Frequently in my clinic, the phone will ring, and the prospective patient on the other end of the line says something like this: “I’m 3 days past my due date, and my doctor is pressuring me to induce labor in the next few days. I hear you can help.”
As a practitioner, I must admit that this is my least favorite kind of new patient call. As a doula for the last 15 years, and an acupuncturist who is deeply passionate about supporting women throughout the childbearing cycle, the last minute frenzy of trying to beat the clock (so a woman isn’t forced into less-than-desirable medical intervention) really gets under my skin. This is true for me for a few reasons.
First and foremost, I feel for the patient. The unknown abyss that is the onset of labor (and the process of birthing) is often fraught with a multitude of fears. Add to it the stressors of a diminishing maternity leave (for the many whose leave starts even before they give birth), to the schedules of doctors, husbands and in-flying-in-laws. By the time a woman’s due date comes and goes she is often feeling pressure from all directions, except the one that counts the most. To make matters worse, helping a woman understand the absurdity of due dates in the first place (read more about that here) is nearly impossible at this eleventh hour, as she has already succumbed to the fight or flight of being “late” for this very important date.
As a master’s student, I was indoctrinated in the philosophy that Inferior medicine treats the disease, Mediocre medicine treats the body and Superior medicine treats the spirit. Chapter 8 of the Ling Shu tells us that: “Every needling method must be rooted in Shen” and “All treatment must be based on the spirit.” (source)
Yet, for reasons that continue to elude me, we as a profession have veered away from this ideal when it comes to treating reproductive issues, from fertility to childbirth. I am as guilty of this as anyone, as I spent my early years in practice following protocols from every randomized controlled study, following TCM point prescriptions and chasing symptoms.
Over time, I began to feel the disparate quality of this type of acupuncture in contrast to my work as a doula, where every moment with a woman in labor (or preparing for the big day) was about working with her emotions, her body, her spirit and her mind to help her; not only in the journey of childbirth, but parenthood as well. Through this awareness, I began to practice from a place of preparing my patients for labor from as early on in pregnancy as I possibly could.
As practitioners of Chinese Medicine, we have a rare and precious opportunity to infuse our patients with a balanced nervous system, a clear mind and a rooted spirit. When it comes to modern day pregnancy, this takes TIME. Today’s pregnant woman is subject to all of the stressors of modern life, and then some. As her due date approaches, she is faced with an onslaught of unexpected new challenges, from offhanded comments about how ‘big’ her baby is, how ‘low’ her fluid is, how much weight she’s put on. The implications that a woman’s body is somehow inadequate for the task of managing the physiological challenges of childbirth (without the assistance of modern obstetric interventions- gasp!) abound. Women are indoctrinated in the notion that they cannot birth, will not birth, without major help from the medical realm.
In fact, this will be true for many. Not because they want it that way, but because they know no other way. As acupuncturists, we have an incredibly unique opportunity to bring awareness about the birth process to our patients, especially when we bring them into the fold of consciousness surrounding the birth process as early as we can. The reason why I keep harping on this early in pregnancy thing is because it really matters. The earlier they start, the more we can help them to understand the importance of finding the right care provider, for example. Whole-term obstetric treatment also allows us to assist in the maintenance of our patient’s autonomic nervous system- to keep them out of sympathetic up-regulation, and enfolded in the belief system that their bodies carry within all they need to birth.
Please don’t get me wrong- I am by no means a natural-childbirth vigilante. I just happen to believe (and I see it over and over again in practice) that most women want the opportunity to birth on their own terms, whatever those terms may be. For many, with the right education, preparation and intent, being allowed to go into labor naturally, being absolved of the notion that their bodies are somehow defunct and that they can’t do it without help, is enough to make them want to give natural birth a shot. Still, best-laid plans can often go awry, and flexibility remains the order of the day. Nevertheless, when a woman’s labor requires medical intervention for the sake of the baby’s health, or her own, there is no room for regret when the journey was started from a place of conscious intent.
So, when I get those calls, I take them. Of course I do. In those brief few visits I do all I can to bring consciousness to the process, to infuse her with a sense of self-awareness and confidence that she has what she needs. Then, I do what must be done and treat the symptoms, but I root these treatments in a context of whole-ness, and I always address the spirit.
It is with sincere hope that more practitioners will become aware of the value in treating a woman’s spirit throughout her pregnancy, encouraging and supporting her to come to her birth fully prepared for the journey on which she is about to embark, both in birth and in parenthood.