When I was pregnant and preparing for a home birth, I inhaled every book about childbirth in my local library. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth month of my pregnancy, when I was getting too round to squeeze into jeans with zippers and the January rains were flooding down each night, I came across A Midwife’s Story by Penny Armstrong. I didn’t know it at the time, but Armstrong’s memoir, which recounts her years as a midwife to the Amish, would be one of those pivotal books in my life. It would change the way I thought about labor and childbirth – and life.
By the time I needed to shop for maternity clothes or invest in acupressure bracelets to stave off morning sickness, I’d heard at least several hundred horror stories about labor and childbirth – the crippling contractions, the “ring of fire”, the stitches and suturing and bleeding. I’d seen dozens of movies and television shows that depicted labor as a dangerous event that usually started with sudden, searing pain and often ending with a woman being wheeled madly through hospital halls on a gurney attended by a team of strangers in scrubs and masks. And I knew the statistics. In the United States, 32 percent of laboring women end up under a surgeon’s knife.
I’d half-way dreaded labor and childbirth since I was old enough to understand that I might experience them someday. And here I was, armed with some stacks of books on my nightstand, only a few months to prepare and nowhere to go but forward. By the time I picked up A Midwife’s Story, I wouldn’t say I was racked with anxiety. But I was weary.
Penny Armstrong set up her midwifery practice in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania over 20 years ago. The Amish women she encountered there surprised her. She’d arrive at a laboring woman’s house to find the woman outside painting a rocking chair or toiling in the fields – right up to eight or nine centimeters of cervical dilation. More remarkably, these Amish women, who’d have to be called in from their chores to birth babies, didn’t seem to have as hard of a time with birth as the women Armstrong had attended during her training in a Glasgow hospital.
Armstrong wondered if the Amish women had easier births, not just because they kept in good shape, walking and working right up until their births, which undoubtedly prepared them for labor, but also because of the way they thought of hard physical work. Work was not something these women seemed to avoid or fear. It was part of life. It was necessary and good. Work is what brought them the riches of life – be they bountiful harvests or dewy-skinned newborns – and they seemed to embrace it.
After reading Armstrong’s Amish birth stories, I didn’t know if I would end up having my baby at home or in a hospital. And I didn’t begin to predict whether mine would be one of those 32 percent of labors that ends with surgery. But I knew that I could face this thing. I didn’t need to plan for drugs or hypnosis or fancy breathing techniques, or anything else designed to try to avoid the hard work that I needed to do. I just needed to show up and experience this thing called labor and birth – whatever it turned out to be.
Several months later, on a rainy day in June, my son was born in a tub of water in my dining room after five hours of active labor. Even a few days later, I couldn’t remember the pain, although I know it was painful. What I remember is feeling calm and unafraid and just letting things unfold. I probably owe a great deal of my composure to the cocktail of endorphins and hormones that overwhelm a woman during labor. But some if it, I owe to Penny Armstrong. So much of what I’d heard about birth had the underlying message that labor is hard. It is painful. It is something to fear and to avoid with pharmaceuticals or hypnosis or breathing. It was liberating to read that yes, labor and childbirth would be hard work. But what’s wrong with hard work?
The lessons from A Midwife’s Story have stayed with me. I’ve noticed that so many of us are arming ourselves with arsenals of power tools – leaf blowers, wood splitters, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, dishwashers, and on and on, to avoid hard work. But why are we taking such pains to avoid physical work? Work is what makes us healthy and strong. It is what brings us the real riches of life – bountiful gardens, comfortable houses, healthy dinners. It is what makes leisure a treat. Moreover, so many of us spend our days avoiding hard work only to drive to the gym to run in place on a treadmill.
Moreover, Dr. James Levine, a Mayo Clinic physician, researches Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – a fancy term for the calories burned during daily living, and his research suggests that people who stay active during the day – standing, walking and bicycling to work or on errands, gardening, and even fidgeting – stay fitter than those who “work out” or hit the gym.