This past week I got the opportunity to sit down with a dear friend of mine who lives in the quaint town I have picked up residency in for the time being until my tour of Australia in October. Her name is Erin Zaffis and she is a Registered Nurse who works at a natural childbirth center here in Connecticut. Childbirth is something that has me awestruck, like most people, but I don’t have any experience with it myself. So I decided to pick her brain on the subject. Hope you enjoy this interview!
Philip: First of all, you’re a mother of three. Tell me a little bit about those experiences.
Erin: Well, I had my first daughter when I was still in high school. I was very young and a bit scared but I knew deep down that my body was created to do this and drugs for labor are a relatively new concept so I started gearing myself up to do in naturally. The problem is I was young, really didn’t know where to find the right support for natural childbirth and had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know I had options, was seeing my general practitioner for prenatal care and was scheduled to deliver at a hospital like most women do. I was confident that the staff at the hospital would know how to help me birth my baby naturally.
I was absolutely floored when I got to the hospital and the nurses pretty much ignored me and were annoyed when I asked if I could get out of the bed, and what I could do to help the discomfort. They suggested I get the epidural, so I trusted them and agreed. After that it only got worse. I still don’t know if I was treated poorly because I was young, or because the nurses were in a bad mood for some reason that night, but the result was a birth experience that left me feeling powerless and abused by the health care system.
I decided to turn it around for good and become a maternity nurse, determined to help women have the satisfying and deeply spiritual birth experience I felt I was denied. After working as an RN on a maternity floor for a year I had my second daughter at the natural childbirth center within the same hospital. At my six-week post partum check-up the midwife offered me a job there, so that is where I am today. My second and third births, with midwives at the natural birthing center, were definitely redeeming experiences, which helped me heal from my bad experience with my first in the hospital. But I think the pinnacle of my adventures in childbirth so far was a few years ago when I helped a young first-time mom, only 17 like I was, have the beautiful, spiritual and empowering natural birth that she hoped for. It was very emotional for me; we’re still friends on Facebook, haha.
Philip: So, what exactly is your role as a nurse at a natural childbirth center?
Erin: Well, my job is pretty unique. I am a labor and delivery nurse, so I assist the midwife during the birth. I attend the majority of births that occur at the center. But what is special and important for me is that I see the women and their families through the whole process; from when they discover the birth center and call asking for information and are inquisitive about natural childbirth, to finding a midwife, through childbirth education, choosing a pediatrician, and then through the actual birth. I even organize a Halloween party every year so I can see them after the fact. It’s all part of what makes my career especially fulfilling and different from that of your usual labor and delivery nurse. And of course instead of putting in IV’s and reading fetal monitor strips, I’m suggesting different positions for laboring, giving words of encouragement, sharing joy over the birth and gushing over the perfectness of their infant, educating them how to care for themselves and the infant and how to breastfeed, and sometimes taking pictures. I think I’m a pretty darn good birth photographer, if I do say so myself, haha.
Philip: Sounds great. So what would you say are the key differences between your birthing center and a hospital maternity floor?
Erin: Well as far as the birth itself, we don’t poke and prod women with routine procedures when they come to the center in labor. We don’t give routine IV’s, we don’t hook them up to a fetal monitor, and we allow them to walk around, eat and drink for as long as they feel up to it. The midwife doesn’t break the woman’s bag of water or even do an internal exam, other than the initial one to make sure she’s in labor. As long as everything seems to be progressing well, which a midwife can judge by experience and intuition rather than by all that technological monitoring equipment, then she just offers support and encouragement and is there to help deliver the baby safely when the time comes.
Not to say that we never have any complications arise, it happens, and we are trained to manage those occurrences. And of course we do keep tabs on the baby’s heart rate during the labor but only by listening with the hand-held doppler, intermittently, instead of by continuous fetal monitor which straps the woman to a machine.
When the baby is born, he is put right onto the mothers’ chest and stays there until he’s warmed skin to skin and breastfed. This is what baby’s and mothers need immediately after birth and so that is the priority rather than taking care of busy work; foot prints, weighing the baby, etc. When women deliver by water birth, in the tub, sometimes they even carry the baby, still on their chest and attached by the umbilical cord, from the tub to the bed! But that’s how you feel after a natural birth; like a superwoman who can do anything.
Philip: Say I’m a woman who’s a bit scared and skeptical about natural childbirth. What would you say to me?
Erin: Well, I could go on and on about the anatomy and physiology of it and why it’s physiologically better for mothers and babies, but I think that is well known and irrefutable and doesn’t seem to make a difference in convincing women to go natural. So when I speak to women, I tell them it is natural to be a little bit scared. It is a very powerful experience; it will test you physically and emotionally. Our society programs us as women to be afraid and feel we are not qualified to do it on our own; we need doctors and medical technology to help control the process. This is not only remnant of the days when women were oppressed and made to feel incompetent, but it is also clever marketing of health care services; childbirth being the biggest money maker of them all. So what American/Western culture women need to do is really de-program their brains. This is why my favorite book on childbirth is “Birthing from Within” by Pam England, because it deals with the psychological preparation for childbirth, which is very individual and very key to achieving a natural birth.
I discovered the most surprising revelation that I had was that fear of bringing forth life is intimately tied with fear of death. Most women don’t trust natural birth because they think technology will save them and their baby from untimely death. It won’t. In many instances it’s what causes it. But beyond that, death is a natural and inescapable part of life, which, like childbirth, can rarely be predicted or controlled. And so to really love life and be able to powerfully bring forth life naturally, you must let go of that fear.
You must also learn to LOVE your body. I started gardening recently and a friend told me I should talk to my plants and tell them I love them because it really does help them thrive. I’ve heard this to be true and it’s an example of the power of positive energy. I started looking at each part of my body when I was pregnant, even the parts I was not particularly fond of, and telling them how much I loved them and looking at myself in the mirror with admiration, telling myself how beautiful and wonderfully formed I was. This really taught me to love my body and trust in its ability to birth. When you let go of fear of death, love trust life and love your body, you will see childbirth not as an experience to be feared and pray just to survive through it, but something exciting, challenging and life changing in a positive way. I personally would not ever even consider trading all that in just to escape some temporary discomfort and pain.
Not to mention it prepares you for the next 18+ years, which, in the big picture, cumulatively, is waaaaaayyyy more difficult! Haha!
Philip: Thank you so much for sharing Erin, I am sure many women that are considering natural child birthing will feel a lot more comforted and supported after reading this.