yearlong childbirth education

In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen some of these pieces as inspiration and jumping-off points to create a new 12-part series about changing birth in our culture that reflects current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2019, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both the archival treasure and the new, innovative insights!

Beginning in the early 1970s, it became standard for expectant parents to take a several-week-long childbirth education class in the third trimester, and this tradition has continued in one way or another until the present day. The focus of such classes has generally been on the labor experience. Initially, the emphasis was on relaxation and coping in labor – often with explicit instructions as to the precise ways in which parents should relax and cope (breathe like this, hold your body like this, speak to the laboring person like this, etc). Within the last couple of decades, the emphasis has sometimes shifted to hospital orientation, often including practical matters such as parking, paperwork, paying for private rooms, and so on. Even non-hospital classes generally speak to the patient/consumer model, tending to center upon medical management of complications, epidural information, and “choices.”

It probably goes without saying that such classes are not likely to fully prepare folks for the intense emotional and physical transformations of the childbearing year. But for a few decades, the class-taking experience did serve as a guiding cultural ritual, a universal preparatory activity that most expectant parents could share. In recent years, however, the number of expectant parents taking childbirth education classes has fallen. Those who do take classes often choose condensed versions: instead of the traditional six (or more) weeks, they might go for four weeks, or a weekend, or even just one session of a few hours. Some parents seek education outside of the in-person “class” model with online courses, YouTube videos, the power of Google, or a good old-fashioned pile of books.

In contrast, many birth professionals would probably agree that even six weeks – let alone three hours, or some scattered time with websites and books – is not enough for parents to unlearn cultural myths and conditioning, and to truly explore and embody new beliefs. Additionally, waiting until the third trimester often means that information about nutrition, or about making conscious, informed choices about medical care and birth location, comes too late to make a real difference.

In short, these late-and-brief experiences with childbirth education simply don’t allow enough time for the adult Parent archetypes within to awaken and begin to act.  

That’s why, if we want to change birth in our culture, we need to begin to imagine a different kind of childbirth education. Is it possible that we might begin to stretch our imaginations enough to envision a yearlong birth initiation process? Let’s imagine…

  • A holistic feast of activities and experiences as old and new friends gather with community elders and birth mentors…
  • Traditional “class”-style meetings interspersed with other activities, including excursions to view art or experience nature, social events, rituals, art-making and music-making, reading groups, intergenerational conversations, and more…
  • Preparatory work beginning several months before birth (perhaps even before conception in some cases), giving folks plenty of time to think about their paths into parenthood, how to develop and strengthen their relationships, how to nourish and prepare their bodies, and the kind of care they wish to seek for themselves and their babies…
  • Labor and immediate-postpartum support that draws on the experiences, understandings, and relationships built during prenatal preparation…
  • Postpartum guidance continuing for a few months after birth, providing the newborn care and breastfeeding information that is so often forgotten when taught prenatally, as well as the emotional and social support sorely needed by new parents…

Of course most of us like this idea in theory. We know that this kind of immersion and ongoing support would really make a profound change in the hearts and souls of new parents, and therefore in our culture. But the doubts come crowding in… How would we make this happen? How would people get interested? How could communities and individuals possibly create the time and space? And what of the cost?

All of these doubts are legitimate and speak to authentic obstacles. But they can also all be overcome, reimagined, and worked around. Some of this may occur with individual efforts, some with political restructuring, some with cultural change and shifts in discourse. Some movement may be small and incremental, and some may be large and sudden. Observable, meaningful change is absolutely possible – we can see it in the work of those such as midwife Jennie Joseph, in her JJ Way method of perinatal care that has reimagined parts of the medical care model. The JJ Way has been proven to improve health outcomes for parents and babies, and to reduce health disparities experienced by black families.

Knowing that change is possible, let’s be fearless and envision a new model of yearlong preparation, initiation, and support for parents.

Share your thoughts with your friends, family, and colleagues, and with us here at Birthing From Within. What steps can we take, individually or together, to bring this vision into reality?

About the Birthing from Within Team

Birthing From Within is blessed to have a team of bloggers that includes childbirth educators, doulas, and birth story listeners who, in addition to being deep thinkers and skilled writers, are dedicated to the amplification of the BFW mission and philosophy. Birthing From Within is a collective creation, always evolving to reflect the new layers of understanding and unique approaches to the childbirth experience. Our goal is to change the conversation about birth in our culture, and to uphold the possibility of growth and transformation for birth professionals and birthing people.

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