Monday, November 23, 2009

Guest Post from Natalie Willes - Giving Birth in NYC

Manhattan Temple

My mother was raised in Argentina with 14 siblings. Her mother gave birth with a real, live midwife. I don't mean to say that the midwife I used was not "real," but the woman that delivered my mother was probably not educated at the Columbia College of Nursing.

When my mother was pregnant with my sister in 1974, things (in Argentina) were as bad, or worse, than they are now. My mother was overdue with my sister and was forced to enter the hospital 9 days before she gave birth. From what my mom recalls, they pretty much also forced her to stay in her bed. When she did finally go into labor, the nurses wouldn't let her move from the bed (no epidural, just Pitocin). All my mom wanted was to use the bathroom to pee, but they wouldn't let her. She finally got so fed up she got up and waddled to the bathroom, shut the door and started to pee. My sister finally dropped into the birth canal and was born shortly thereafter.

My mom came to the US in 1982, and in 1984 gave birth to me. During her pregnancy they discovered she had a heart arrhythmia. I only learned a few weeks ago that the doctor called her each day for the 10 days before I was finally born to remind her that she had missed her inducement date. Of all the things my mom has accomplished, this is something that gives me particular pride. There's a certain gravitas necessary that, sadly, most woman lack to essentially say to their doctor, "F you, I'll come in when I'm in labor." It never ceases to amaze me that doctors can make a woman come in to be induced. I hope I'm never in that situation, because I think I'd probably say something to the effect of, "No thank you. I understand that you won't be able to attend my birth unless I come in to be induced at XYZ time. I'm sure the doctor on call will be able to take good care of me. I really appreciate your help up until now." Then, I would wait until I was in the pushing stage before I drove to the hospital.

These were the only birth stories I knew about growing up. I think I thought those were different times and that I would have a modern, medicated birth, and hey, why don't you throw in a c-section while you're at it?

I believe Felice moved into my ward when I was about 16 years old. I have always, always looked up to her. To this day she is probably the single most inspirational individual I personally know. When I learned she had successfully given birth using the hypnobirthing method (I was away at college at the time) I instantly gravitated to it, probably because she did it and I wanted to do it, too.

In October of 2006 I miscarried at 7 weeks and didn't try to become pregnant again until my husband and I moved to NYC. When I first moved to the City, I hated it. My feelings have not really warmed towards Manhattan, but they have become more bearable. I think the two major problems I have are: 1) I am so far away from my family, and 2) The entire city suffers from too many people and not enough space or resources. I became pregnant about 5 months after I moved here, and I had a close friend who had
almost succeeded in having a natural child birth who was very supportive of my natural birth ideas. This friend had conceded in having a c-section after 30 hours of labor. In retrospect she felt that had she had the support of her husband and birthing companions she would've been stronger in rejecting the doctor's repeated proposals for a c-section.

Around that same time I also had lunch with a friend who had given birth the "regular" way at the hospital I was going to use. She told me that her labor was "typical" in terms of interventions, but it was her recovery that was supremely traumatic. There is not a single hospital on the entire island of Manhattan that has single recovery rooms, which means you have a roommate - and all her visitors - for your entire hospital stay. If you try to leave before the mandatory 48 hour stay for vaginal, 72 hour for c-section because of how terrible the conditions are, they will sign you out Against Medical Advice, which means if you suffer any problems related to your child's birth, your insurance will not cover your care.

Anyway, my friend gave birth and could feel nothing because of her epidural. No one is allowed to stay with you after visiting hours, so once 8:30 pm rolled around, her husband left. About an hour later her epidural wore off. That's when her problems began. Her roommate had already tried calling the nurse to no avail and her request for help were also unanswered. It was her first birth and my friend had no idea how to take care of herself. The nurse had left her a basket of the typical accouterments necessary to take care of oneself after birth, but had not explained how to use any of the items. Because no one answered her call to the nursing station, and because she still couldn't safely walk, she had to call her sister in Utah, and ask her how to use everything.

As she recalled her story, I sort of felt sick to my stomach, kind of the way I would feel if a woman recounted her sexual assault. I honestly felt she had been violated. She must have felt the same way because she said that the next time around she was giving birth at the Birthing Center. "What's The Birthing Center, I asked?"

The Birthing Center is the only traditional birthing center in the area. It is located on the 11th floor of the St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, 59th St. Besides being physically located at the hospital, the only other connection this Center has to a traditional hospital setting is that it is extremely easy to be "risked" out of giving birth there (just about anything will get you risked out such as anemia, twins, Strep B positive, etc.) Other than that, it is as if nearly every medical professional in the region has washed their hands of the Center. There is no pain medication available. If you require an epidural you have to go to the normal labor and delivery floor.

It is extremely challenging to actually be allowed to give birth at the Center. In the first place, the Center requires your doctor or midwife be present from the moment you check in until you give birth. That fact alone removes almost every OB-GYN in NYC, because no doctor wants to be tied to one patient for their entire birth without being able to hurry it up. Ergo, there is a tiny, itty bitty handful of providers associated with the Center. Then, you have to have the type of insurance these providers take. THEN, and this is probably the biggest barrier, you have to convince them to take you. I only had one provider who accepted my insurance who worked with the Birthing Center. One.

I called when I was four weeks pregnant and was told, "sorry, we're already booked." I was flabbergasted. How could they be booked? How can there be that many women who even know they are pregnant? I ended up calling back a few days later and by the grace of Heavenly Father got through and got some uninformed front desk person to make me an appointment. I was in! It turns out that the midwife team I was using had one member on maternity leave. Anyway, every time I went to a visit I had to wait between 90-145 minutes to be seen. Just another thing about living in New York where there are too many people for too few resources.

Thankfully, the rest of my pregnancy and delivery went very much as planned. I was able to stay in the birthing center, but had to be prepared to fight ever step of the way. I had to be extremely proactive and informed, and I had to stand up for myself.

I can think of five women that I know here who would have never considered natural child birth were it not for the atrocious conditions involved in giving birth in the regular hospital setting in NYC. They have heard the story of the 1st counselor in the bishopric's wife who recovered in the hallway behind a make shift tent made out of a sheet, and of the other sister who did a majority of her labor in the waiting room with 30 other laboring women because there were no beds available for her. There was the story of the third time mom [in your ward] who felt so bad for her roommate (who had a terrible birth) that she walked her roommate's baby up and down the hall so her roommate could rest because the nurse was no where to be found.

Another woman in our ward didn't know her water had broken, so by the time she reached the hospital, she had been in labor for about 24 hours. Because she had hit the magic 24 hour number, the doctors pumped her and her baby full of antibiotics and were legally required to keep her son at the hospital for 7 days. But there was no room for her, so she had to stay in a hotel next to the hospital and have her husband wheel her back and forth in a wheel chair every three hours to nurse around the clock. (She was unable to walk because she had a c-section.) All And these are just the few stories I know from our ward. There are millions of women in this city.

It is no wonder that women who would have never even considered natural child birth are realizing that their recoveries will be much more traumatic and painful than any pain endured during child birth. I have known women who have been risked out of the birthing center move back to their home towns and stay with their parents for a month prior to their due dates so they could have a chance at the birth they wanted.

Spreading the word about the joys and benefits of natural childbirth is like a missionary effort for me. Once the door is open in someone's heart to consider natural child birth, I can tell them all the wonderful things that come with it. I can tell them that they can do it, because I did it. I can tell them how empowered I felt and how great I felt afterward. Not only that, but I had a private room with my baby, my husband stayed with me, and we checked out when we wanted, about 24 hours later.

Incidentally, I talked to that friend who first told me about the birthing center after she had her second baby there. "How was it?" I asked her. "Did you do hypnobirthing? What did you do to prepare for natural birth?"

"Nothing," said said. "I just did it."

My mom says the same thing. I have thought about this a lot since then. I think that many of us, when we chose to go against the current way of doing things, need classes and months of preparation and affirmations just to unlearn all the fears and negative thinking about birth. Don't get me wrong, preparation is not something I recommend going with out--but in her case, there was just no other option in her mind. She didn't going in saying, I'm going to try to do it naturally this time. She just did it. I think making up our minds is a bigger part of it than we know.

Natalie and Olive

Thanks for this post, Natalie. It is sad that it takes horror stories or bad experiences to motivate women to take charge of their births, but I don't judge how one gets to natural birth, so long as they do. I am so glad that your friend had a better birth the next time.

Having lived (and loved living) in New York City, I feel for the women there on a personal level. I am a huge home birth fan, but knowing the city, I also know that home births aren't always the ideal they would be elsewhere (homes are often very small, have almost no amenities, and are in extremely close proximity to everyone else). I had a fantasy last night about a dreamy, five-star LDS birthing center in Manhattan, (on the floor above the temple--wouldn't that be fantastic?) that took women of all faiths but gave preference to LDS women. Of course, it would still be booked and if you weren't a member it would be as hard to get into as the other birthing center. Thinking about this, I thought that, given the hospital conditions in NY, and how desperate pregnant women (and New Yorkers) can be, women might even investigate the church just to get a spot in the birthing center.

Hey, I don't judge how people come to natural childbirth and I certainly won't judge how they come to the gospel.


  1. Hi, I just found your blog and I love it. Thanks for all the wonderful things you write. I would LOVE for you to consider my daughter's birth story for book. I couldn't get your email to work so I am just going to give you mine and then maybe I can email it to you. It is

  2. Wow. When will the women of the world say, "Enough!" ??

  3. This just BROKE my heart. I admire your courage and determination, and I feel terribly for all those women who either didn't know about their options, or didn't have the option to birth in a supportive environment. I had my sons in teaching hospitals and then my daughter at a birthing center her in N.C. where I live. They were WONDERFUL. They looked for reasons to accept women, rather that turning them away at the first hint of complications. You can even deliver twins there. I did take hypnobirthing classes and found them very helpful, but the biggest help was the quiet, supportive environment. My first few hours with my daughter were sacred and special- the way they should be for all new mothers who don't need drastic intervention. I was high on the thought of what I had just done and I knew my needs and my baby's needs would be taken care of. We went home five hours after the birth and no one batted an eye. I hope your next birth is everything you want and need it to be. Thanks for sharing your story!



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