My Ten Years
in Childbirth Education
by Rosemary Romberg
In 1970 1 was newly married and embarking on what thought was my chosen profession. I was an elementary school teacher. In early 1971 after months of frustration and heartache I quit my job with a classroom full of second graders. I had made the unfortunate choice of attempting a profession that was wrong for me. Leaving it was like getting a divorce. The following months were filled with relief, guilt, sadness and introspection. I searched within myself for what I truly wanted in life. I wanted a family. I wanted to have a baby, to be pregnant, to experience the growth of new life within me. Books on birth and babies now fascinated me. I looked with envy at pregnant women and new mothers. I longed for that entire experience.
But I also wanted a profession. I am intelligent. I have my college degree. I could not see a life ahead of routine office jobs, nor one of mopping floors and chatting with neighbors. I had had a profession but it had not worked out. I had experienced bitter disappointment – the failed lesson plans, the children who would not listen or learn. I yearned for the satisfaction of being capable and competent, of enjoying my career and contributing to this world.
Could I have both? During the early 1970’s it seemed that the two were incompatible. I wanted to be with my baby. I wanted to breastfeed. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my baby all day with strangers. Perhaps I would have to wait until I was in my 40’s or 50’s before I could have a career.
Soon I was pregnant. All thoughts of a potential career (other than motherhood) were, for the time being, pushed aside. We moved while I was in early pregnancy and I did not seek another job. Blissfully, I enjoyed the opportunity to stay home and “play house.” My entire life until then had been filled with the intense pressure of attending school and/or working. I savored the peace. I took simple joys in grocery shopping and hanging out the laundry. And I basked in the growing reality of my pregnant womb, my breasts filled with colostrum, and the movements of my baby within. Excursions to my doctor’s office for prenatal exams were a new, wondrous experience. Lamaze classes filled with other excitedly expectant couples and La Leche League meetings filled with mothers and their nursing infants were all a new world opening up to me.
My husband followed me along in this journey. He was not nearly as ready or involved as I was but he participated nonetheless. I could not bear the idea of the pressure and frustrations of a career to take me away from this “Nirvana.” The only “fly in the ointment” was the social expectations telling me that this was not okay. It was “demeaning,” especially for a woman with a college degree, not to be using one’s brains. But I had to tune that out. For once in my life, I had to pursue what I wanted.
Late in the evening of May 27,1972, I found myself lying on a gurney in the hall outside the hospital delivery room. My abdomen was suddenly reduced from its immense burden. My body was sore, bleeding, and exhausted from birth. My newborn son was far away in the hospital nursery, but my husband was still beside me. I was reveling in my “success” at having a Lamaze birth. I was somewhat of an oddity in that hospital, but I was proud. Two other ladies, also lying on gurneys in the hall, still numb from spinal anesthesia, were amazed at my courage/masochism. A revelation came to me: “I want to be a childbirth instructor.” I did not know the wrongness of my son’s unnecessary separation from me, of the I V. in my arm, or the nurse’s rough pummeling of my uterus. Nor could I anticipate the many good and bad experiences that awaited me.
During the months that followed I reveled in the glory of my new role in motherhood. My son was a strong, healthy, beautiful baby. My breasts burst with milk. My entire life centered around this new child, the astounding experience of life created, and the sisterhood of other mothers.
It was with joy and enthusiasm that I first began my career as a childbirth educator. Everybody’s pregnancy was now a joyous, fascinating experience for me. I eagerly observed my master teacher, assisted the couples with breathing and exercises, taught small lessons within her class and joyfully shared the other couples experiences. I was reliving the joy that it had been for me. I made charts, put together lesson plans, and read all of the required reading. Soon I was teaching my own Lamaze class under my master teacher and was eagerly sharing the joys of pregnancy and birth with these couples. My audio visual aids were meager. At that time I had only one small manual for a handout. My intellectual store of technical knowledge was small. I envied more experienced teachers who came across as knowledgeable authorities and had a supply of sophisticated aids. Yet each class was a joy for my students and myself. I felt as if my knowledge and love for birth and babies could change the world.
More classes followed the first one. Slowly I increased my technical knowledge. I began to write and collect handouts on various areas of childbirth education. The more I could give my students the better.
During my second class I had one mother who did not plan to breastfeed. I was still eagerly nursing my own son, now several months old. Nursing was so pleasurable to me and my La Leche League friends. How could any mother not want to nurse her baby?!! Enthusiastically and naively, I bombarded this mother with more and more La Leche League information sheets. Surely if every mother only knew how advantageous breastfeeding was she would never consider bottle feeding. But this mother could not be moved. “Yes, I love my babies and love to hold and cuddle them, but breastfeeding just isn’t me!!” she replied. My inability to inspire this woman to breastfeed was, to me, a personal failure. Another mother in that class told me that she would only be nursing her baby for two or three months.
I became aware of the painful rift that exists between different types of mothers. I had to realize that other parents do not necessarily have the same enthusiasm and motivation to do ‘everything right’ for their babies that I do. In my innocence I had thought that my knowledge and enthusiasm for breastfeeding and positive birth experiences could motivate everyone else to “love their babies enough” to do the same. The realization that others would not think, act, care or do the same as me has been painful. Perhaps other instructors who are able to be more objective than me have fared better. But when innocent, needful infants are victims of so many callous, uncaring practices of our society and medical profession, I cannot be impartial. I have had to take a stand on certain issues — including breastfeeding, immediate bonding, natural birth and, more recently, circumcision. To be neutral would be to compromise my principles. I have owed it to these innocent beings. I cannot forfeit my level of caring and sensitivity. But this has made my venture in childbirth education much more difficult. I also became increasingly aware of the overwhelming frustration of dealing with the established medical profession. There is such an immense discrepancy between our ideals of birth and infant care, the specialness of each baby and birth for every couple, and the routine, uncaring, and usually uninformed approach of the medical profession. True, doctors usually surpass us in technical knowledge. But they are too often sadly lacking in the human, spiritual, or wholistic aspects of birth or infant care. We could learn so much from each other. We possess a different type of knowledge, learned outside the medical world. But usually they ignore us. It is they, who seem to know and care so little, who are given the respect, authority, and privilege of involvement in birth and babies. We, who know and care so much, have had so little voice, because we are not doctors and not men!! The women’s movement had held little meaning to me until then. But I grew increasingly aware of discrimination against women!
Expectant parents are naive and gullible when they place their trust in their doctors. The childbirth educator cries over the unnecessary Cesareans, feels rage over doctors’ poor breastfeeding advice, and tears her hair out over routine separation of mothers and babies, or doctors’ arguments persuading parents to circumcise. Yet, her hands are so often tied. She is urged to be silent. One has to be considerate of others and to listen to their experiences and opinions non-judgmentally. Childbirth educators become quite experienced at biting their tongues. One identifies with the Simon and Garfunkel song: “Take my arms that I might reach you, Take my words that I might teach you, But my words like silent raindrops fell.”
One of my most frustrating experiences as a childbirth instructor was when a student became enraged at me for suggesting that she question her doctor’s advice. Her doctor had informed her that it wasn’t good for a baby to be nursed more often than every three hours!! When I tried to tell her otherwise she became angry. “Who are you to tell us to go against our doctors?!” (Yet, she was not able to successfully breastfeed following that advice!)
My career continued. We later moved and I re-established it in a new town. We had another baby, with a much more progressive birth in another hospital. I taught in a hospital and then through two different adult education programs. My technical knowledge increased. I now owned many slide series’, gave out numerous handouts, and had an extensive library for my students.
I learned to grow in acceptance and understanding of other people, I realized that I could only help them as best I could. Some were always more receptive and enthusiastic than others. It was a growing, maturing experience for me. I had to accept that I could not change the world. I could not make others be the way I wanted them to be. But I could reach people with knowledge, help, support and love, and do whatever I could to help them have positive birth experiences.
I peaked in my career about four years after I began teaching, around 1976. I then believed I had it all – my marriage, my babies, and my part-time career as a childbirth educator. I thought that I would be dedicated to it in some way for the rest of my life .
My downward spiral began when I became pregnant with our third child. I lived in a community where home birth was scarcely even heard of. But I knew that I did not want another hospital birth. I fell in love with the home birth movement and devoured books like Immaculate Deception by (Suzanne Arms ) and The Home Birth Book (by Charlotte and Fred Ward). I found a local lay midwife who agreed to attend our birth. I experienced a new burst of enthusiasm for our planned home birth similar to the enthusiasm I had experienced earlier for pregnancy and birth alone. But I continued to teach Lamaze classes to students who were having hospital births. At that time and place home birth was rarely even considered as an option. Alternative birth centers did not exist. These people were having babies in the only acceptable manner they knew. I did not tell them how my own baby would be born. They probably would have been shocked if I had mentioned home birth. Understandably, I had little enthusiasm for the birth experiences they would be having, for their lack of awareness, and my powerlessness to enlighten them.
After our son’s joyous birth at home, I resumed teaching Lamaze classes, I had given serious consideration to teaching home birth-oriented classes. But the home birth movement, at least in that area, seemed to have “more chiefs than Indians.” Hospital-oriented couples for general Lamaze classes were available in abundance, but I could count on my fingers the few people in my area who were interested in home birth. Also, teaching classes to home birth-oriented people seemed like preaching to the converted. They already knew so much, while hospital oriented students were so much in need. Right now I had to teach where I was needed. But I was finding it increasingly difficult to relate to people planning hospital births.
My now well-known concern over infant circumcision was then just dawning. I began to introduce the topic in classes, at first very gently. With each class I tried to present the issue more strongly. Most heard without listening and still had it done. I found that just as I ached inside for every bottle-fed baby, I now felt excruciating pain inside for every circumcised baby. As my knowledge increased on the subject I became more and more opposed to the cruel operation. When I began showing pictures of circumcision being done and speaking out more strongly against it I found others getting upset with me. In some people’s minds, it was perfectly okay for doctors to upset the babies by doing circumcisions, but somehow I was in the wrong for upsetting parents by showing pictures and talking about it!! I felt as if I were being martyred for my knowledge and intense caring.
In the spring of 1980, approximately 7 ½ years after I enthusiastically began my first class I heavy-heartedly finished my last. About half of my students dropped out along the way. I went through the same lessons, breathing techniques and exercises. But my heart was no longer there. One of my students phoned me to tell me that they would not be coming to any more classes. “You sound like you’re running a tape. It’s not fresh. There’s no enthusiasm there. It’s not fun for the students”. I cried for days over this. I was deeply hurt, but it had to happen for me to come to my own realization. I now had the technical knowledge, the handouts and the sophisticated audiovisual aids that I had coveted years earlier. I had the expertise. I should be a master teacher in this by now, respected in my profession, but instead I had reached an impasse where I could not go on.
I had experienced too many saddening things through the years. I’ve gone to too many class reunions where the mothers have shown up with bottles and flimsy excuses for not breastfeeding. I’ve seen too many screwed-up hospital experiences. One mother had an unnecessary Cesarean done in haste when the fetal heart monitor quit working. Another mother had a baby that nearly died from a scalp abscess where the electrodes of the fetal monitor had been placed. Slow labors have been remedied by induced labor and then Cesarean deliveries have in turn been the “remedy” for “failed” induction. Rapid but normal labors have been slowed down with sedatives for the medical staff’s convenience. Mothers have been chastised for trying to touch their own babies on the delivery table. Doctors have given out terrible breastfeeding advice. The overwhelming frustration had taken its toll and I had burned out. I quit. I was then pregnant with our fourth child. I considered going back to it after the birth. Instead I have retreated into writing. I have compiled much of my knowledge into information sheets which will hopefully help others. I have also continued my intense research and writing on circumcision. There is peace and comfort in writing. It can be an ivory tower. But I miss the people contact that goes on in childbirth classes. There was a lot of joy in it. I “grew up” with it. It was the profession I had yearned for.
I survived as a childbirth educator for 7 ½ years. This is much longer than the average career span of most childbirth instructors. Many are professional women, often teachers or nurses who are taking a few years off from their careers while their own children are little. Usually they go back to full time employment or continue their education when their children are older. I have seen countless other childbirth educators come and go, very often quitting after teaching for two to three years. I believe that it meant more to me because my original profession as an elementary school teacher was unsatisfactory and I had no other career goal in mind at that time.
Rivalries professional jealousies, and politics are abundant within the world of childbirth education. Different types of breathing and exercises are taught by different groups. These alone are seldom important issues. Most exercises are helpful and most breathing, concentration and relaxation techniques will work effectively during labor if they are thoroughly practiced and believed in. The crucial differences are philosophical, attitudinal ones. Some childbirth educators and organizations are much more conservative and restrictive than others. The more conservative organizations usually have teachers who work within hospitals and are approved of by doctors. Often they are O.B. nurses who are teaching their students to unquestioningly accept the hospital’s practices. Other organizations and instructors who tend to question routine hospital practices and are advocates for the babies often get labeled radical and tend to be criticized. Yet, within a ten year span I’ve seen so many supposed radical issues and practices become commonplace after a few years time. Therefore. the concept of “radical” is extremely relative. When our first son was born. Childbirth classes themselves were radical, as was a father’s presence in the delivery room and birth without medication. Later, issues such as immediate bonding, nursing on the delivery table, no supplementary bottles, and early dismissal from the hospital were hot issues. By the late 70’s, the term radical had gravitated to home births, Leboyer births, children at birth, and non-circumcision. Today, I almost have to laugh as “regular” home birth has become so commonplace that some have moved to other extremes to be “different.” Literature has sprung up about placenta recipes, underwater births and allowing the cord to dry up and separate naturally rather than cutting it.
I have been exposed to all factions within childbirth education. It took me a while to realize the differences, I have tended to gravitate towards the more “radically” thinking groups, although I have usually kept my approach gentle. I was naively conservative when I began, thinking most hospital practices were justified. As fact has added to fact, however, and more and more myths have been dispelled, I have increasingly become less and less trusting of the established medical profession. The more conservative, “everything the hospital does is okay” approach of some instructors may be based more on fear of reprisal from authorities than true satisfaction. It is upsetting and painful to think, to question, to see things as they could be.
There are also an unusually large amount of personal jealousies and rivalries between individual instructors. Some childbirth educators have tended to be insecure, jealous, and possessive about their classes and their role. Sometimes they are cruel and jealous towards each other. They tend to resent sharing or input from other instructors and sometimes act as if they “own” their students. The jealousies stem, in part, from the frustrations that childbirth educators feel when dealing with medical professionals. Often, the childbirth educator’s ground is shaky. They are frequently are dependent on the whims and approval of local doctors and hospital staffs. Also, most childbirth educators are women who are painfully torn between the aspiration to be competent, respected professionals, and caring, dedicated mothers at home with their children. An oppressed group tends to take out its frustrations on each other. Our involvement in childbirth education should be a common cause, a sharing, instead of the rivalry and possessiveness that it so often has become. At times, I fear that we will all end up defeating each other. On a local level, for a while I remained semi-involved with a small childbirth education group. But then my own attempts to help and share my writings and expertise eventually inspired only jealousy and bitterness from some of the other instructors. There is too much intense fear of someone else getting recognition for them to see, appreciate, and learn from what I have to give. I can vouch from personal experience that it is much easier and more enjoyable to work on a nationwide level with my writings, than it is to work on a small town level with people’s intense personal jealousies and insecurities.
Involvement in childbirth education can be taxing to a woman’s marriage and family as well. Few men have become involved in this field. There are thousands of women who are childbirth instructors, but only a few dozen husband and wife teams (that I know of). It was difficult for my husband when I was out teaching classes one or two nights each week. There were weekends spent at special workshops, afternoons devoted to preparing lesson plans and information sheets, and hours spent at other people’s births, class reunions, and special practice sessions. The phone rang constantly with students sharing their birth experiences or asking questions, or with other instructors sharing ideas or business. It was difficult for him to have my energy going out to so many people. He tolerated, but could not share my involvement. I was forever ready to burst out with the details of someone’s latest birth experience, only to get told, “I don’t want to hear about it! That stuff isn’t interesting to me!” Like many fathers, my husband could share in our own birth experiences, but could not find everyone else’s births equally fascinating.
I have tried not to shortchange my children with all of this. One of the reasons I got involved in this part-time career was so that I could stay home with them. As babies, they usually went with me to workshops and meetings. When older, they enjoyed staying with their Daddy. When I taught classes in the evenings I usually tried to have my nursing baby down to sleep before I left. Yet many times I did return to learn that the baby had screamed for hours. And, many times I have found myself immersed in childbirth education related matters while my own children were running around at loose ends. Other mothers were volunteering in their children’s classrooms or leading Cub Scout groups. I was still focusing on birth and babies, but not developing similar enthusiasm for their activities as older children. I have been forced to question my priorities. We should never undermine the importance of a positive pregnancy/birth/new baby experience. But it is only the beginning. Childbirth educators tend to become overly obsessed with birth alone. Ironically, we often place so much emphasis on birth and babies and are so involved with other people’s experiences that sometimes we end up neglecting our own children’s needs. Possibly it is the mothers who had the lousy birth experiences or poor attitudes during pregnancy that childbirth educators complain about, who are doing far better than us in being involved with their older children.
I believe that I have completed a season in my life that is natural for women in their childbearing years. I began this with an intense desire to fully experience parturition. As beautiful, awe-inspiring and fascinating the creation of life is, it is still amazing and often a little ridiculous the way women become all consumed with the details of it all. I was fortunate that I could channel so much of that energy into helping others. But that enthusiasm itself has waned. I am tired of hearing and repeating the same information over and over again. Today, various childbirth education newsletters arrive in the mail and most articles go unread. I haven’t bought any new books on the subject in years. The last time I attended a childbirth education workshop I found myself bored. Even with my last pregnancy, as much as l wanted the baby, I did not have nearly as much enthusiasm for pregnancy itself. The subject is just not as fascinating as it used to be.
It has now been several years since I taught my last class. Still, there have been times when I have seriously considered going back to teaching childbirth classes. I remember the joys and pleasures that went with it. I have also considered teaching strictly home birth classes or becoming a midwife, if only I could somehow regain that enthusiasm and love that used to be there.
I am hoping that what I have written here will give other new childbirth instructors and those who are considering it some benefit of my experience. I began knowing so little. Maybe some passages would have been less difficult for me had I known what to expect. And I hope that others who are not childbirth instructors, but who take our classes and otherwise deal with us will by reading this understand some of what we go through.
I would welcome response from other childbirth instructors. What have been your personal experiences, both good and bad, and both similar and different from mine? And how have you dealt with it?
Addendum: Since this article was written I have experienced two tragic late miscarriages in 1983 and 1984, and the joyful birth of our fifth child and fourth son, Kevin, in Oct. of 1985. This time I gave birth in a hospital birth center setting with a midwife in attendance. (He was left intact, of course!) We subsequently moved to Alaska. In 1989 I gave birth to our sixth and last child, another daughter, Melissa at home. We had a beautiful underwater birth in our bathtub. My experiences with pregnancy loss and with hospital birth after previous home births, and with underwater birth in my home (age 42, sixth baby!) are related in detail in other articles.
Today I work out of my home as a professional crafts-person and still do a limited amount of writing and corresponding about birth and infant circumcision related issues. I believe that today I have a much more positive attitude about and greater understanding of the role of the medical profession, in part due to my need for medical care during those two tragic miscarriages, and in part due to the tremendous amount of correspondence, support and respect as a colleague that I have received from so many doctors and other medical professionals while doing my research on the topic of circumcision. – R.R.
Originally published in Nurturing, Spring 1985, No. 8, p. 56-60.
((Revised – 2012) Update – 2013 )