Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

Birth: The Play as Activism

Can one woman's play affect global change for pregnant women?

A long time ago--a really long time ago, I'm talking Colonial days---women who gave birth were never alone. Even if you wanted to be. But I'm not sure who would. You were surrounded by friends and relatives and friends-of-friends and relatives-of-relatives. All women of course. They were there to give you advice, make you relax, get you a washcloth, or whatever else you needed or they thought you needed. These helpers (some experienced and some not) were called God-sibs, as in God's siblings, a term that morphed into gossips and now, of course, has nothing to do with God-like behavior. But you have to assume it does have something to do with what went on in those birthing rooms of yesteryear.

The point is that these women, these gossips that is, gave the parturient woman much-needed camaraderie plus a little know-how based on their own experiences. Nowadays we've got our partners and whatever kind of birth attendants we've paid for, whether it be midwife or doctor. And once the baby's out, we're on our own.

Karen Brody, a community activist and former Peace Corps volunteer, wants to bring back some of the old fashioned girl talk into childbirth and through the talk she hopes to encourage some much-needed (as she sees it) positive change. Her play, Birth, hopes to do for childbirth what Eve Ensler did for vaginas in her Vagina Monologues and perhaps what Nora Ephron may do for mothers and daughters in her newest play, Love, Loss and What I Wore. Ensler's Vagina Monologues got everyone saying the v-word. The phenomenal response prompted her to raise money for anti-violence organizations. Ephron's play includes a rotating cast of women and is based on Ilene Beckerman's best-selling book about women and clothes and relationships. With Ephron, we can expect a lot of laughs and a lot of I-know-just-what-you-mean reactions.

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Brody's Birth feels more activism than entertainment and that's probably the way she wants it. The play includes the stories of eight women-composites based on 118 interviews-some amusing, some horribly scary. She hopes she'll get women talking about birth and through the talk help women create a more mother-friendly (her term) birth experience. The response to her play prompted her to launch BOLD, that has raised 150,000 dollars so far for organizations that improve maternity care.

BOLD stands for Birth on Labour Day and she encourages women to organize so-called Red Tents to gather and share birth stories. (You'd have to assume that the women who show up are really angry-as anger is the best motivator. If you were happy with it all, why bother going?)

What sort of change? Brody says her organization is not about pushing natural childbirth but rather about making sure that women are informed and that they can speak up for the kind of birth they want whether it's with drugs or drug-free. (That's what the founder of Lamaze once told me and we all know she wasn't okay about using lots of drugs.) And yet, there is a 1970s you-go-girl feel to it all. The clip on YouTube includes such statements "midwives are safer than doctors for low-risk births." (I know a lot of terrific midwives but I also know some wonderful obgyns, so I'm not sure I can say midwives are overall better). But she also has some hard-hitting facts, such as: as "Every minute one woman dies from pregnancy or other childbirth-related causes."

Brody's favorite quote, which she says is verbatim from one of her interviewees is: "My Body Rocks!" Apparently, one woman yelled this while pushing her baby out and it has become a sort of mantra in the play, with a chorus of women chanting along.

The play has been performed across the U.S.-in a woman's correctional facility and a high school that has a high teen pregnancy rate-and across the globe-in Paris and in Uganda. Brody said she got the idea to write it--this is her first play--after her son was born and she was chatting with other new mothers hearing about all sorts of "horrific" birth experiences. She heard about women who had episiotomies without consent, about women who got drugs without wanting any. And as Brody put it, "I started smelling human rights abuses." Rather than gather statistics, she said, she felt she wanted women to tell their stories, which she feels is a more powerful force to influence change.

She said she wasn't really angry so much as stunned. "I had this feeling of ‘huh? Why weren't women getting all this information?" (A few of her characters actually had good experiences, and shockingly so, she even met a woman who liked her doctor and hospital birth.)

I am certainly not against doctors and hospital births (I think it's important to have a good neonatal intensive care unit close by just in case there is an emergency and I also happen to have a great relationship with my obgyn), but I can understand where Brody is coming from and believe that whatever birth category you put yourself into (happy with the experience, sad or neither), there is something wonderful about getting women to take the time to bond over this profound and life-changing experience. As Barbara Katz Rothman, PhD, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, is quoted as saying on Brody's website: "Birth is not just about making babies, it's about making mothers." 

Maybe the worldwide response to Birth and her BOLD organization shows that even today, with our mad rush to get off the delivery table and back to work, we could still use a little hand-holding and we could go for some old fashioned female bonding-and of course, some good gossip.

 

 

 

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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