Love is the drug
It’s that time again. I could rant on about more women flat on their backs, more continuous monitoring, or the absence of natural births (I was going to say ‘normal’, but that wouldn’t be strictly true for Princess Anne hospital.)
Earlier on this week I got caught up in a little debate on Facebook, in which a stranger pointed out to me that I wasn’t an epidural. This tickled me somewhat – I had noticed that, but it’s well to be reminded of these things now and then. However, a wonderful woman for whom I was a doula said this:
‘No, you’re not. And you know how much I loved my epidural… but you, hubby and the community midwives were wonderful pain management, encouragement and love before it all went out-of-normal. And my epidural didn’t go to Sainsbury’s and buy me fruit, or give the baby hand knitted bootees afterwards. So I know which I’d choose if I had to.’
When I am talking with women, or couples, before they have their babies, we discuss many aspects of birth. But I can’t get too far down the discussion without talking about oxytocin. It’s the hormone of love, and the way I put it is this: it’s the same hormone that gets the baby in, as gets the baby out. Or, if this is an IVF pregnancy, the same hormone that helped you make the decision to have a baby with that person in the first place. Oxytocin is released with prolonged eye contact, with skin-to-skin contact, when the lights are down, the music is soft, we’re swinging our hips, we’re uninhibited, and people are talking to us softly, kindly and encouragingly – and of course one of the biggest oxytocin hits we can have is orgasm.
Weird huh, that during childbirth the same hormone is going on, when one of the midwives tonight referred to labour as ‘agony’?
Not really when you think about what oxytocin is doing physiologically. In a woman it gets the vagina lubricated (helpful for the passage of a baby as well as the passage of a penis), and it encourages the cervix to dilate (helpful to get the semen into the uterus as well as to get the baby out of the uterus).
Every midwife knows this. It’s in chapter one of ‘midwifery for beginners’. (It might even be buried somewhere in chapter seventeen of ‘advanced obstetrics – sarcasm intended.) Every midwife should also know that the oxytocin you get in a bottle out of the pharmacy isn’t a patch on the real thing that every woman can produce in spades from her own pituitary.
So where’s the love? So tonight we saw a doctor talking to a woman through contractions. A midwife standing at the other end of the room talking to a woman. More midwives being dismissive about women in the staff room.
What’s so hard about holding someone’s hand? Stroking her? Hugging her? Talking gently to her and telling her she’s doing a great job. Turning the lights down, or encouraging her to get on all fours and swing her hips, because it might just make it all a bit more comfortable. (And do you know what, people? Even if you’re stuck with continuous monitoring you can get on all fours and swing your hips, turn the lights down and ask someone to give you a kiss and a cuddle.)
Often when I talk to men before their babies are born, they are worried that they’ll be useless in labour. But if they can set the scene for a seduction – candles, smoochy music, good food, and all, they’re not going to go far wrong. Their next job is to stay at home as long as possible – so that all those lovely love drugs that are now swilling around her system – don’t get washed away by the adrenalin from the car ride into the hospital. And then they’ve worked a modern miracle: they’ve got birth going the way nature intended it to.
Do you remember our friend Perfect Indigenous Woman? She is healthy and well nourished and comes from a culture where birth is seen as something to be cherished. She has been attending births since her first period arrived, where she joined with the other women of her Perfect Indigenous Village in singing, in mopping the birthing woman’s brow, in feeding her, in moving with her, laughing with her. When her time came to give birth, she was loved all the way through it. No-one talked brusquely at her from the other side of the hut. No-one told her it would be agony. She was just supported, adored, and praised.
Because just as an epidural, even a walking epidural, won’t knit you bootees or buy you fruit, it won’t love you. And with love you’ll get a damn site further through labour than you will without it. I just wish the midwives we saw tonight would take that on board – because I think they might just like their job a little more, too, if they could spread a little love. What harm could it possibly do? It’s not all you need, but it makes everything feel a whole lot better.