Full Title: Orgasmic Birth: Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying, and Pleasurable Birth Experience
Authors: Elizabeth Davis and Debra Pascali-Bonaro
Publisher: Rodale Books (2010)
Number of Pages: 248
How long it took me to read: 5 days
Where I got this book: My wonderful midwife loaned it to me.
Like a Moth to a Flame
My first pregnancy ended with me experiencing the physical and emotional pain of a hospital delivery that didn’t go as I had wanted it to. Now, I’m nearing the end of my second pregnancy and getting excited for my first home birth. For months, I’ve been eyeing this book on my midwife’s shelf, working up the courage to ask for it—because really, if you saw this title staring at you from an innocent-looking bookcase, could you pass up the chance to at least read the back of it? Whether they mean “orgasmic” figuratively or literally, I’m not sure I’d be human if I weren’t curious… But more than that, I want to know for certain what a woman’s body is capable of. I’m in a place right now where I need to hear positive stories to encourage me, and maybe a few negative stories to know that I’m not the only one who’s had a negative first-birth experience.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “You should not have to rebel and ‘rage against the machine’ and be ‘countercultural’ to get a decent birth. Great ignorance and nonaltruistic motivations drive the machinery of the childbirth industry along. I know that many women just hate confrontation, and even the feisty among us do not like to be totally combative (although we don’t mind being a little sassy sometimes). But it takes courage to fight all the way against the invisible forces wanting you to hand over your birth power, all the way to a good situation for you to give birth, all the way to a safe outcome, without capitulating to pressure.” ~Julie B. (p.31)
4. “It continues to amaze me that birth is not widely perceived as a sexual event. After all, it is an intensely physical experience centered in the vagina! And the sensations are not limited to the vagina only; as the baby descends, the clitoris, rectum, anus, and supporting tissues are all highly stimulated. In first-stage labor (dilation), contractions can be compared to extremely intense menstrual cramps, but with an important difference: Unlike cramps, contractions come in waves, building up slowly instead of taking hold abruptly. This gives us a chance to let go and merge with the rhythm. Note the parallels to sexual activity. Sometimes, when sex is very passionate and forceful, moments of discomfort or pain occur, but with relaxation, rhythmic breathing, or a new position, we can ease through without losing focus or momentum as we would if we tightened up or shut down.” (p.94)
3. “As world-renowned physician Michel Odent shared with me, birth is like swimming in the ocean: When all goes well, you just need a lifeguard to watch out in case you encounter difficulty, but today, the lifeguards are all in the pool and on people’s backs trying to save them.” (p.185)
2. “I believe God designed our bodies to give birth and that most of the time, babies can emerge safely and joyously with little or no intervention. Working with gravity and following your body is more safe and efficient than letting others tell you how to birth. You know your body better than anyone else, because you live in it. God’s design is always better than anything humans can think up. Trust in God and in the way you have been created.” (p.248)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “This was an extraordinary birth in that it was so simple, so easy. Why are not the majority of births like this? This is how birth should be, and yet the norm is so far from this. This secret needs to be revealed. Birth does not have to be either natural and extremely painful or highly medicalized with the pretense of being pain free. There is a third option, birth that is natural and ecstatic! We just need to give ourselves half a chance to achieve it!” (p.204)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“The book doesn’t start out slowly, but it does start out patiently, bringing to light scientific facts I’ve only recently learned. For instance, that all mammals in labor will stop if they’re being watched; labor releases oxytocin, the same ‘love chemical’ released both in intercourse and breastfeeding. Observation during these private, sensitive times brings on surges of adrenaline, and with it, the ‘fight or flight’ response, all of which opposes oxytocin, and can stall labor.
“I can’t read that without being taken back to the hospital during my first birth: streams of people rushing in and out of the delivery room; an acute awareness of anxious family members waiting for me in the hall, hungry for updates; bright lights lowered from the ceiling for a better look; being assured by the professionals that I was doing everything wrong.”
“My midwife told me recently that I know my body better than I think I do. Progressing through my second pregnancy, I’ve wondered at the way we’ve taught ourselves and trained one another to ignore our bodies’ instincts, and even to abuse our bodies, though we may not call it that. But what else could it be called? We deny ourselves sleep when tired, refuse rest when overworked, eat what is convenient over what is healthy (even if we’re sick)—or eat nothing at all if nothing is convenient! We over-medicate, we drink ourselves drunk, we put ourselves through all manner of tortures for the sake of style. We rarely consider a healthy, balanced lifestyle as a reasonable way to live: we’re just too busy. I love that this book addresses the unnecessary stress and rush we place on ourselves and, in time, thrust on our children. Why haven’t we been listening to our bodies?”
“There is nothing surprising to me about oxytocin being a link between childbirth and sex. This is really one of the most amazing things about a woman’s body: the very place where we invite the physical expression of love becomes the place where we present the actual token of this love. We bring in love and push out love as the physical expression transforms into a physical representation: the child himself. Oxytocin, the ‘love hormone,’ has every right to be there during each occasion.
“In regards to the title, yes, for some women, birth is literally orgasmic. Understanding that the same chemical is present at conception as at birth, though, helps this make sense. I can understand if the concept of an ‘orgasmic birth’ makes people uncomfortable, but I think it depends on how you view sex: if sex is just for fun, for the momentary, personal gratification of a climax, then an orgasm during birth may very well seem inappropriate. If, on the other hand, sex is about love and a spiritual connection where you seek to become one with another person, the orgasm becomes spiritual. Likewise, birth, which is so often considered dirty, can be a beautiful, spiritual act—a continuation of the act of creation that began at conception. In that case, if an orgasm occurs, it’s not a perversion, but an echo of Creation (or reverberations of The Big Bang, if you prefer).”
“The quotes from different mothers sharing their labor stories are so empowering to me right now. Over and over they tell me that if I let it, my body will do what it was made to do. If I let go of control (and oh, that is so hard!), turn off my brain, let my body take over, I won’t need to labor; the birthing process will overtake me and the pain—if there is any—will be minimal.
“I heard similar things during my first pregnancy, and it was wonderfully affirming, until I got to the hospital.
“My first pregnancy had me so excited for labor and for the opportunity to accomplish what I knew I was capable of—a stress-free, beautiful, natural birth. I knew there were women who experienced pain-free labors. I had read stories of women laughing and dancing through their labors and these tales had me giddy in anticipation. I wasn’t afraid at all. When my water broke at 4am, it felt like waking up on Christmas morning as a child—it had all that innocent thrill and curiosity. I wasn’t having contractions yet, and I didn’t know what exactly was coming, but it had to be good!
“Several hours later, choosing to wait for contractions rather than have someone try to start them for me, I learned that hospitals have timelines where nature doesn’t; my inadequate contractions indicated to the doctor that I was well behind her schedule. I would not be able to dance my way through labor, as I would be strapped to machines, hooked up to IV’s, unwillingly induced (first with Cytotec, then with Pitocin), and given strict instructions to stay put. There was no laughter. There were no smiles. As unnaturally strong contractions overcame my body, there was fear. There was despair. I felt like a science project every time someone came in to check me—I was that white, bloated lab rat pinned to a board in my high school anatomy class, divided in two, stared at while gloved hands prodded and searched without consulting me. At no point did I feel like a human woman.
“I am going to feel like a woman this time.”
“At first, I didn’t want it to be widely known that I was planning a home birth this second time around. I didn’t want to fight obtuse know-it-alls on what was best for my body and my baby. But my excited husband couldn’t help it, and more and more people heard and responded to our plans. I’ve gotten to where I actually enjoy the looks of bewilderment and the well-turned phrases that essentially mean, ‘Are you out of your mind, woman?!’ I’ve even reached the point where I can smile while answering the question, ‘What if something goes wrong?’
“I do believe there’s a place for hospital births, especially for high-risk women and certainly in the event of a true emergency. I tell people this and I try not to demonize the hospital staff as I explain my choice to stay at home: they did what they were trained to do and I suppose I was naïve enough to assume they’d let me do what I wanted in their house.
“My retired neighbor stopped by to give me cucumbers the other day. She had heard I was birthing at home, something her daughter did six years ago in her New York apartment. She seemed curious, but also like she thought the notion was perhaps a little dangerous.
“I told her simply, ‘I just didn’t like the atmosphere of the hospital. I was stuck in bed and no one listened to me. I don’t think a woman should have control of her body taken from her. We deserve to be listened to when it comes to our bodies.’
“Then she told me about the birth of her only child. As was routine at the time, she was literally strapped to the hospital bed, constrained, drugged, and left alone for torturous hours, not even allowed to see her husband. The experience was so horrific that even though she had wanted more children, she refused to, totally (and understandably) unwilling to be in that position ever again.
“Remind me of why it is that our country is so trusting of hospitals and so afraid of home births?”
“I think the term ‘midwife’ sounds so old-fashioned that many people automatically picture someone straight out of a Li’l Abner comic strip. I have to assure people that my midwives are highly trained professionals, not just very nice ladies who have had so many of their own children that they have a pretty good idea of how it’s done and want to help out. This book takes the time to explain how safe midwives really are. They go through extensive training, jump through many hoops to get licensure and certification, and they offer all the same labs and tests that a doctor would to make sure that their clients are healthy. They don’t just show up when you’re in labor with a bottle of whiskey, a rag, and a bullet for you to bite down on. My two midwives have given me consistent care and encouragement throughout my pregnancy, and have never once rushed me through an appointment. In fact, we’ve had half hour appointments that stretched to two hours as we talked through different concerns, or just laughed and got to know one another better.
“It makes an incredible difference for me to know for certain who will be with me at this birth. During my first pregnancy, I was very anxious at the idea of having a man attending my birth. I had met with one male obstetrician early on in my pregnancy and when the time came for regular vaginal exams to check cervical dilation and effacement, I carefully scheduled each one to be with a woman in the hopes of preserving at least some modesty. I really hated the idea of any man, besides my husband, seeing me in such a vulnerable position. As it turned out, I was entirely attended by women during my labor, but I knew there was always a chance a man might stroll in. It’s a great weight lifted to know that my husband will be the only man around, and that I’ll be attended by the same two women from beginning to end, with no switch to an absolute stranger whose introduction comes by way of inserting a gloved hand into my body.”
“Something else this book explains well is how medical intervention leads to more medical intervention: for example, you may know that a laboring woman is not permitted food once she is admitted into the hospital. This is in case the doctors have to perform an emergency caesarean. Lack of nourishment leads to lack of strength—and strength is needed in labor! To make up for this, a laboring woman’s body burns fat reserves, which changes the acidity of the blood, which can lead to fetal distress, which can lead to an emergency caesarean. Good thing the stomach is already empty, right?
“There is also a back-and-forth between Pitocin and epidural anesthesia, as they work against each other: Pitocin causes intense, unbearably painful and closely-timed contractions, leading most mothers to request an epidural, whether they intended to do so or not. The epidural helps the pain by slowing the contractions, which inevitably leads to more Pitocin, which naturally leads to more anesthesia. All of this causes fetal distress and often ends in an unplanned caesarean. I sobbed when I first learned this because that very cycle played out while I was in the hospital. I narrowly avoided (by a window of five minutes) being sliced into to get my baby out. Which was my fault, the staff reminded me, since I waited so long to come in. I really should have been thinking about what was best for my baby.”
“It’s so strange to read this text and recognize things from my own life. I was just reading about ‘shoulder dystocia,’ the term for when a baby is head-out and body-in as its shoulder is caught on the mother’s pelvic bone. I certainly don’t remember it, but that happened when I was born! The doctor attending my mother’s natural labor was within days of his retirement and had seen it all before: he grabbed her by her ankles and flipped her on her side and, as you might have guessed, I came out just fine. If he hadn’t known to do that, my chest would’ve compressed, leading to intracranial pressure, and I would’ve suffered brain damage. Apparently, many doctors are afraid of this happening and would rather cut a potentially big baby out of the mother than learn how to handle the situation.”
“The book just slapped me in the face.
“When I was admitted for my first delivery, I cried when they told me they planned to induce me. I knew from other mothers that Pitocin was hell and I did not want to go through that. I told them not to induce me; they said there was no choice. Soon after being moved from triage to the delivery room, a nurse informed me that they would hold off on Pitocin and start with a gentler drug instead, one I had never heard of: Cytotec. It would be better for me and better for the baby. The contractions wouldn’t be so intense. It would be more like a natural labor.
“And I was grateful.
“The Cytotec was given to me in pill-form, tucked behind my cervix. I was not allowed to move, they told me, or it may fall out of position and not work. I would have to ignore my body’s natural desire to walk around, sway, or try any position other than on my back in bed. I could get up to pee, though it was certainly frowned upon.
“But I was grateful, because I could handle the pain. If this worked, I wouldn’t need any other drugs.
“Now, I have just read that Cytotec is not approved for induction of labor. It is an ulcer medication. And it’s the main ingredient in the morning-after pill. It comes with risks I was never informed of, mostly uterine complications that could result in fetal and maternal death.
“And I was grateful?
“I went in faithfully, put myself in the hands of the professionals, thinking, ‘Hospital births have gotten so much better since the time when my father had to fight off the hospital staff trying to drug my mother. I should be fine.’ Why do we still have generations of women unknowingly acting as guinea pigs as the medical world tries out new and different ways to alter the course of nature?”
“A whole section of this book is devoted to preparing you mentally for childbirth. This is perfect, because you really do have to train yourself to relax and let your body take over. It’s a process many of us are unfamiliar with. The authors give special attention to victims of abuse, suggesting they start counseling early on in pregnancy. It makes absolute sense to get every aspect of your being in peak condition before introducing a tiny, dependent human to your life. I love the holistic method here.
“Another section, ‘Be Vibrantly Sexual,’ encourages good communication between pregnant women and their partners. This is essential when it comes to your body, anyway, no matter whom you are dealing with. It’s good practice to tell your partner what you do and don’t like because it keeps you from being shy with anyone else. I wish I had been able to communicate my own preferences more directly and without fear when I was stuck on the delivery table. I wish I had ripped myself free of the machines and said, ‘I’m walking around, damn it, and just try to stop me!’ “
“The text of the book is full of personal stories sent in by women around the world. One of them shared how, through counseling, she realized that her unplanned c-section brought on the exact same emotions as when she was violated by her first boyfriend. It broke my heart to read that. There is a sense of violation in an unnecessarily assisted hospital birth. How could there not be? You are trapped, half-naked and vulnerable in an unfamiliar bed while strangers describe to you what they intend to do to your body; you have been stripped of all control.”
“I’ve never heard the term ‘Blood Mystery’ before, but I like it. Some communities use this term to refer to the transitional periods of a woman’s life: menstruation turns a girl into a woman; birth turns a woman into a mother; menopause turns a mother into a wise woman (which sounds very cool to me). This is beautiful. Why are we taught to hide these changes in our lives, rather than celebrate them?
“Why are we so afraid of change? In the cycles of my womanhood, I only see myself getting better. I’ve always felt that we should enjoy youth in our youth, and as we grow, we should recognize the beauty inherent in each stage. Vanity is not necessary to femininity, and desperate attempts to stay young turn a woman into a mockery of what she could be.
“Why have we been trained to see only the bad as we mature as women? I wanted that first period. Despite the pain of cramps, I felt giddy as I approached each ‘time of the month.’ Until I became pregnant, it was the most feminine I had ever felt.
“I’ve never felt as beautiful as I do when I’m pregnant. The memories of swaying my hips while dancing in a bar or the astonished looks of prom dates who saw me in uncustomary glamour for the first time are nothing compared to me now as I stand in front of a mirror looking at my swollen belly, full of life. Yes, even with the dark stripe dividing me in half, the bright blue veins that stretch across my middle like rivers over a globe, and the red striations on the underside of my stomach that line me like a ripe jalapeño. The mysteries of carrying another life and of being in a constant state of creation overwhelm me; I am two souls and two heartbeats at once. How could I not love my silhouette? I love it so much more than the number of tiny, lonesome dresses dangling despairingly over unworn heels in my closet.
“My body was designed to mature and I feel beautiful as I embrace the changes maternity has brought to my life and body. I feel I am becoming a purer version of myself, that all my good qualities are refined through the process.
“So when I hear women insist that I will need make-up to be beautiful someday, to hide the flaws I’ve earned through living, I feel sad for them and not myself. If I see the beauty in scars and in growth, I have no reason to fear middle age or even old age. Menopause will be one more step to becoming more myself. Why fight change? Why fear maturation? Things have only gotten better.”
“It helps me some to read the author’s assertion that shame has no place in labor, and especially that there is no shame in accepting pain relief when you have tried everything you can and things aren’t going as they should be. Several hours into the hell of Pitocin-induced contractions, I tearfully requested an epidural. I didn’t want to, I hadn’t planned to, and I hated myself for it. I didn’t want to talk about it afterwards. While the hospital staff sat me up on the side of the bed, something I couldn’t do myself, and inserted the needle into my back, I felt I was doing something despicable. I knew that just a few walls over in the waiting room were my mother and my husband’s mother, two women well-known for the natural births of their numerous children. I wanted so badly to join their ranks, yet there I was, waving a white flag. I was sickened by myself.”
“The last section of the book is dedicated entirely to women’s birth stories. Some of them mention orgasms, several of them don’t, but the sexual side to their births wasn’t what stood out to me. Over and over again, these women use words that show the spiritual side of birth: words like ‘goddess,’ ‘holy,’ ‘baptized,’ ‘glowing.’ Women pray and bless their babies. They have visions and dreams. They feel strong connections to all the women before them who gave birth and all the women who will give birth after them. They experience their bodies in new ways—one woman says she became her mother birthing herself. Another describes her labor as her body’s greatest work.
“As I read, I let their experiences wash over me, preparing me for my impending delivery. My friend Morgan, who had a home birth, tells me that I am ‘reclaiming my birth process.’ I have worked hard to heal from the negative feelings about myself that came along with my first labor. Believing in my body has not come easily, but I believe, like many women, I’ve been lied to about my capabilities and have too quickly accepted the evil whisper we’ve grown accustomed to hearing since we were little girls: your body isn’t good enough.
“After months of prayer and spiritual, emotional, and mental preparation, I’m ready to feel birth. I want to experience labor as it was intended. Whether painful or orgasmic, this time, labor won’t be frightening.
“The first thought I can recall having after my hospital delivery was: ‘I could have done that better. I want to try again.’
“So here I go!”