Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Cows and Chickens - Guest Post from Heatherlady

For my doula certification I had to sit in on a childbirth education class for a few weeks. During the course of the class, the teacher, a midwife, shared a story that one of her first time fathers shared with her. The young man was a cattle rancher and managed a large herd owned by a man who lived out of the state. For some reason, the owner of the herd was really terrified about the cows giving birth. He was certain that things were going to go wrong and that he would loose his cows. He told this young man that he needed to bring the cows close the barn when it was time for them to give birth.

The young man refused adamantly saying, “It is gonna bug em.” But the owner insisted and so when the cows were ready to calve the young man brought them in out of the far pasture where they normally calved and into a pasture closer to the barn. They hadn’t ever had any problems with the cows calving before but that year they had to do a c-section on one of the cows who was unable to birth her baby.

That made the owner even more afraid that something was going to go wrong with the births so he insisted that the young man bring the cows in the barn when they were ready to calve. The young man refused saying, “Now that is really gonna bug em.” Yet since he didn’t want to loose his job he drove the cattle into the barn when calving time came around. That year they had to do five c-sections and numerous manual assists; it was the hardest calving season the young man had ever had in all his experience on cattle ranches.

The next year knowing that the owner was going to want the cows in the barn again during calving season the young rancher drove the entire herd up to the pasture furthest away from the barn and left them there. He purposely waited until the very end of calving season to go up and check on them. There he found that all the cows, even those who had had c-section the previous year, had all given birth safely and without assistance.

This story struck me because I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to our modern maternity system. There is so much fear surrounding birth that we have this urgent need to monitor it, observe it and control it. Yet when we start controlling it, all of the sudden things start to go wrong, making us more scared of birth, making us want to control it more, and well, you can see how things have spiraled out of control until we have nearly a 36% c-section rate in the United States.

In all honesty, women aren’t much different than these cows and being closely observed, monitored and controlled during birth just “really bugs em.” In my experience a doula, the easiest and most peaceful births have been the ones where the woman either labored at home for most of the time or was left almost completely and totally alone (except for her husband and doula) until the baby was born. The times I’ve seen the most problems is when a woman is strapped up to lots of machines and is constantly being checked by the nurse to make sure she is making progress. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place and a time for interventions, monitoring and control, but in the majority of cases, women’s bodies and babies are perfectly capable of giving birth on their own power.

I can’t help but wonder how different women’s birth outcomes and experiences would be if they were allowed to just simply give birth—without all the commotion, without all the machines and without all the checking, poking, prodding, and control that goes on in many birth rooms. What if women were sent out to their “farthest pasture,” a place beautiful, full of good food, surrounded by loved ones who had faith in them, and were left by themselves to birth.

I’ve also had another experience this week that has turned my thoughts towards birth. My hen, who had been sitting on seven eggs for the last three weeks, just hatched four little beautiful babies. It was such a beautiful thing and the doula inside of me was having a hard time between knowing I should step back and let the natural process unfold and wanting to see the whole thing happen. The doula in me won and left the hen alone as much as I could.

In the end I only got to see one of the chicks hatch from its shell, and it took a really long time. I couldn’t help but think “Man, if this baby chick was in the hospital they would have given him a c-section by now.” I’ll admit that a part of me wanted to reach down and pull away part of the shell from him so he could come free. Yet, I knew from high school biology class that the motions a chick goes through pecking and wiggling out of it’s shell is vital to it’s development and therefore survival. If it isn’t allowed to do it by itself, then it won’t thrive and often dies. So, as much as I wanted to help the chick I just let things unfold and eventually that little chick did it just fine.

As I watched this little chick fluff out its feathers and run around the brooder box I couldn’t help but wonder why many people in our society seem to have so much more faith in a chicken’s ability to be born than we do a human baby. Humans are the greatest of all God’s creations. Unlike any other creatures on this earth, we are created in the image of God. We alone have the ability to reason and to make choices just as the Gods do. We are Gods and Goddesses in training and have so much divine potential. Why is it then that we mistrust women’s bodies so much? Why do we have more confidence in a cow’s ability to give birth than we do a potential Goddess’s? Why, when we know that a chick must go through the process of pecking and hatching from it’s own shell in order to thrive and live, do we assume that human babies can be cut from wombs, pulled out with forceps, or induced with drugs without having it affect them spiritually, emotionally and physically? Why do we assume that God made childbirth safe and easy for other animals, but that we, His literal children, aren’t made as well as a cow?

I have a great testimony of women’s innate divine power, physical and spiritual. I know that if we tap into this power, if we don’t allow anyone to “bug” us, and if we have faith in God’s natural plan, birth gives us an incredible opportunity to reclaim and rediscover the powerful connection between our bodies and our spirits.

Heatherlady is a contributor to the book and is mildly obsessed with chickens and babies. You can read more from her at her blog Women in the Scriptures.


  1. Great post, Heatherlady! That is very interesting about the cows having more complications calving while being watched in the barn as opposed to the by themselves in the pasture. How women need to not be bugged while giving birth is something I've been thinking about a lot lately (especially since I read Rixa's dissertation--I posted some thoughts about that in my own blog)

  2. So totally fascinating! I love these parallels and insights.

  3. I just love this blog. I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (I am another type of Christian) but I am very close friends with many women in my local ward and serve them as a doula and childbirth educator. I love and honor the LDS faith so much in so many ways and this blog always gives me so much insight to share with them. (I appreciated your post that pointed out the goodness of Relief Society - two years ago my youngest son was diagnosed with leukemia and our local Relief Society brought our family meals and cleaned our house for 30 days. I have never received such Christ-like service ever before - my friends tease me about how much I keep telling them I love RS.)

    Thank you for this beautiful blog - keep up the good work.

  4. Pam,

    Thank you so much for your beautiful comment. It is so nice to know that these things ring true with women who aren't from our faith as well. I am sure you are a great asset to the LDS women you serve. And I'm glad your local RS is so on top of things! I hope your little boy is doing well.

  5. Heather et al.,

    Though we are family members, we disagree about birth. You have given birth. I have not, nor will I ever. You have had outstanding outcomes with lovely children. Some other people do not. You are a doula and have had several dozens of hours of training, and have participated in maybe several dozen births (I'm being optimistic). I have had markedly more training and experience with births than you, even though you likely will discount my experiences as somehow less than the rich and fulfilling examples you cite.

    You likely understand the rich, full, intense experience of birthing in a way I never can. However, I doubt you could carry on a conversation about the physiologic changes that occur in the parturient. Does the hemoglobin level increase or decrease during pregnancy? How much? Does any of this matter? How does the cardiac output change during various trimesters? Does that matter? Why does the blood pressure of a pregnant lady drop during pregnancy? Does this affect uterine blood flow? Could this be important in saving a fetus life?

    I will never pretend to imagine that I understand as much as you do on a spiritual and personal level about your pregnancies (though I've also had two children and had pretty intense spiritual experiences while they were in utero). However, don't pretend to be able to discuss maternal safety.

    The anecdote you retell is misleading, and in my opinion, irresponsible. It uses all sorts of pastoral, show-d'em-city-slickers-how-it-is stories and likens them to farm animals. It also implies that you feel that all women would be better off delivering babies at home. The evidence actually shows that, largely due to modern healthcare, maternal mortality has dropped from about 1 in 100 births in 1900 to 11 in 100,000 births in 2005. This is a 100 fold decrease in maternal mortality, not to even discuss fetal mortality.

    Do we have problems? Yes. Are there probably better ways to deliver babies? Assuredly. Do we do too many c-sections. Absolutely. Is the better way to return to the 1900s or the experience of Central/Southeast Asia and South America? If we really value life, then no.

    If you really want to make a difference in the lives of these mothers, continue being a doula. However, take some college level and graduate level physiology classes. Study about the process. Learn why these clinical outcomes take place before you condemn them. It is really frustrating to be second-guessed by a whole group of people who have never had to make a judgement based on a clinical situation and don't even understand why it is made.

    Here are a few citations about the improvements in maternal mortality.

    Costello, A; Azad K, Barnett S (2006). "An alternative study to reduce maternal mortality". The Lancet 368: 1477–1479

    Van Leberghe De Brouwere V. Of blind alleys and things that have worked: history's lessons on reducing maternal mortality. Stud Health Serv Organ Policy 2001;17: 7–34.

    Loudon I. Maternal mortality in the past and its relevance to developing countries today. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;72(Suppl 1):241S–246S

    Levine R. Millions saved: proven successes in global health. Center for Global Development Brief 2004;3(3)

    Maternal Mortality in Central Asia, Central Asia Health Review (CAHR), 2 June 2008.

    Nathan Bay, MD

  6. Dear Nate,

    Thank you for reading this blog.

    Yes there are generalizations here. That is what words (and statistics) do. They generalize. But you don’t need to be offended unless the words apply directly to you. Also, as humans we naturally delete, distort and generalize almost all the information that comes to us. Depending on your perspective and your state at the moment, you will distort things differently than I will. Some medical professionals might feel defensive, need to site how much more education they have and make ad homonym remarks about the author. Others might delete differently and read only that we are advocating being more spiritually in tune during this divine process. That is, as we state in the subtitle, the purpose of this book and blog. Our book is not a childbirth education book. We’re covering the spirituality of birth, the legacy of birth in the scriptures, the role of the atonement, meditation, preparation, agency/consequences, the relief society, etc. We strongly recommend that everyone read and study evidence-based research when it comes to the physiological process of birth. When it comes to spiritual processes, however, we can only cite experience-based or doctrine-based information. Ultimately, what we’d like is to expand awareness of choices. (Because if you only have one option, it is not a choice. If you have 2, it is a dilemma. If you have more, then you have much more agency.) Then with those choices, we recommend people counsel with the Lord. Because, while something might make logical sense to me, the Lord might guide me to something better for me that only He understands why. For example, I was strongly guided to a home birth, but I was also given clear inspiration to trust in my midwife, who later decided it was time to go to the hospital.

    It’s not scientific. It’s spiritual. But I would venture to guess that as a doctor, even though you have had much experience and medical training, there are still sometimes when you have to make a call about something --and there is the text book answer, but your intuition tells you to do something else that might not make total sense, but you followed it and were right. Am I right? Intuition is just another word for in-tune. That’s all we’re advocating.

    I would also like to add that the format of a blog is a different format than our book. While some of our posts or topics here might overlap with the book, this is a much less formal space where we can post day to day thoughts and insights like Heather has done. If you would like to contribute any of your spiritual insights from the side of the care provider, we would be happy to post them as a guest post.

  7. I would like to respond to your comment, Nate. I first want to say that I have great respect for people like you who have in-depth knowledge about the human body and its processes and are able to recognize pathology when it occurs and use medical skills and technology to fix problems and save lives.

    I think it is important to remember that the spiritual aspects of birth are not separate from the physical ones--the body, mind, and spirit together make up the soul, and their processes are intricately linked. There is scientific evidence for the mind-body connection--thoughts and feelings have physical effects on our bodies. I believe this is part of the point Heather was trying to make, that how we feel during birth can affect how well our bodies are able to carry out the process.

    Heather did state in her post that there is a time and place for medical intervention in childbirth. No one is saying we should abandon medical skills and technology altogether, just that routine overuse of them probably causes problems.

    I think the message Heather was trying to send to women in her post is that the vast majority of our bodies, as divinely designed, are not broken. You can't fix something that is not broken, but our current system sure seems to try.

  8. Thanks for this lovely post. I would agree that for low risk moms the more we interfere, the harder it is for moms to have easy births. The more we trust moms and let them do what they know how to do, the easier their births go!

    I just highlighted 2 hospital births with very different outcomes because of this.

    I love what you say, if God made cows so they could birth, why wouldn't he make humans that way. Indeed!

  9. great post, heather! i love the cow story!

  10. Heather - thank you for responding to my comment above. I hope to make a positive difference in the lives of my LDS friends and I know for sure that they love and uplift me far more than I can ever hope to do for them.

    I hope you will not be discouraged by Nate's message above. There is good scientific evidence - more every day - backing up the proposition that normal (unmedicated) childbirth is safer and healthier for women and their babies in most cases. Many MDs over the years have concluded this (though not nearly so many as we would like to see) based on good evidence. Furthermore, many of the bad outcomes that we see in modern childbirth are the result of iatrogenic complications, i.e. are caused by medical interventions themselves. This is by no means to say that medical intervention is never needed in birth - it IS needed and thank God for the skilled physicians and nurses who can provide this care. However, as an attorney (and childbirth educator/ doula and midwifery student), I can definitely say that there are risks both to home and hospital birth - hospital birth has never been proven to be safer for mothers and babies in any kind of study that medical professionals like Nate would require to be okay with natural birthing.

    This is not an attack on Nate. I am so glad he is open to the use of doulas and encourages you in your practice. And more education and understanding is always welcome. Ina May Gaskin, midwife on The Farm in Summertown (who has an excellent record of safety in 30 years of doing out-of-hospital birthing as an empirically-trained midwife), always encourages midwives to learn as much as possible about the process. I think it was she who said that what you learn today may save a life tomorrow so we need to always keep studying more.

    That said, risks of infection and medical mistakes, as well as the risks of unecessary routine interventions, make routine hospital birthing in no way a risk-free deal.

    Birthing in any setting carries risks and benefits and it is best for families to have a variety of well-trained caregivers and a full range of options for place of birth (including home). They should also be given the opportunity for informed choice, and then their right of informed refusal of medical care should be respected.

    Thanks again for the beautiful blog.

    Pam Pilch, JD, LCCE



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