la Luz, a birth center/midwifery school. Picking up on the depth of my curiosity, the midwives invited me to "work a shift." This entailed following the crew around the clock, from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m., and they all but guaranteed I'd see a birth.

For more HuffPost coverage of the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, go here.

I arrived early and eager. I wanted to understand the mechanics of childbirth; wanted to learn if this was something I could handle as a reporter, something I'd want to spend the next couple of years of my life reading and writing about.

Sure enough, night fell, the creaky front door swung open, and a woman heaved her huge belly over the threshold, exhaling heavily. One of the midwives listened to the fetus' heartbeat in an exam room, timed the contractions, and escorted the woman to one of the birthing rooms. This was her third child; her husband and mother had come with her but left to go to the store--they forgot clothes for the baby. After a couple more contractions, the midwife split, too. "I'm going to eat some dinner in the kitchen, why don't you stay here and keep Perla company?" she said smiling, and casually just left me there.

Perla had come over the border from Juarez, Mexico. I knew exactly four relevant words in Spanish: respiré (breathe); esso (just like that); bueno (yay!); si (yay, yes, bueno!). There was a bed, but Perla glanced at it like you would a cold buffet. Instead she walked around the room, one hand on her lower back, leaning every so often on the counter or any nearby structure that could bear her weight, including me. And it was here on this creaky wooden floor that I learned my first lesson in normal birth: movement. Not one mammal labors and gives birth lying flat on their back, nor did women, generally, before modern obstetrics.

Perla walked circles around the room in the pastel nightgown she arrived in and we settled into a little routine: as a contraction approached, she'd make her way toward me and we'd both make our way toward the counter. I massaged her lower back with my left hand; my right hand she'd squeeze. Soon we were both saying, "Si, bueno" in unison.

My goal that night was to see a baby being born: the emergence of the head, the "Push! Push!", the "It's a ____!" Instead, I saw a woman giving birth. Perla did it standing up. All of a sudden, she hollered, her water broke, and in two seconds the midwife was perched under her nightgown, "catching" a baby before its father and grandmother could purchase a onesie.

What was so striking to me at the time was its simplicity. A strange word to describe such a magnificent feat of biology, one that is now so fraught with fear and enshrined in medical technology in our culture. And yet, there it was. The midwives barely did anything; Perla's body knew what to do all by itself.

The way maternity care is going in the U.S., you'd hardly know the female body is capable of this. More than half of labors today are started or sped up with artificial hormones; nearly all mothers give birth in a hospital bed with their knees at their armpits and someone shouting at them to push; and nearly one-third of babies are extracted via major abdominal surgery, the cesarean section.

Was Perla just incredibly lucky, or is something terribly amiss with standard maternity care?

Lake's documentary poses this question as well through various experts and activists. More importantly though, the births speak for themselves. You get the lasting impression that this act of giving birth -- in the active, full-body sense -- is something exhilarating, extraordinary; something that, if possible, is not to be missed, and certainly not to be mishandled.

It's not something we tend to think about on Mother's Day -- how women become mothers -- but maybe it's a good day to start.

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