This article originally appeared in “Chicago Tribune”
On Monday, May 23, I watched my sister Natalie labor for eight (of 12 total) hours and deliver a beautiful baby girl. She made it the whole way with no drugs, a feat she desired to achieve, but that she was fully willing to relinquish if things were not going smoothly or if the pain was too much to handle.
I’m so proud of what my sister accomplished, but before you assume this is an article praising natural childbirth and berating women who opt for an epidural, I assure you I’m not going there. I am completely on board with pain management and believe having choices can be empowering for a mama-to-be.
However, we need to talk about the word “empower.” It’s a word I use frequently when training clients. I want them to understand why they are doing an exercise, how to do it and how it should feel, because that is empowering.
If I just said, “Here’s an exercise. Now do it,” without explaining why or telling them where they should feel it, there is a good chance they would not care to learn the move correctly. But if I said, “We’re going to do this exercise to strengthen your gluteus medius (side butt muscle), because it will help your knee track properly when you run so you don’t feel knee pain. You should feel this in the side of your butt,” you’d probably be more apt to master the move and practice it on your own.
The other day I realized labor is more like strength training than I ever knew. And your coaching team has a lot to do with how empowering the experience is for you.
Flashback to my own first labor, on Sept. 29, 2011: I went with a traditional doctor, no midwife or doula. I got to the hospital and was met by the most unsympathetic nurse you can imagine. She treated me like a puppy in obedience school, with simple commands like, “Lie down,” and “Go back to your room,” and refused to listen to how I was feeling. It got to the point where she wouldn’t check my cervix (despite me insisting that things felt different down there), so I had to ask another nurse to do so. At the moment she checked me, I was 9 centimeters dilated, fully effaced, with a baby at +3 in the birth canal. She had to make an emergency call for a different doctor to come from home and deliver my baby, since the one present was in the middle of performing a C-section. Like my sister, I ended up delivering my son naturally, but the experience was anything but empowering. I didn’t know how things were supposed to feel, I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know what I could have done to make my labor go more smoothly.
My sister’s labor was entirely the opposite. I watched as her midwife gave her cues to “breathe like Dory in ‘Finding Nemo'” – making deep, open noises to relax the pelvic floor. I witnessed my sister’s frustration when she got stuck at 7 centimeters, and her midwife explained to her that this was common and that she needed to get back into a mentally relaxed state. When the midwife told everyone to leave the room, my sister was prepared to find that state – not annoyed that she was being left alone. When my sister was pushing and upset at how long it was taking (which wasn’t actually long at all), her midwife explained that with each push, the baby was stretching her out so that she wouldn’t tear badly.
With every position change, every cervix check, every breathing cue, my sister was being empowered. She was getting information. She was given choices. She could have chosen at any time to have an epidural, and that would have been fine (she did ask at one point, and her midwife gave her full details of what it would entail), but she opted to continue without intervention. The point is, she knew not just the “whats,” but also the “whys” and the “hows,” which gave her as much control of her body as possible.
I often hear women being told, “It’s not up to you. You can’t control what happens during your labor, so just listen to your doctor. In the end, all that matters is that you have a healthy baby.” I couldn’t disagree more.
I know that sometimes unfortunate things happen during labor that women can’t control. And in cases like these, labor is not empowering – no matter who is coaching you through it. But what I learned from my sister’s experience and my own – and from working with new moms as a personal trainer is that many health care professionals could do a better job of empowering women.
Pregnancy, childbirth and being a new mama can all be empowering, but all of these experiences can also make women feel powerless. For this to change, we need you to give us “whys” and “hows.” We need information and your confidence in our ability to use it. We need you to support us while we navigate unfamiliar territory with our amazing but complicated bodies.
And by all means, we need respect. Don’t you dare tell us to lie down. We’re not your puppy.
Nicole Radziszewski is a freelance columnist. She lives in River Forest and is a certified personal trainer and mother of two. Check Nicole out on Facebook at Facebook.com/mamasgottamove.