In my work as a midwife I am privileged to be with women at their most vulnerable and most powerful moments. For women who haven’t given birth, the idea of pushing out a baby can be daunting at the very least, though millennia of evolution and intelligent design have perfected the process of birth so that it is good for a baby and good for a mother. When both mother and baby are healthy, the birth process is best served by doing nothing at all except letting the Mama follow her own instincts. As large brained creatures we believe we can reason our way out of anything at all. But in birth, the only way out is through—through the center of the pain, through the center of the doubt, through the center of the unknown. Through the process, no matter how long or hard, fetuses are born into babies and women are born into mothers.
Despite our phenomenal architecture and beautiful poetry and elegant design, our bodies give birth just as our ancestors did—like animals. Fortunately, elephants have not forgotten how to give birth. Let us take a deep breath and then take a clue from our four-legged friends.
The following video clip has been widely circulated among the birth communities. I, for one, have watched it at least a dozen times. I will warn you that if you are not used to seeing birth, this clip is a bit graphic. I’d like also to point out a few things about this Mama giving birth that really make me happy.
First of all, notice that the Mama is upright AND eating during her labor. She is taking her time to shift her weight from leg to leg. This helps the baby as she makes her way down into the pelvis. I don’t know if you knew this but our pelvic bones are not fused together. They are held together with cartilage and this cartilage loosens and softens during pregnancy and labor so that more space is available to the baby coming through. Sway it out, Girl. Also, this elephant Mama knows that she will need fuel for the work before her. Snacking and drinking fluids during labor is almost always a good idea.
Then notice how the Mama is holding on to the fence. See how her mouth is wide open. Many wise women say “As above, so below”. This is a dictum referring to the connection between our mouth and throat and our pelvis and cervix. If your jaw is clenched and your throat closed in a high pitch wail your bottom will have a very difficult time opening up. On the other hand, if your jaw is relaxed and your throat open enough to let out deep sighs and moans, your bottom is well on its way to being soft and open. I can’t hear any sound from this elephant Mama at the moment of her birth, but notice how wide her mouth is open. Her whole throat and jaw is like an open door, allowing energy and air to flow in and out.
Throat open, pelvis swaying open, and on all fours. Human Mamas, get off your backs and get onto your hands and knees. Not only is this inward-focusing and potentially empowering but also physiologically sound. Being on our hands and knees makes even more space for our babies. Remember our flexible pelvis? This position allows the sacrum and tailbone to move up and out of the way of the baby descending in line with gravity. Being flat on your back squishes your pelvis into oblong tube instead of a juicy circle.
Notice how she squats with her pushing efforts. Her whole body moves energy in one long sensuous line from head to pelvis. As her baby starts to emerge from the birth canal this Mama has eyes that looked glazed and distant. Now, I don’t know much about elephants, but I imagine they are experiencing a similar hormonal cascade as we humans do as our babies make their way down the birth canal. When in labor naturally without interrupting the natural flow of hormonal feedback that rewards our efforts and gets us high to compensate for the pain, our eyes will glaze over and we will seemingly float away to another dimension. Welcome to Labor Land. This is a place where Mama’s own endorphins work like opiates to coax her to keep going and to relax.
Labor and birth are much like good sex in that you want privacy and an intimate connection with those around you and at the moment of release you instinctively throw your head back, open your throat and say YES. I suggest you treat your birth like something sacred and sexy. You might be surprised to discover how similar the sounds and smells and sensations are between the two.
Finally, once this large bean is born, the Mama finds the focus and the courage to stimulate her baby to breathe. I am an advocate for skilled practitioners present at labor and birth. A woman shouldn’t have to be be knowledgeable about neonatal resuscitation but it is encouraging to know that you may just know what to do instinctively. Somewhere deep down is the knowledge to keep your baby and yourself alive. These moments before the baby elephant breaths are tense, I will admit it. I think we all hold our breaths during this limbo as we root for life, and rightfully so. After all, this elephant Mama grew her baby for twenty two months. Once that baby has landed solidly in his little body and found his breath on this earth, the Mama elephant displays her immense pleasure. High on life.
But the true work for this elephant family has only just begun. Our human imaginations often focus on birth as the end goal of parenting. In reality, a mother’s experience giving birth is only preparation for becoming a parent. And anyone will tell you that being a parent is infinitely harder than giving birth. Birth is challenging because motherhood is challenging. Birth can give us the strength and confidence and valor to nurse our children when they are sick and comfort them when their hearts are broken.
Let us not forget that we are animals first. Open your throat, soften your bottom, and say YES.