“Giving birth is like running a marathon,” observes nurse-midwife Barbara Davenport, co-leader of the BirthNetwork of Western North Carolina. “It requires endurance, healthy eating beforehand and lots of mental preparation." Like an athlete, therefore, a woman should have a coach, "an advocate, educator and guide — and a midwife is just that,” she adds with a smile.
The third annual Joyful Birth and Breastfeeding Expo, happening Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Blue Ridge Mall, aims to help women and their partners prepare for this momentous event. The free expo will feature consultations with midwives and doulas; educational material from health practitioners, nutritionists and childbirth educators; plus inspirational film screenings, a maternity fashion show and a children’s play area.
“All women should know their birth options and not just rely on their health-care providers to tell them how they should birth," declares Davenport, who’s facilitated more than 1,000 of them during her 28-year career. “Cesarean rates are at an all-time high: 32 percent in the Asheville area. A lot of women know that natural birth is healthier for themselves and their baby; this event is about educating and inspiring women to birth better and to avoid a cesarean and the induction of labor.”
Davenport concedes the need for medical intervention in some cases, though she notes, “Ninety percent of women are healthy and can birth normally if they have a supportive environment and supportive provider.”
Last year, the Joyful Birth Expo drew more than 1,500 people, making it one of the largest events of its kind in Western North Carolina. And with internationally acclaimed midwife and author Ina May Gaskin taking the podium as keynote speaker, organizers expect an even bigger turnout this year.
After publishing her first book, Spiritual Midwifery, in 1977, Gaskin became a pivotal voice for women-centered, natural birthing practices. In 2011 she received the Right Livelihood Award, which honors individuals offering “practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today,” according to the organization’s website.
In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, published in 2003, Gaskin encourages women to trust their bodies and connect with the innate power all females possess. She writes: “Remember this, for it is as true as true gets: Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth as well as aardvarks, lions, rhinoceri, elephants, moose and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.”
Another featured speaker, nurse-midwife Lisa Goldstein, established The Fern Kingham Memorial Women’s Health Center and Birth Apartment in Burnsville. She’s just returned from Bad Wildbad, Germany, where she spoke at this year’s Midwifery Today conference.
“There’s such fear around the subject of birth in our culture,” Goldstein points out. “Women are made to feel that it is more than they can or should try to do without a whole army of things: drugs, fetal monitors, IV fluids. Sometimes these things are needed, but usually not. Our medical culture is now so focused on medical [and] legal fears that we’re beginning to forget how to trust birth and our bodies. Our culture doesn't give enough importance to real nutrition, emotional support and the value of the pregnancy environment to the fetal outcome.”
Davenport concurs. “Fear,” she reports, “has been shown to increase a woman's risk of a C-section, to increase her pain, make her labor longer and more difficult. If you're focused on the fear, your body cannot labor.”
Besides being medically qualified to attend births in whatever setting, nurse-midwives also educate women about the risks involved both with inducing labor and with administering an epidural.
“Inducing a woman's labor when she doesn't need it medically can put her from low risk to high risk of having a cesarean,” says Davenport. “Women often don't know this, but if it's their first baby and their cervix isn't very ripe and opened already, they have a 50 percent chance of [having a] cesarean if they're induced. Hardly ever do they hear that risk — and that is not informed consent!”
“As far as we understand,” she continues, “it’s the baby who turns the labor process on. When the baby's brain is ready, when the baby's lungs are ready, then the baby turns on that symphony of hormones that starts labor. When we start messing with that, then we get into problems.”
Epidurals, meanwhile, can interfere with the production of hormones and endorphins, Davenport asserts. “The body's hormones and sensations that are necessary, like the cortisol surge that you need to push a baby out — you don't get that to the same extent when you have an epidural. When you're taking narcotics into the body, those will attach to your [brain’s] receptors. And if you don't have the endorphins, then your baby doesn't get the endorphins.”
Accordingly, the Joyful Birth Expo seeks to inspire not just potential moms but also their partners, parents, sisters and friends.
“Let us hope,” says Goldstein, “that we can instill a little courage in women to ask for what they need and know what options they have.” The BirthNetwork invites the entire community to do exactly that: to learn, celebrate and empower the miracle of life.
“Our natural body process is the right one,” Davenport concludes. “I believe we were designed to be able to give birth. I'm not saying it's not difficult, but it is doable — and millions of women have done it."
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