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Mary Alice Martin is a birth and postpartum doula in Houston, Texas. She is currently studying to be a midwife (hatching 2018!). Academically, she studies documentary films and their effect on our perceptions of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood in the United States. She is passionate about women’s health, yoga, and evidence-based birth!
As a doula and student midwife, it’s sometimes difficult to explain my profession to people. My automatic answer is, “I help deliver babies!” This normally either scares people off or intrigues them enough to ask more questions. I want to strike a balance between educating people about the kind of gentle, supportive births that I know doulas and midwives make possible and overloading them with too much information. Birth workers have a reputation as hippies, witches, medicine women, that is often negative and not indicative of the very professional and important work that we do.
I’ve always known I wanted to be a midwife, and that’s definitely not the kind of answer people expect a high school girl to give to the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I grew up surrounded by the same birth stories that American women are receiving from their friends, mothers, movies, and television shows. Birth is scary and dangerous; it doesn’t go according to plan. You are alone with your partner expected to rush to the hospital as your water breaks, screaming in pain. In college I set out to think about when, where, and why American women are giving birth in the ways that we are. It used to be that birth was a community experience; by the time you were ready to have a baby you would have been present at your mother’s, sister’s, and friends’ births. Instead of walking into the hospital with little knowledge of what is about to happen, you would have been at home surrounded by supportive friends and family.
Without having been present for a live birth, modern American women learn these stories through media. We watch televised births and dramatized movies of emergency cesarean sections and episiotomies. In my academic work I analyzed documentary films that were trying to tell a different story. While mass media is focuses on what is (supposedly) happening in the hospital, there is a whole genre of documentary films giving the viewer access to birth in a different way. The Business of Being Born (2007) is by far the most popular of these, having been produced by celebrity Ricki Lake. Joining the ranks of these films is Lisa Ling’s online journalistic series This is Birth.
Tackling subjects from cesarean sections to home births, surrogacy to fertility treatments, Ling’s online series compiles both video footage and articles to paint a portrait of American pregnancy and childbirth in 2016.
Ling recorded these tapes and worked on the series leading up to her second birth for which she was planning a second cesarean section. Though she turns a critical eye to the medical system as a business and institution and speaks to countless experts about the benefits of vaginal delivery, Ling continues through with her choice of a second elective cesarean. Upon being discharged after the birth of her second daughter Ling developed an infection. This combined with the difficult recovery from a second surgery lead her to write the article accompanying her first video, “Why I Regret My Scheduled C-Section.”
By far the most personal segment of the series, Ling’s reporting on c-sections touches on the significance of birth experiences for women: “It is a leap of faith.” Birth is a deeply personal experience that initiates a woman into motherhood. Many women reflect on their birth experiences and are fuzzy on the details, but they never forget how the experience of giving birth made them feel. Far from critiquing the birth choices of individual women, Ling dives into the systems behind the rising cesarean section rates in the United States. The matrix of hospital business models, insurance reimbursement policies, convenience and efficiency of modern surgery, and the medial training that obstetricians receive intertwine to create the 32% cesarean rate we have seen in the United States since 2009, high above the 10-15% rate recommended by the World Health Organization.
Expanding from her own experiences, Ling explores the options available for American women today. Our choices are constantly critiqued by both professionals and other mothers a like. Choose to freeze your eggs or have your baby at home or use a surrogate and someone will have something to say about how you are building your family.
Ling uses her voice as a (celebrity) journalist to put faces and names behind the stories of women giving birth with Certified Professional Midwives, choosing to delay motherhood and utilize modern technology, find alternate routes to conceiving a child. Her compelling questions help to put into perspective the individuality of family for each of us; circumstances and choices may differ, but at the heart of all of this is a deep and compelling sense of love and community.
She ties together the strings of the series with a segment on discrimination. Pregnant women and mothers in the United States are still discriminated against in the workplace, and it’s almost 2017, people.
Despite the growing number of working pregnant mothers and moms, companies are still refusing to make accommodations to ensure their safety and ability to continue working. Though we pride ourselves on being a country built on family values, we are failing to take care of the leaders of these families. No matter the way in which the family is formed, the choices that mothers may make, they all have a right to be protected.
Lisa Ling’s project probably pulled at my postpartum doula heart strings the most. The mommy guilt seems to set in hardest right after baby is born, and there aren’t enough diverse stories of pregnancy and childbirth being told. These women can’t turn on the television and see their birth experiences or normalize their feelings. Women feel alienated and alone, judged at a time when what is really necessary is support. I am so happy that Ling used her platform to tell these stories, normalize these experiences, and bring focus to the diverse range of choices mothers are making today.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on Lisa Ling’s ‘This is Birth.’ What did you think?