Editor's note: Arielle Greenberg will host a reading, discussion and book signing Friday evening in Evanston to benefit the Coalition for Illinois Midwifery. Find more information and purchase tickets on this page.
Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker's newest book "Home/Birth" is a poemic: a collage of stories, personal reflections, history, activism and conversations the two writers have had with one another, with friends, loved ones, doctors, and midwives.
Unlike many books on natural birth, the authors do not rely solely on facts and numbers to make the point that homebirth is a safe and natural option for many women. Instead their book vividly details their own birth journeys and those of women they know, some joyous, some tragic, including their doubts and frustrations with the system of prenatal care and birth education in the United States.
There is lots of time-honored wisdom handed down from woman to woman on natural birthing and Greenberg and Zucker are keenly aware of this dynamic. "Home/Birth" is a unique contribution to the list of books new mothers should read to understand more about their abilities and what they can do to help foster a birth experience that respects the mother, the child and the family.
I spoke with Greenberg and Zucker recently on their writing process and involvement in the natural birth community:
It seems that you share a deep friendship, how did the two of you meet? Which of you provided the idea for the book or was it collective?
Arielle: We met when Rachel posted flyers around NYC looking to start a peer poetry workshop. She had just finished her MFA, the graduate degree in poetry and was looking for community to keep her writing going. I was just starting to think about applying for MFA programs and hoping to get my application portfolio in shape. I was the first person to respond to the flyer.
In terms of how we started Home/Birth, I was teaching a course and had given an assignment of exploring a subculture through its language, and chose to try the assignment myself. I chose to write about homebirth, because it was (and is) my passion, and because at the time I was pregnant with my second child and planning another homebirth. Rachel had just had her third child--first homebirth--and we'd been talking about the issue non-stop for years, so it seemed natural to invite her in. We'd been wanting to find a way to collaborate on creative writing for a long time.
Can you talk a little about how your relationship changed as friends when you both became mothers and shared your birth experiences with each other?
Arielle: Rachel had two children before I had any, and I don't remember her ever talking to me directly about her births, actually. When she had her first two children, we weren't that close yet: we were friends, but not talking every day, not really intimate. That didn't happen until her kids were already toddlers. We weren't that close when we were in the writing group, in NYC, together, and I left NYC before Rachel got pregnant with her first child and was in graduate school for the three years during which her first two kids were born. But I know I read her poems about her second birth and they had a big impact on me as I started thinking about my own eventual pregnancy and birth. And certainly, as we got closer as friends, it meant an enormous amount to me to have this inside view into what life might be like as a poet who was also a mother of young kids.
Rachel: Our relationship really changed and deepened when our first books were being published (which happened around the same time and was before Arielle had her first child). The publication of a book is a kind of birth. For me, though, the invitation to attend Arielle's first birth was really life changing and definitely changed our friendship. Birth is such an intimate experience, and I felt so honored (and surprised) that Arielle wanted me there. It even changed the way I felt about myself. Because of Arielle, I became the kind of person that someone would want at a birth. I am an only child, so I don't have anything to compare this to, but my feeling is that we've become a lot like sisters. In a way "sisters" describes the relationship more accurately than "friends;" Arielle has two actual, wonderful sisters and she may feel differently.
Arielle: This is right--we are very much like sisters in some very powerful ways!
The words,"hold the space" are repeated throughout the book in different ways. Why did you decide to emphasize this phrase (mothers supporting each other, spotting each other)? I've never heard that idea so eloquently put.
Rachel: This is a phrase that is used by doulas all the time. It was through my doula training that I began, for the first time in my life, to understand that support isn't the same as trying to fix someone's problem or give them advice. After all, it isn't a doula's job to take the pain of labor away even though she may offer the woman strategies to make the pain manageable. I began to try to apply this way of supporting loved ones, friends, students, and even people I find difficult in my non-doula life, and I began to see the profound power of "holding the space."
Your book is very rich with stories, facts, numbers, personal anecdotes, attributed quotes, this is definitely very educational to readers and something quite new in books on birth. There is history about natural birth and midwifery milestones, some of which is very new to me (and I've experienced natural birth and have many friends who promote natural birth). How do you feel about the book becoming a book shelf staple for women interested in natural birth, which it likely could become?
Arielle: Well, that is of course our greatest hope and desire! We would love for this book to feel as useful and inspiring and to be as widely read and loved as the birth books WE read and loved: Ina May Gaskin's books, Jennifer Block's book, Shelia Kitzinger's books, etc. We do think the book is unlike any other birth book out there: not a pregnancy guide, not a how-to, not a history, not a political book, not a midwife's book. It's a book about birth that is literary and chatty and researched and about mothers as consumers of maternity care. It's anecdotal and full of stories, full of real conversation between two friends. We hope it will be on lots of book shelves! That would really mean the world to us.
"Stay at home. Get home safely. Safe at home." Those are words directly
from your book. Could you talk more about how home, for birth, is now seen as unsafe, even though that is the intended destination for a newborn baby after a hospital birth (to go home with his or her parents)? We traditionally celebrate when a baby comes home from the hospital, so why do some us now fear home as a safe place for our baby's births?
Rachel: The medical establishment (in particular the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologiests and the American Medical Association ) has engaged in an anti-homebirth smear campaign that is similar to the the anti-midwifery movement that gave rise to obstetrics (and our reliance on doctors rather than healers) and nearly wiped out midwives in the late 18th Century. Giving birth at home is not safe for ALL women and birth can sometimes be dangerous. The fact that so many women believe that giving birth at home is not safe for MOST women or ANY women is just not accurate. The idea that birth (anywhere) is dangerous and terrifying and life-threatening for mother and baby (which many, many people believe), is a result of birth moving into the hospital and the basic medical misunderstanding of pregnancy and birth. Pregnancy is a sign of health! But we've almost entirely lost that understanding. Embedded in your question--the idea of home as a safe or unsafe place--is something I see as one sad consequence of medicalized birth: the loss of common sense, community, and women's wisdom. Because we are socialized to believe that our babies are in danger from the moment of conception until they are safely "delivered" from us by highly trained experts who know better than we do and because mainstream medicine views the fetus and mother to be in competition for resources and therefore antagonistic rather than symbiotic, many women are afraid not only to birth their babies but also afraid to bring their babies home. We rush to pediatricians who will tell us whether our milk is good enough or if our babies are growing and then we continue to seek the expert opinions of those who will tell us how to mother. How a mother feels about herself and her baby is connected to how she feels about her birth. Part of why we care so deeply about birth (where a woman gives birth, if she is treated with kindness and respect, whether she feels strong and supported, whether the culture honors birth and new mothers) is because the consequences of the birth culture affect much more than a day or even 9 months of a family's life.
Arielle: Yes, and it's also evidence of a culture in which women do not trust their own bodies, their own power, in ways and situations unrelated to birth. Birth is just one very fraught, very crucial example of the ways in which women are kept from their power and encouraged to have destructive relationships with their deepest selves in this culture, sadly.
In addition to being writers and poets (and teachers), you are both active in natural birth advocacy and education. Could you tell me more about your involvement in those movements and what are the latest developments and projects that you are working on within these circles?
Arielle: My family is about to make a big move: from Chicago to rural Maine, and from me working full-time to working at home. I hope this move means I will find a way to start teaching childbirth preparation classes again. I am also thinking about getting certified to do postpartum doula work and lactation help. I feel like even with the best prenatal and labor care, most women need more support than they get once the baby is out. Moms these days are really struggling to feel confident and supported in their care of their newborns. I'd like to do some of that work in the community I'm moving to in Maine.
Rachel: I'm still working on my childbirth education certification. I'm hoping to finish that and teach childbirth ed classes and also continue to attend births as a doula. On May 9th I'll be attending the Choices in Childbirth fundraiser. CIC is a group that's doing great work. Alot of the activism, though, happens in very small ways, very personal ways. Last week I was asked, along with all the parents at my youngest son's daycare center, to come in and tell the story of "The Day I Met You." In our case, the day I met Judah was the day he I gave birth to him in my bedroom, surrounded by my family, midwife, doula and my sons' labor buddy. I told a very short, age-appropriate and honest version of the story to the three and four year old kids. I responded kindly but firmly to one teacher's squeamishness about hearing anything about how the new baby looked or how the birth felt. Later a pregnant teacher from another room asked if she could speak to me some time, privately. Most important of all, though, in my opinion, was when one of the three year old girls asked me, after I told the story: "Were you hurt? Was the baby hurt?" and I said, clearly and gently, "No, I was not hurt. No, the baby was not hurt. It was hard work giving birth to my baby. We were so strong and healthy."
Anything else you would like to mention?
Rachel: Thank you so much for taking the time to read the book so carefully and ask us such thoughtful questions. I feel like we're acting a bit like post-partum doulas at this stage of the book's life which is a privilege and an honor.