While browsing the Shabbat newspapers, I came across a new column in “Besheva”, by Dr. Hannah Katan. Hannah Katan is a well-known Orthodox Jewish ob\gyn and a mother of 13 children. Generally speaking, I highly esteem Dr. Katan’s opinions as expressed in various articles I have read so far, but this time I beg to humbly disagree here on the blog.
The column was titled “give birth with a smile” (translation from Hebrew) and spoke with high praise of “the invention of the century” – the epidural anesthesia, which is highly recommended by Dr. Katan to all birthing mothers “in order to stay calm and happy, and save the husband from being traumatized.”
Those who have been visiting my blog for some time know that I’ve experienced, so far, two beautiful natural births. My second birth experience was less satisfactory, but not because it lacked the miraculous epidural, but due to insensitivity on part of the medical staff. I take issue with the epidural for two main reasons: one, that it carries a host of risks but is advertised as something totally harmless. And two, that women are brainwashed into thinking they can’t give birth without it.
“Years ago,” writes Dr. Katan, “the L&D room was a place of loud voices, and sometimes screaming and crying. But since the epidural was invented, there is usually peace and quiet… which the nurses like very much.”
I would like to point out this reference to the medical staff, instead of the laboring women. Labor and birth are not about what is convenient for the doctors or midwives. Of course they have more peace and quiet thanks to epidurals. But what have epidurals done to reduce risk during birth and contribute to the health of mothers and babies?
“I tend to recommend the epidural anesthesia, which is entirely harmless (what about all the possible risks mentioned in the form of consent the women are required to sign?) and turns birth into the most natural experience in the world.” I’m sorry, but this is just backwards. Even if you are a raving fan of epidurals, surely you can’t call them “natural”?
“The woman is in full control.” No, she is not. She can’t feel the contractions, she can’t control her bladder function, she can’t get off the bed, walk around, or assume positions that will enhance the birth process. If you call this full control, I beg to differ. “Her mind isn’t occupied by the contractions or by trying to get over the pain, she can read through the book of Psalms during birth, pray for her friends and family, chat with her husband and her mother, and enjoy a truly spiritual experience.” During labor, the woman is supposed to be concentrated on the contractions, and if she is in no state for chit-chat, that is all natural. When she is in tune with her body, it helps her to do things that advance the progress of labor.
From my experience so far, it was also entirely possible to pray between and even during contractions, but if a woman can’t do that, the people who love her and are present can pray over and for her.
“The epidural anesthesia can also prevent the father’s trauma. While on duty, I was often called to take care of the laboring woman’s husband, who was lying on the floor unconscious and chalk-white.” How inconvenient. Well, it is time to remember that our sages wisely prohibited the husband from watching the birth process itself, and with good reason. Many men are not up to being present during the delivery at all, or can’t bear to see their wife throughout the contractions. It is understandable and doesn’t make them bad husbands. Does it mean the woman should consent to an epidural so that her husband can watch the birth? If the husband doesn’t feel up to being present during the delivery, a woman can get emotional support, instead, from her mother, a sister, a friend or a doula.
In the last section of her column, Dr. Katan speaks highly in praise of the custom prevalent in Charedi circles, of new mothers going to a health resort for a couple of days, to rest and recuperate. “A few days after my last birth,” she writes, “I went to a new mothers’ health resort for two days – without the baby, who was left in the expert care of his father and big sisters. My youngest was the only one who refused to nurse…as if saying, Mom, you’re too old for that.”
Logically, if a woman is young enough to give birth, she is also supposed to be young enough to produce milk for the baby. But even if nursing isn’t possible, for whatever reason, it doesn’t change one bit the newborn’s basic, all-encompassing, irresistible need to be with his mother.
So far, with both my daughters, I was told I should let my babies stay in the hospital nursery while I’m there, so that I can “rest”. I insisted on keeping them with me, and slept so much with them by my side that I was actually bored. They would wake up to nurse and slept peacefully on. If something disturbed my rest, it was the incessant crying of those babies left in the nursery, who wanted their mothers so badly. My room was right opposite the nursery and I could hardly bear hearing the babies, even though mine was right next to me. When I mentioned this crying to one of the other women during discharge, she clucked her tongue sympathetically and said, “That is why I always ask for a room as far from the nursery as possible – I can’t bear to hear the crying and think my baby might be wanting me too.” I will make no comments on that one, except to wonder why such a simple solution, of keeping the baby close, isn’t thought of by more women, as opposite to getting out of earshot.
Granted, I am a young mother still and there might be countless situations I haven’t observed, but the chief of my experience so far has taught me that caring for a newborn, although time-consuming, is not very complicated, and generally includes nursing and changing diapers, which can both be done without leaving one’s bed. If a woman were given the opportunity to sleep all the while her newborn sleeps, she could be very well-rested.
What really puts a strain on the mother is having, in addition to the newborn, her other children, if she has any, and her household duties to attend to. The natural solution is not to break up the family and have the mother go away, certainly not to leave the baby behind – but to obtain household help. The husband can take some days off work, Granny or a sister or a friend can come and stay a few days. If nobody is available, household help can be rented for a while, and thus enable the woman to recover in the privacy and comfort of her home, and still be with her children and allow them to see the baby and get used to this new addition to the family.
I can’t help but feel that such attitudes as expressed in Dr. Katan’s article promote detachment – detachment of a woman from her body and from her newborn baby, and detachment between the children. It doesn’t feel right, and I hope that I was able to show, in some small measure, that there might be another option.