The language of pregnancy and birth showcase our society’s beliefs with perfect clarity. I can think of dozens of phrases that divide mother from baby, spirit from body, mind from health, and mother from inner knowledge. I want to look at just one phrase to showcase the way we approach these linguistic faux pas in midwifery care, and how we get to the bottom of events in pregnancy that can be difficult or seemingly in need of a cure.
We can attribute the language of divisiveness to many sinister roots and spend all day railing at The Machine and The Man–but why spin in circles when we can gain some insight instead? Something I’ve learned over the years and hundreds of births: the roots lie beneath layers of asphalt, cement, cobblestone, and packed dirt. The energy required to dig them up and cultivate new soil and plant new trees is the work of modern midwifery. Meanwhile, we like to say we “forgive” those who have attached themselves to the practices that stem from these roots because that is their only paradigm and how they were trained. While that’s fair to some extent, each of us is responsible for lifting our heads so that we can partake of a broader vision. I know it’s not politically correct—but shame on all of us who are entrenched in one way of thinking, talking, and acting. And a double shame if that tunnel vision limits the experience of something so fundamental as the birth of a baby and a mother: the building blocks of any society. (And yes, this cuts both ways–midwifery care and homebirth are not the right fit for every woman.) What makes one person or another apt to lift their eyes and stretch their perspective or practice? I would call it holistic curiosity, and it should be taught in every medical and midwifery school. Actually, scratch that. It should be taught in every elementary school.
It is unfathomable to me that any person could witness birth and think only of the moving parts and mechanics of it, but there is where the roots of modern birth and the language and rituals that surround it lie. The medicalized perspective of birthing must work very hard to connect the parts that authentic midwifery honors as inextricably bound together. There are wonderful OB’s and OB nurses who see the whole woman—this is really not a message about them, it is a message about the environment, language, and curiosity that we surround ourselves with.
Back to the misnomer we are looking into: “False Labor”. This term is typically applied to bouts of contractions a mother has between 37 weeks and the onset of rhythmical contractions that get stronger and longer and culminate in birth. A contraction is an activity of the muscle. A mother cannot make her uterus contract the way we can flex our biceps. The uterus contracts in response to internal stimulation—be it from any of several maternal or fetal hormones, movement from the baby, an orgasm, or changes in the lower neck of the uterus called the cervix.
The idea that the body would generate activity, heat, and motion for false purposes is nothing short of absurd. Every contraction has a purpose. Each one massages baby, helps baby adjust its position in the pelvis, and stimulates receptor systems for hormones we need to birth our babies. Emotionally, contractions pull us inward and force us to spend time with our bodies and babies. They pull our attention from the world, the clock, the to-do lists. They teach us lessons about control and surrender. Often times in our busy lives it is the norm to be in a state of disconnect with our bodies. Mothering needs us present in our bodies. It demands that we feel and sense and respond to these feelings and sensations in order to ensure the very survival of our species. Contractions that come and go, sometimes for nights on end, and in fits and spurts help us acquire and practice these skills.
“False Labor?” I don’t think so. The body is wise and begs the mind’s attendance in this wisdom. A provider who looks a mother in the eye and tell her that this wisdom is “false”, and demands that she separate her wise body from her knowing sense of her truths does not see a whole woman in front of her. Midwifery care, at its very best, does not get lost in the mechanics, but honors the wisdom of the whole mother and her baby. It sees them work together in harmony to bring about motherhood in its richest, fullest sense, and babyhood with the right I wish every baby on this planet had—the right to a mother who has integrated her body and mind and honors her senses, her knowledge, her gut, and her heart and can be present for her baby. “False Labor?” I don’t think so. The next time we meet a mother who is contracting in these patterns, we can stand in awe at the integration of mother and baby, spirit and body, mind and health, and mother with her inner knowledge—and know, with absolute certainty, that there is nothing false about it.