When I was four months pregnant with our second baby, our health care provider handed us a homespun video of nude Mexican ladies squatting as they gave birth. Though I had become something of a birth junkie, the film was so strange that my husband and I weren’t sure what to make of it. I think the Certified Nurse Midwife who gave it to us meant it to be inspiring.
But it wasn’t.
I was a nice Jewish girl from Boston, the daughter of an x-ray crystallographer (my dad) and a microbiologist (my mom) married to an Italian-American from a conservative family. I was knocked up for the second time in ten months. We wanted to have our children close together and planned it that way. Little did we know … I was also recovering from a physically and mentally abusive first birth experience in a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
Determined to do things in a gentler way the second time around, we chose to have our pregnancy followed by midwives and we planned to birth at home, despite the extreme disapproval of both our families. Perhaps unsurprisingly, images of squatting naked mamas did little to help us prepare.
Trailer for The Business of Baby, by Jennifer Margulis:
The depictions of women in labor in feature films and TV shows that we sometimes saw were even worse. Birthing women are usually screaming, acting hysterically, wide-eyed with fear, their brows beaded with sweat. The people around them are equally hysterical, treating every moment like a Code Red emergency, barking orders in a riot of panic.
Sadly, some of today’s depictions of women giving birth have, if anything, gotten worse: in a gruesome scene in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” the vampire Edward actually chews through Bella’s womb to get his half-human baby out.
Luckily for Kim Kardashian, Kate Middleton and other 21st century expectant mamas, there are several excellent documentaries that celebrate birth, empower women, and explain how to avoid the unfortunate — and often dangerous — pitfalls in our modern maternity system.
My youngest is three years old, but by the time I got pregnant with her, I was so experienced I wasn’t watching movies anymore. I wish these three films had been available when I needed them.
1. The Business of Being Born (watch instantly on Netflix or the film’s web site). This hard-hitting documentary from 2008 by Rikki Lake and Abby Epstein is both personal (Abby is pregnant during the movie) and journalistic. The first time I watched it, I wondered if the homebirth midwives came across as a bit too woo woo. The second time, that didn’t bother me as much.
This movie reveals hospital incompetence, shows how disconnected providers are from the women who are having babies, and provides an alternative: inspiring, peaceful, wonderful home births. Abby’s own birth doesn’t go as planned — she ends up with a hospital C-section (“no filming in here”) — and the movie left me feeling sad, both for Abby and for the state of obstetric care in America. But “The Business of Being Born” is a must-see for anyone planning to have a baby in the United States.
2. Orgasmic Birth: The Best Kept Secret (watch instantly on Amazon). This 2008 documentary by Debra Pascali Bonaro, who also co-authored a book on this subject, explores how sensual undisturbed birth can be.
This film will inspire you to smooch with your partner during contractions (this works amazingly well, if only because it seems so counterintuitive that it makes you laugh during labor). It was love that put the baby in there in the first place, and it is love that will help most to get the baby out!
3. Birth Story (watch instantly on their web site). This 2013 feature-length film about the most famous midwife in America, Ina May Gaskin, explores how Ina May and her husband started an intentional community in Tennessee and how she and other direct-entry midwives bring tremendous skill, kindness, and compassion to the births they attend.
I know I sound conservative, but I wish the film had skipped the philosophy about dropping acid and the hippie dancing. Still, it’s just so much fun to see a gray-haired Ina May doing squats against a door jam to show a pregnant woman how to jumpstart her labor, and watch her make a TV host blush by talking about sphincter muscles on prime time TV.
This documentary captures an important moment in history and shows how awesome birth can be.