Babies: The Movie and the Weirdness of American Infancy
The documentary follows four infants from birth to a year. One baby is born into the Himba tribe in a tiny village in Namibia, one is in rural Mongolia, one in the heart of Tokyo, and one in very affluent San Francisco. You see all four babies being born and most shocking is the crazy dichotomy in how we treat our babies.
The Namibian baby is born in a hut. The Mongolian and the Japanese baby are born in hospitals, but the atmosphere is very calm. The first shot of the American baby has electrodes on her face and many monitors. It looks like a trauma scene, not a birth. I don’t know if little Hattie had complications being born or if this is just normal protocol these days.
As the movie continues, I was struck by the incredible universality of the baby experience and by the intense love of parents for their infants. Developmental milestones are the same, noises are the same and body language between mom and baby is the same. But the stark difference of infancy in the developed world remains juxtaposed against the African and Mongolian babies, who run into all kinds of unsupervised mischief that would give an American mother a heart attack and had my Boston audience in apoplexy.
I always joke with my friends that those of us rebelling against the hyper-medicalized childbirth experience seek out the secrets of the developing world. It’s like we’re in search of an antidote to the weirdness of having babies in affluent America; I went for it. Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby on the Block” rhapsodizes about “primitive practices” and how happy those babies are. My last straw was when I paid $75 for a native “Maya sling” as used by Indians in Guatemala. Dr. Sears be damned, I couldn’t do it.
Amy Gates wrote a great column last week, and she quotes the Keyboard Revolutionary who “wants to know how it is that 'a woman can waltz in off the street, say she's pregnant and wants a Cesarean, and everyone leaps to her command ... yet a woman who IS pregnant has to jump through hoops and fight tooth and nail just to give birth vaginally?'"
Now, I’m pregnant for the second time and thinking about which path will be right for us this time. When I was pregnant the last time, I was very keen on having a natural childbirth, and I did, and it was a victory for me. The hospital where I delivered, Brigham and Women’s, boasts a stunningly high C-section rate of 36 percent. Now, the Brigham is a level one NICU and gets all the traumatic births in the Boston area, so of course its numbers are skewed. I squeaked through: They gave me some Nubain after hour 45 of labor passed and then had me on a Pitocin drip to speed things up, but I delivered without an epidural or any pain medication. Nurses literally came into my room and gave me a high five when they heard I was doing natural. But I did feel like I had to fight to have (semi) natural birth. I had literally labored at home for two days after my water broke and didn’t call the doctor, so nervous was I that I’d have to come in and get induced.
So this time, I’m using a midwife and delivering in a community hospital. That feels right.
It doesn’t get much easier to fight the madness once your baby is born, since we are encouraged to treat our babies as porcelain dolls, not little humans with a huge will to live. It's millions of products, developmental anxiety, and above all, fear your baby will choke, suffocate or die somehow. The Babies movie makes it clear there is no fear of SIDS in Namibia or Mongolia. The swaddle the Mongolian mom uses resembles more a straitjacket than a snuggly. I don't want to live in Mongolia. But the growing number of women fighting to retain some sense of the natural in childbirth and infancy means something.
For a list of women questioning how we deliver today, see Amy Gates’ great post.
I also like A Well Lived Life, from a labor and delivery nurse and hypnobirthing instructor.
I used Hypnobirthing and loved it.