By Shannon Staloch
I’m always turning off lights at births. Sometimes, it’s comical. I’ll walk in to check on the mom, and the lights will be on, lamps, overhead lights, etc. As I leave, I shut them all off with the exception of a candle or two, or a soft lamp. An hour or so later, I come back to check, once again, lights are blaring. Again, I leave under the cover of night. It might seem a silly thing for a midwife to focus on, but in fact, it’s essential to the hormones of labor.
Oxytocin is the queen of labor hormones. It is secreted in the posterior pituitary gland. Due to the role it plays in orgasm, birth and breastfeeding, oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone. During orgasm, it is released and contributes to the bonding that occurs between partners after orgasm. In birth, it is the hormone that causes the uterus to contract in a strong and rhythmic fashion. In breastfeeding it causes the milk to eject from the milk ducts. These three acts are all acts by their nature, deeply imbued with love, hence the love hormone.
Ina May Gaskin, the famous American midwife, is famous for saying that if a woman doesn’t look beautiful in labor, someone is doing something wrong. Indeed, the women I attend in labor glow. To get through a natural labor, a woman must moan, sway her hips, and go deep inside. Many parallels then, can be drawn between sex and birth. Hence, why I am always turning the lights down, it is my attempt to render an intimate and cozy environment, an environment akin to sexual intimacy. Oxytocin is also produced in greater quantities in the dark, when it’s warm, and with familiar people. Some doctors and nurses, recognizing this fact, will also turn down lights and whisper when in a laboring woman’s room.
My midwifery practice is culturally, racially and religiously diverse. It is more often (not always!) with my Muslim clients that I often see a lack of sexual health and knowledge. Sadly, it seems that in many Muslim homes, young girls are not properly educated about their bodies, nor are they taught to revel in them or celebrate their strength. The link between sexuality and birth begins early in life. It begins with educating young girls about the functions and anatomies of their bodies. Time and again, I have conversations with women about their menstrual cycle, and am frequently left jaw agape at the utter lack of knowledge of this simple function of a women’s body. Women with college degrees, born and raised in affluent California, have no idea that they are fertile for a short time every month and that there are clear signs from their bodies, heralding that fertility.
Not only that, the lack of conversation, curiosity and knowledge about the female body and its’ functions, seems to convey a sense of shame and embarrassment at the body itself. Recently, I visited one of my clients who had had a C-section. She was just a few days postpartum, and over the phone, had expressed concerns about her baby’s breastfeeding. I am a board certified lactation consultant. I know that mothers with C-sections often have difficulties in establishing breastfeeding and time is of the essence in getting breastfeeding straightened out. When I came to visit, her shirt was buttoned to the top button and she refused to let me observe a breastfeeding session. The baby was obviously hungry, but the shame was so intense that she went against her motherly instincts in order not to expose herself.
In contrast, I recently attended the birth of a fifth time mother. During labor, she was free to move around and change positions. She moaned softly with each contraction, and her face was soft and flushed. Her husband was by her side, holding her hand, supporting her squatting, giving her a back massage, and offering her sips of water throughout the entire labor. She would occasionally look up at him and ask for a kiss. The room was dimly lit, familiar to her, and warm. The baby was born easily and smoothly not long after I arrived. Once she and baby were checked out, I tucked her in and watched as the baby found the nipple all by itself. Her older kids were anxiously waiting outside the door, and even though some of the boys were teenagers, she felt comfortable allowing them in to witness the normalcy and the brilliance of the reproductive functions of the female body.
Birth is linked to sexual health. The more a woman can get in touch with her sexuality and cultivate a positive attitude towards her sexual health, the easier it will be to accept the grand bodily changes of pregnancy, the intensity and physicality of the birth, and to then nurture and nourish her baby through breastfeeding. Below are six ways to improve your sexual health, and therefore improve your chances of a healthy birth.
- Become aware of your pregnant body. The pregnant body is a thing of wonder, constantly changing, growing, expanding, all the while, growing another life. It’s easy to wax poetic about it. It’s also easy to feel uncomfortable while living inside it. For some women, the burgeoning belly is an announcement of their sex life, and they aren’t comfortable with that. Because there is so much in the body that calls our attention during pregnancy, it’s an opportune time to get in touch with your body, if you aren’t already in the habit. To the best of your ability, embrace the changes your body is undergoing. Take the time each day to stretch, move, swim, and just marvel at the wonder of your body.
- Pay attention to your sexuality. Does your desire increase or decrease during pregnancy? Because of the changes that occur during pregnancy, many women find arousal and desire increased during this time. And many don’t! Where do you fall on that scale? Are there ways to express your sexuality other than intercourse? Simply becoming aware of your desire is a huge step in connecting to your sexuality.
- Think about the messaging. What messages have you been given about your female body? When you first menstruated, was it celebrated or shunned? Were you told to pretend you weren’t on your menstrual cycle? Were you taught it was dirty? Or were you lovingly guided to embrace and accept the changes of adolescence? Although it may not seem like it, these messages can have an impact on your birthing and breastfeeding. Journal some things that stand out, and if necessary, reframe the messaging.
- Move your hips! It is said that belly dancing originated in the Arabian Peninsula during births. Women would surround the birthing women and move and sway their hips rhythmically, in order to show the birthing women how to move through her contractions. Getting comfortable with this sensual movement is indeed helpful during the pain of labor contractions. Circling the hips releases tension, and helps to send the contractions straight to the cervix, right where they need to be in order for labor to progress!
- Get the straight talk on vaginal exams. For many women, the thought of vaginal exams makes them squeeze their knees together. Talk with your doctor or midwife before hand about how you would like them performed, if at all! Vaginal exams are not always necessary and can be triggering for women who have had unsolicited sexual experiences in the past. They can also be uncomfortable. You can request that your provider go slow, allow you to breathe and center yourself before the exam, and talk you through each step. Prenatally, you can ask your provider under what circumstances exams are necessary.
- Baring it all. You’ve made it through the birth, but now there’s all this breastfeeding! In the West, we live in a society that has sexualized breasts. I traveled to Senegal when my oldest was a baby. Even if they were covered head to toe, I was surprised at how easily women breastfed in public. These women weren’t worried about whether or not a square inch of their breast might be exposed; they were more concerned with taking care of their babies needs. Indeed, walking the streets of Senegal, I rarely heard a baby cry despite there being babies everywhere! Think of ways in which breastfeeding, possibly needing to show your nipples and breasts to a healthcare professional, might affect you. If it seems difficult, brainstorm ways in which you can get comfortable with this function of the female anatomy.
Female sexuality and healthy birth are linked in a complex and intricate manner; there cannot be one without the other. Let’s stop shunning the relationship between the two and strengthening its connection. The future of birth and babies depends on it.
Shannon Staloch is a mother of three. She has been serving families in the Bay Area as a licensed midwife and lactation consultant for nearly a decade. She also supports families through workshops in holistic health and nutrition. Her website is www.homemadefamilies.com.