Monday, 30 April 2012

It's time we had a talk about sphincters. And clocks.

Ok, I'm warning you straight away. This post contains the words fanny and sphincter. If you are grossed out by these, better go do something else and skip this post. It's gonna be a meaty one. Yep, I'm talking about birth again.

I read a really fantastic post today by Cambridge-based Doula trainer Maddie McMahon today about clock-watching, number crunching, and how it ought to be left out of the birth space. . You know when someone just writes  down so precisely what you feel in your gut but haven't found the words to say them so succinctly yourself. Well Maddie absolutely nailed it for me with this piece.

Whilst I was away on holiday recently I wrote a little something on the topic of clocks in the birth-room. It was actually a piece on how you could make a hospital birth a gentler, less clinical experience. One of the ideas I wrote down was that maybe if there is a clock in the room, you could request it be placed flat or removed from mum's sight. Watching the clock whilst labouring, is as Maddie puts it, like trying to time yourself reaching an orgasm - kinda anathaema to just going for it, non? Birth time is a bit more like the melting clocks time of Salvador Dali

or the time as described by Doctor Who when he said it was "bendy-wendy". The other type of clock-watching can feel a bit like The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland - although her own journey of falling down the rabbit hole into a crazy dimension does have it's similarities to birth!

We have come to trust clock-watching and number crunching as a religion in their own right - we think they tell us everything we need to know and yet they don't tell us everything - and in fact they can be misleading.

Imagine you are really getting into the swing and starting to feel really safe and opening up nicely. You're surrounded by kind people who you feel an affinity with. Things are intense, and it's taking all your effort to stay in the zone.

In walks bossy, rude man/woman. He/She swirls into the room and thinks a(nother?) vaginal examination would help to establish where things are at. Before he/she walked in you were 7 cms dilated. Suddenly, faced with this person you don't feel comfortable with AT ALL, surprise surprise, you go back to 3cms. Upon being told you are now only 3cms, you feel pretty despondent!

You and others start to talk about this annoying state of affairs. Maybe you're feeling tired and starting to secretly panic. You think of the hours it took to get you to 7cm's and how it will take you ages to get back up to that number. What you don't realise is that if you feel safe enough very quickly again and your fight-or-flight adrenaline hormones are no longer needed, you can open right back up again

Think how quickly you freeze if you are caught out whilst having sex, or a poo, or some other bodily function that requires total relaxation for you to let go with it.

Its the same with birth. Your baby is born via one of your body's many..... sphincters! (collapses in a giggle fit) Yes indeedy.

According to Wiki,

 "sphincter is an anatomical structure, a circular muscle that normally maintains constriction of a natural body passage or orifice and which relaxes as required by normal physiological functioning. Sphincters are found in many animals; there are over 50 types in the human body, some microscopically small, in particular the millions of precapillary sphincters.[1]

All sphincters are shy. They don't like it if they are being watched too closely. Your fanny is no different. If some stranger puts their fingers up your fanny you sure as hell as not going to feel too relaxed about this, unless you are into some weird kinky stuff. Whatever floats your boat, baby, but here, for the purposes of talking birth stuff, let's assume we are not talking about THAT kind of finger action. No maam.

Now, if someone asked to finger your rectum whilst you had a poo, you would probably tell them where to get off right? And yet somehow, we find it hard to refuse vaginal examinations. There is an expectation, a pressure that we'll go along with them. Throughout pregnancy as well. I have refused them myself and received a rather curt, sniffy reply. Guess what? I can live with it.

I love this midwife's take on why we ought to leave well alone unless we have a genuine concern.

Can you just say "No thanks"?  Um, yep. Absolutely. If it feels unnecessary, you could write this into your birth plan. You have the right to decide if anyone can enter your body or not. In an emergency case, then yes, being able to feel baby's exact position is really useful and life-saving. In that case, your midwife ought to ask you really nicely, and tell you exactly what is going on. And of course, you'd most likely, and wisely say "Go for it".

But in non-emergency scenarios there are other ways of seeing how mother is doing besides measuring in cms and fingers and minutes and bleeps on a machine. The machines are actually there to cover the hospitals ass as much as save her own. A busy midwife, through no fault of her own, covering several rooms at once, may not have time to look for other signs.

Some of the older ways of knowing are becoming lost. They're just as reliable and are in danger of becoming extinct if we don't keep them alive and use them in our practice.

Mostly what we need for birth is to feel safe, relaxed, unobserved, free to move as we wish, freedom from ticks and tocks and bleeps and numbers. A mother herself has little need for this information. She needs to stay in her space, to moan and groan and be as mammal as possible.

So if at all possible, hide the clocks. Leave her internals well alone if you can and watch her with your eyes, and heart. Listen to her deeply.

She'll love you forever for it.


I was deeply honoured to be awarded a Versatile Blogger award from Home Ed writer Ross Mountney - look out for my next blogpost, in which I will be nominating my own 15 favourite versatile bloggers....


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  2. Yes! One born every minute is a horrid programme generally.....with a couple of exceptions....I feel sorry for people who watch that and think that's all birth can be.....some of the midwives on there are just so negative and could do with spending time away from their job and relearning the art of birthing from people ho don't go round saying "it's horrrible". If I was a scad first timer and my midwife asked what labour is like I'd much rather she said something productive, like " it will get intense, on and off, on and off, and in between the rushes you'll feel cometely normal and able to joke around, and talk, but when it gets intense you'll need to really give it all your attention. We'll help you stay focused and relaxed. All is well. Would you like a massage. How does that feel? How can we make you more comfortable. You're doing so well. It's intense isn't it? Breathe your pain away. You can do this! We will help you. ( and then ideally sit in the corner and knit or some other hands off activity so mama has her reassuring calm, constant presence......) Birth in and of itself is not a reason to act panicked and like an ER room!!!

  3. Fantastic post Motherfunker - you keep it real! I wish I had known you when I was expecting my babes
    Luv Lady M

  4. Lady M you are magnificent and I believe in your birthing power. Retrospectively!!! But if I ever figure out time travel I promise to come back and kick some ass if you'll do the same for me- hahahaha!!! Hey, check this - how awesome? .... Sooooo positive and helpful for mamas :-)

  5. oh i've got so much to say about this subject, but in the sanity of fellow readers i will try and keep it shorter!!!you're so right in every way. having had five births with the clock and examinations being the priority over me and my body needing to do it's own thing my sixth birth was the most amazing calm and special ever, even more than i had visualised or dreamt of. why? because there was no time watching, distracting conversations or interuptions! i spent most of the time with my eyes shut focusing on my baby and body. what is lucky is that it only came about because i researched water births and found hypnobirthing. i was embarresed to say that i had five unplesant births and wanted to learn how to birth properly and calmly and so we attended a course. other mums thought it starnge that an experienced mum was on the course but at the end of it all we managed to reach my goal. i will always encourage and spread the word about real natural and calm birthing. it's only when you have done it that you really believe it! did you know that you can take photo's, pictures, blankets etc from home into the room at hospital with you.just think about your own pillow and duvet to snuggle up in.
    i wish i could put into words articles like you do. brillient post. love melissa

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this Melissa! It's never too late for anything, and we can only do what we know at the time. I am thrilled you are here in this space and sharing your wisdom with others - your other births were all valuable learning and you're a fab mama to all your gorgeous lot so you can feel very proud of yourself! Sorry we our get-together last week didn't come together my lovely. Hope to see you soon! X