Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Midwives and doulas offer fresh perspectives on birth

When Michelle L'Esperance was an undergraduate at Smith and an aspiring documentary photographer, she attended a lecture by nationally renowned midwife Ina May Gaskin "on a whim." She decided to become a midwife the following day, a choice that led to 15 years of work as a midwife and a doula in the United States and abroad.
"The practice of midwifery is truly holistic," L'Esperance explained, citing its medical, psychological and spiritual aspects. "I get to be all of these things."
Midwifery entails responsibility for the physical health of the mother and the baby during the birth and often the post-partum period. Certification necessitates extensive medical training and apprenticeship.
A doula, however, is limited to emotional support and advocacy on the mother's behalf.
"When I'm working as a doula, I can't use most of my skills," L'Esperance said, "[but] I can always suggest questions to ask."
L'Esperance admitted that when she tells people what she does for a living she often receives blank stares. With the ascendance of the "mainstream medical model of birth" over the course of the last century, midwives and doulas now constitute what much of the general population considers alternative birth methods
The latter are widely perceived as unsafe and ineffective due to their lack of traditional medical parameters. Many claim that the media offers unflattering portrayals of these professions and the birthing process in general, creating an uphill battle for both experienced and aspiring childbirth professionals.
"Our culture is exotic by global standards," locally based childbirth educator and filmmaker Vicki Elson said. "We're afraid of biology."
Elson began studying the portrayal of birth in mass media several years ago. She studied dozens of birth scenes only to discover that birth was grossly distorted in these contexts. This served as the inspiration for her documentary, Laboring Under an Illusion.
"We wanted make a film about how ridiculous this is," she said. The film juxtaposes realistic, largely uneventful births with "scary stuff" to satirical effect. Elson said that although the public's response to the film in the years since its debut 15 years ago has been incredibly positive, the media has yet to revise its dramatizations of birth. Popular television programs such as "A Baby Story" continually perpetuate frightening birth scenes, Elson noted. 

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