Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth – Why This Book is the Best Pre-Labor Book I’ve Read

by Lauren Kay Weber

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth - Why This Book is the Best Pre-Labor Book I've Read

Okay, no joke, my husband and I were at Walmart, of all places, and saw a bumper sticker that read “What Would Ina May Do?”  We both laughed, feeling mildly like we were on the right side of an inside joke.  I don’t know if I’ve talked much about it here on the blog, but Josh and I are planning a birth in a birthing center attended by midwives, a far cry from the confines of the traditional American birthing experience inside of the sterile walls of a hospital.  We made this decision when we barely knew who Ina May Gaskin is, but have since gotten to know her (from a distance) through several mediums, none so profound as in her book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.  I want to talk about that book here.  I’m planning a post about our decision to have an unconventional birthing experience after Asher is born, but I think you’ll get some hints of why that is in just reading my thoughts below.

My ex-Hebrew professor turned advisor turned friend, who recently became a doula herself, recommended Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth to me after a shabbat dinner at her home.  I hung around sheepishly afterward, helping her do dishes and chatting with her about the really, truly, ridiculously hard time I was having being pregnant.  I was probably just about 12 or 13 weeks along at the time, and while I was overjoyed with the very fact that I was pregnant, I was scared out of mind regarding a couple of things.  First and foremost, I was terrified of having a miscarriage, even though there was really no reason to fear it (…other than the fact that some crazy amount of pregnancies end in miscarriage).  While I’m sure that there were literally dozens more fears, the biggest fear, second only to miscarriage, was of the birth itself.  I found myself sitting with a very intense realization:  a baby was growing in there, and there was only one way it was coming out.  This fear was only compounded by a very unfortunately-timed video comprised of an animation of a cross-section of a woman’s body with a baby (HUGE) emerging from…well, the place from which a baby emerges…(which was TINY).

So, there we stood, in her kitchen, discussing my admittedly ridiculous fears.  She immediately shook off the dishwater from her hands, walked past me to the bookcase sitting in her livingroom and handed me Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.  “Read it,” she said, “Especially chapter 4.”  I saw her again a few weeks later, when I had – shamefully – still only made it through a small fraction of the book.  She echoed to me, “Make sure you read chapter 4… It was really helpful during my own birth.”

I kept reading, anticipating chapter 4 with what can only be called a kind of tentative curiosity.  It’s really two books in one; the first, about 200 pages of natural birth stories written by the parents themselves, was… well, I don’t really know which adjective to use.  I know that it’s a positive adjective, but still tinged with a bit of overwhelm and amazement and also a tiny bit of “Wow, this process is actually pretty gross.”  Here’s what I can sum up about my experience up close and personal with these very ahem intimate stories of birthing:

  1. I took screen grabs (I was reading on my iPad) of more than 20 pages, keeping them handy so that I could explain to Josh and our doula the kinds of things that resonated with me for use during my own labor.
  2. I am, decidedly, not nearly as earthy crunchy as I may have previously thought.  But, I’m not nearly as conventional as I feared I was at my core.  That being said, I turned to my husband after reading a story about the doula stripping down naked and getting in bed with the naked, laboring mom and said, “If our doula does that, GAME. OVER.”
  3. There is absolutely no amount leeway for prudishness when reading these stories.  And, I think that it turned out to be a good thing, this beating out of prudishness before my own birthing experience.  Else, I might have ended up coquettishly, if not totally uselessly, grabbing at bed sheets to cover my womanly bits whilst a human head is making its way out of my body.
  4. I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be able to unsear from my memory the photograph of a baby emerging from the birth canal face first.  Part of me is still totally amazed that both women’s bodies and babies’ bodies can do such miraculous things as that.  But mostly, I’m just branded with the image of a swollen face coming out first.  To my husband, Josh:  Honey, I’m really sorry that I turned to you at that point and made you look at that photograph.  Honestly.  I know that there’s certain things that you can’t un-know and I caused you to know that un-knowable thing.

The second part of the book was, actually, fascinating.  Especially chapter 4, which, it must be said, is entitled “Sphincter Law.”  Who knew that a chapter thusly titled could change my idea of my body in such revolutionary ways?!  I totally embraced chapters 1 and 2, which discuss a lot of the basic midwifery/natural birthing mantras:  there is a powerful mind/body connection, labor – having babies, period – is totally normal, and the like.  I sort of rolled my eyes while also taking screengrabs of pages discussing how labor can be pleasurable, perhaps secretly hopeful that I, too, could boast an O during birth.  I was totally enthralled by the pages dedicated to remembering that births have not always been in hospitals and that, in fact, women have been having babies for as long as women have existed (which, honestly and truly, was the most empowering message I could have heard then and now.

In all, I have to say that I totally and completely loved this book.  Even the gross parts to which I hadn’t been exposed with such an unabashed tone of “Oh, but it’s so normal!”  Pregnant?  You should get this book.  Even if you’re not planning a natural birth – she talks a lot in later chapters about just knowing what your options are when you’re presented with various medications and whatnot in a hospital.  (Though, it must be said, she definitely is pretty heavy handed with the advocacy for a natural birth.)

Also, not to be too much of a junky, I recently learned that a documentary was made in conjunction with Ina May Gaskin and The Farm.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I thought that I would be remiss to not even mention it here.  It’s called Birth Story and can be streamed from its website or from iTunes.  Josh and I’ll be watching it this weekend.