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Riding Shotgun Through My Sister’s Birthing Education

I was as afraid as I was excited.

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Laughing girls
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My sister was easy to spot in the dim loft, because she was the only pregnant woman with an empty seat beside her. The rest of the room was filled with couples — hands on each other's knees, faces eager and expectant. As I sat, my sister said, “You smell like cooking.” It had been minutes since I set spaghetti in front of my tweens, and zoomed to my sister’s HypnoBirthing class.

HypnoBirthing, as I would come to learn, is a natural birthing method, founded by Marie Mongan, that uses breathing and relaxation techniques to decrease pain and fear in childbirth. On the night of that first class, my sister’s groovy obstetrician whisked into the room wearing an open expression, careless topknot, sneakers, sweatpants, and scrubs with a lab coat on top.

She began the class by passing around a naked baby doll like it was a baton. When you were passed the baby doll, you were to introduce yourself and say the word you most associated with childbirth.

Most of the mothers said things like, “Beautiful,” “Empowering,” “Natural.” I noticed that the men were not offered the doll, nor was I. The mothers-to-be spoke on behalf of their family units. When my sister got the baby-baton, she introduced herself as a Single-Mother-by-Choice, cocked an eyebrow, and said her word: “Terror.” She did not sound at all terrified as she admitted this, but rather bold — and a bit defiant.

My sister has always been this way: brave, self-sufficient, optimistic, brave enough to try terrifying things. I’ve been the more conventional elder sister: risk averse, anxious, nerdy. Because we’re so different, I’ve often felt thwarted in my attempts to advise my sister about life choices (not to mention all the blind dates that she refused). She has relied on her tribe of single women friends for adventure. She’s so fiercely independent that she chose her sperm donor, and managed her in vitro appointments on her own. I was thrilled when she asked me to be her birthing partner. I never imagined I’d be on the receiving end of a delivery scenario, but since 40 percent of birthing mothers in America are single, there are increasing numbers of elder sisters, mothers and female friends in the delivery room in a supporting role, and I was about to join their ranks. Finally, there was something I could do for my younger sister, maybe even something I could teach her.

However, in HypnoBirthing, I began to glean that my role as birth partner was not to advise, but rather to just be there and anticipate, quietly. The doctor advised mothers to not listen to anyone’s birth stories because, “For women, birth stories are like men’s war stories; they are embellished over telling.” I bit my tongue, and tucked away the many observations about my own births I had wanted to share.

The subsequent sessions of the class were taught by the practice’s most experienced doula. She explained that in HypnoBirthing, they use language that resists the medical model’s tendency to treat childbirth as a pathology. “We call the mucous plus the birth show, and a contraction a surge,” she said. “And we don’t ask the mother if she is feeling pain, we ask her if she is feeling pressure.” At the idea of birth pain as “pressure,” I remembered my own births — one highly medicated and the other natural by accident — and I might have strained a muscle in my effort to not roll my eyes. Later in the course, we watched a film of a water birth in which a father-to-be cradled a birthing mother, from behind, in a bathtub, marinating in the goo of her birth juices as she labored. My sister looked a little green, and so did some of the husbands. I thought all of this might be too much reality TV, and at the same time, illusion of control, in the face of something as unpredictable as birth. I felt empathy for the dads-to-be — a feeling I could not access for my husband when I was pregnant — because I was starting to realize it’s difficult to ride shotgun on a birth journey; to hold one’s tongue and leave the driving to someone else. I wanted to tell my sister that I was concerned that the hospital she had chosen didn’t have a Level IV Neonatal Unit, only a Level III, but I sensed that what my sister needed was support of her choices, not opinions.

Not expressing my every thought, worry and sardonic zinger in regard to my sister’s birth choices proved to be a challenge.

Maybe that’s why, when we began practicing the hypnosis, IT happened. I was talking her through the hypnosis exercise, telling her to “Let the tension and energy drain out of your neck, arms, belly, hips, legs …" I was trying to project mystical calm without sounding like Vincent Price in a Halloween special, but then I dropped her arm to test her “level of hypnosis,” and it bounced rigidly in her lap. For some reason, a peal of laughter escaped. I clamped my hands over my lips. But then the corners of my sister’s mouth started twitching. Laughter erupted out of me in gulps. My sister put her head in her hands, heaving with chortles. When we regained control of ourselves, we realized we had brought every woman in the room way out of hypnosis. Nobody was laughing along with us. I had failed in my duty to shut up and be supportive. The chief doula shook her head, and said, “Sisters, sisters … laughter in this process is usually a sign of fear.”

Driving home from that class, I had to admit to myself that the teacher was right: I was as afraid as I was excited for my sister.

We grew up in the shadow of our brother Michael’s death from surgery for a congenital heart defect. My sister had taken such a huge gamble doing this on her own. I was more fearful for her birth than I had ever been for the births of my own children. I also realized that since I see her as so tough and competent, I was unable to grasp her deep fear of the birth. Maybe just this once, it was best to turn off my verbal, analytical brain and not fan the flames of her fears with talk. My sister said, “Jeez, I needed that laugh,” and I let it go at that.

The next HypnoBirthing class focused on massage. Using lavender oil, I rubbed my sister’s shoulders and back in light circles. I realized I had not really tickled her back since we were girls. I learned counter-pressure techniques to distract the body from pain. I decided that this was the way I could be useful. My hands would do the talking. To be clear, HypnoBirthing does not discourage supportive, soft talk from the birth partner, but I knew fewer words would be better. (I don’t have a lot of soft words in my arsenal!) When the doula/educator showed a film of a hippie mom self-birthing in a tank while smiling beatifically at her older children, I resisted saying, Oh, please, I was begging for my epidural.

On the last day of our formal birth education, in a separate session on birth positions, there was another pair of sisters. The mother-to-be seemed very young; the elder sister a seasoned, protective alpha female. There was much I wanted to tell these sisters, but I have learned people need to make their own discoveries.

So I smiled and didn’t say a word.