Published on July 6th, 2015 | by Meg Lemke0
GROUNDING BIRTH: An Interview with Bronwyn Preece and an Excerpt by Dawn Marsden from IN THE SPIRIT OF HOMEBIRTH
In the Spirit of Homebirth is a diverse, up-to-date collection of inspirational birth stories and practical advice for families considering giving birth at home. MUTHA caught up with In the Spirit‘s editor Bronwyn Preece to talk about the joy and challenges inherent in advocating for “modern women making an ancient choice.”
“Each women’s and family’s choice is particular to them, to their sense of self/selves, safety and comfort—hopes and ideals are not decrees.” After Bronwyn’s words, read on for an excerpt from the book by contributor Dawn Marsden, who shares how she drew on Ojibway heritage practices in both her hospital and homebirth.
MUTHA: What inspired you to collect these stories? Did your ideas about birth/homebirth change through the process of putting together the book?
BRONWYN PREECE: As a teenager, long before ever becoming pregnant, I was considering perhaps pursuing midwifery training. I read Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery at the age of 16, and was so drawn in to the texture and tone of the stories: the rawness and realness of reading accounts of the primal and empowering aspects and challenges that these women encountered and embodied through their pregnancies and births, from the women themselves. There was something both sensuous, sensitive, strong and vulnerable in this direct transmission. (In fact, reading her book made me realize that I was not in position to counsel other people through birth, without having first experienced it myself.) Years later, and pregnant, I found myself drawn to seeking out the stories—not the textbooks-but the firsthand accounts written and told by by both women and men. As I sought out such stories, I quickly became aware of some of the under-represented voices in the homebirth story canon, the pigeon-holing it as an ‘alternative’ or niche practice, as well as some of the very dated accounts. I was inspired to begin collating what I felt would be a response to an identified lacuna in the available printed material…and I wanted the collection to represent an eclectic diversity that captured a spectrum of voices that defied tokenism.
My ideas did not so much change about birth/homebirth during the process, but more so deepened in sensitivity… over and over and over again, with each story, with each contribution, with each new connection. What became reinforced was how each women’s and family’s choice is particular to them, to their sense of self/selves, safety and comfort—hopes and ideals are not decrees. If homebirth was your hope, but did not end up being the end result, this is not a failure. The whole intention of the book was also the highlight the fluidity of vision, and how we have to be responsive to the immediacy of the moment: the mother, the father, the child, the pregnancy, the birth. This is a book about honouring presence in its many forms….it is in the spirit of homebirth.
MUTHA: Not every mother who desires a home birth is able to have one, including some of the mothers who tell their stories here. What advice do you give to those mothers, or anyone whose birth didn’t turn out the way they had hoped?
BRONWYN PREECE: You are not a failure. Trust yourself and your intuition. Empower the ever-shifting circumstances you may find yourself/selves in…home, hospital, boat, hotel….
MUTHA: What do you hope for the future of our culture and industry surrounding birth in North America?
BRONWYN PREECE: North America requires a new lexicon of birth that de-colonizes the ‘modern’ practices which have become viewed as ’traditional’: birth is not an industry. Simple. I hope for a diminishment of a perpetuated fear around pregnancy and birth. Women are systematically distanced from their bodies in North American culture, and therefore are losing their intuitive ability to know how to respond to their (potentially) empowered sense of self. We need to welcome a continual questioning of our institutionalizing of the birth process (both on the level of doctors and midwives) and ensuring that among a myriad of imbricated notions, they include, inclusivity, accessibility, equality, dynamism, fluidity, respect, nurturing, intuition, honour…
Bronwyn Preece is a writer and improvisational performance artist. She is author of the children’s books Gulf Islands Alphabet and the upcoming Off-the-Grid Kid, and the pioneer of earthBODYment: an eco-somatic exploratory approach to immersion with our surrounding world. Bronwyn holds a MA and BFA in Applied Theatre and is currently pursuing a PhD. She performs and gives workshops internationally. She lives in a land cooperative in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia that she helped to establish in 2000.
An Excerpt from In The Spirit of Homebirth:
by Dawn Marsden
I am a woman of two ancestries, Ojibway and French on both sides—mixed for the last six hundred years. The women in our family have always been strong, independent, and—some would say—stubborn. I was raised off reserve, at first between a military base and a cabin in northern Manitoba, and then, since 1968, in a small town in Sto:lo Traditional Territory. I became a member of the “Westcoast Ojibway,” one of the “over-the-mountains people” who fell in love with the lands and people of BC and now call this place home.
I was close to my grandmother, my mom’s mom. While I helped her card, spin, and wind her wool, she would tell me about her own grandmother, who was a midwife and delivered her and all of her ten siblings. She said she was an Indian woman from Chippewa Falls. When I checked the museum there, they didn’t even have a name for her, she was just “an Indian woman from Eau Claire.”
My dad was raised by his grandma, who was herself the local healer and midwife, and who is the ancestress of hundreds of people from Mnjikaning First Nation. They lived in a shack by the railway, and Dad was responsible for picking the medicines and getting the water and firewood. There’s a story of my grandma walking across frozen Lake Couchiching to deliver a baby for one of the white women in Orillia. Due in part to these family connections, I have great respect for midwives. When the time came to have my children, I was determined to have natural childbirth, with their help
I’m one of those people whose dreams come true, so I dreamt of my children before I had them. I have two children—the older a focused intellectual boy, the younger an energetic and creative girl. For about five years before I had my son, I dreamed of a grizzly bear following me, teasing me, attacking my male friends, laughing at me, courting me, and sleeping next to me. Those dreams went away once I got pregnant.
I conceived a few years after a handsome Pict convinced me I would make a great mother. My son was conceived the night I walked on fire. I felt a blossoming in my womb, and I knew, and was excited that I was pregnant. My daughter was conceived after days of synchronicity and camaraderie at a conference discussing the protection of Indigenous knowledge with people from around the world. Again I felt the butterfly and knew my little girl was coming.
My firstborn came at a time when I was exploring what it meant to be of both French and Anishnabek ancestry at university, supported by friends at the Native Student Union and among the Kwagiulth community. My dearest Kwagiulth friend agreed to be with me at my birth and, as a nurse, told me about the Lamaze method and the La Leche organization.
At the time, midwives were still fighting for the right to deliver babies in BC, and the right to homebirths wasn’t even being discussed. I knew that I wanted to deliver naturally, but agreed to use one of the birthing rooms at the hospital in Victoria, designed to make women feel more at home during delivery. I went to the hospital at midnight and my doctor said I wasn’t dilated enough and she’d have a nurse wake her later. At 3 a.m. she came bustling into the room, annoyed at being woken and assuming a false alarm. After breathing and allowing my body to contract without resistance, I was fully dilated. My doctor wanted to break my water with what looked like a crochet hook, but I knew that it would break naturally. My son crowned and they had me stop pushing as the caul was removed from his head. My grandmother ￼￼￼￼￼had told me it was a sign of psychic ability. After three hours of labor and ten minutes of pushing, my son was born and looked up at me with his black, black eyes.
During full moon gatherings with Ojibway women, I had learned that if you want to ground a child’s life so they will have a sense of place, you should bury their placenta. With my nurse friend’s support, I was able to keep my son’s placenta in a fridge until I could freeze it at home. I was so energized that I couldn’t sleep, and when they took my baby away I was distraught, not knowing what they were doing, and demanded him back. They tried to tell me he was jaundiced and would need to stay in an incubator, but I had to remind them, with my nurse friend’s corroboration, that my son was of Ojibway and Palestinian descent and was a natural color. They brought him back and made me wait a couple hours before I could leave the hospital. By 7 a.m. the next morning, I was at home in bed, realizing suddenly that I wouldn’t be able to sleep in anymore.
The first time I slept after the birth, I had a dream about the grizzly bear I had been dreaming about before, and about my son being separated at birth from his grizzly bear Siamese twin. This dream gave me my son’s name, but it’s not my place to share it with you.
With my son’s father, I took my son and his placenta to a cliff by the ocean, and after smudging, we buried his placenta with some prayers of gratitude, commitment, and requests for assistance for his life.
My pregnancy with my daughter was supported by my classmates, who journeyed with me through the changes. One classmate offered his skills as a ceremonial midwife. I tried to get to know him, but with full-time studies, preparation for my daughter, and meetings with my midwife, I didn’t have time to work with him.
Three days before my daughter was due, I wrote my dissertation exams at home on the University of British Columbia campus. Midway through, I felt some twinges and thought I was going into labor. A few days later, on my due date, my son went to stay with my niece, and another niece came over to visit with her boyfriend. At about 10 p.m. I started contractions and called my midwife. She arrived at 11 p.m. and I made tea for her. At midnight, I decided to go lie down and ten minutes later realized I had to push and called the midwife. Ten minutes later, my daughter was born and I was amazed how different and how delicate she felt compared to my son. After freezing the placenta and calling my son with the news, I fell asleep with my new daughter at my side. The next day my friend arrived from the island to help me for the next two weeks.
That fall I was to travel to my Traditional Territory, where I would provide feast food and do a small giveaway for people who would assist me with the burial of my daughter’s placenta. I gathered a cooler’s worth of traditional feast foods and put them in the freezer. That night I dreamed of people working at the airport who had taken the cooler of feast food, and who were frying up my daughter’s placenta because they thought it was some kind of delicacy. The next morning I forgot about the dream and taped up the cooler with duct tape for the flight. When we arrived in Toronto, the cooler was gone, along with my daughter’s placenta, just like in my dream. While I was initially upset, I realized that perhaps my daughter—being of two worlds—was destined not to be grounded in one land.
When I became pregnant with my daughter, I told her father right away, and he gave me his grandfather’s flax skirt as a gift for her. Over the next few months we talked of the similarities between our people’s stories and traditions (Maori and Ojibway), and he wrote to me of the acknowledgment ceremony our daugh￼￼￼ter would have when presented to the marae. He offered me a choice of his mother or grandmother’s name for her second name, and one or both of his names for her last name. Together we decided on a name that had meaning in both Maori and Ojibway languages, and agreed to use my last name in conjunction with one of his. Over time, and after several trips to New Zealand, my daughter’s grandmother shared her whakapapa (her lineage) with me and our families became closer. In the last year, her father drowned while diving for abalone, and so we must maintain the ties without him.
Our little family is strong in the traditions and stories of more than three family lines, and strong with the help of hundreds of relations in BC, Ontario, New Zealand, and elsewhere. It is the relationships to the land, the waters, and the people that ground us, make us human, and teach us to be good people. Birthing is the first passage in life and is the first opportunity to be connected through ceremonies, names, languages, and helpers, to all our relations. It’s our responsibility as Mothers to make this happen.
Dawn Marsden is an Indigenous health researcher, holds a PhD, and has worked for the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO).
Illustrations are drawn by Mike Medaglia and reprinted from In the Spirit of Homebirth with permission of Seven Stories Press.