Written By: Rachel Brown
My first exposure to birth videography was in my sophomore health class when we watched the “The Miracle of Life.” In the heat of adolescence we went from absolutely zero exposure to birth to a shot of a crowning baby suddenly filling the screen. It was too much for our pubescent minds. My classmates collectively cried out in disgust as the baby emerged and the soccer coach who taught 10th grade health did a gleeful impression of a doctor performing an episiotomy. I left class that day thoroughly revolted and convinced I was never having children.
In the time that’s passed since then, I have recovered from the awkwardness of 10th grade health class and become an advocate for empowered birth. I was lucky to have the talented Sarah Asay attend the births of both my children and create thoughtful, beautiful films that documented some of the most significant moments in my human experience. Having my births filmed was something I never expected to do, and the impact it had on me was also unexpected. Watching my own and other films that the Touch of Life has created has helped me understand why seeing that video in my health class was so jarring and unpleasant. I believe there is a great need for intelligent, respectful birth videography to teach us and heal us as a society.
In our culture, we tend to be disconnected from our bodies and their functionality. Many of us are disconnected from the normalcy, sensuality, and spirituality of birth. I believe that attending births or viewing empowered birth is healing for us in ways we may not even be conscious of. Many of us bear invisible wounds caused by fear—fear of failing, fear of losing control, fear of pain, fear of the unknown.
Without understanding why, we anticipate birth as an unknown terror we must be dragged through if we desire to have a family. The common cultural conceptualization of birth is something that is done to us, not from us. I believe when we witness a fearless birth, regardless of location or circumstances, it calls to the place in our souls that knows who we really are and we recognize our own strength.
Besides inspiring confidence in future birthing women, watching births validates our humanity. Birth stories that are respectfully and lovingly filmed teach our souls that it’s okay to be vulnerable; it’s okay to experience wild, primal emotions. It’s okay to experience sensations that are more intense than anything you’ve ever felt before, and it’s okay to cry and move and groan or shout in a way that seems right to you in the moment. It’s okay to need others to hold you and support you. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s even okay if your insecurities and worries bubble to the top of your throat and you share more than you had expected to—birth calls out the truth, and it is the truth we should honor, not our “marketable selves”. Seeing yourself in that honest way, stripped of any pretense, will make you feel acceptance and love for yourself you might not have thought possible. For me, birthing my son filled me with an undeniable sense of my own power and worth, and I am reminded every time I watch his film that I’m a person who is strong, whose intuition is wise, who is worth listening to. I became a mother after a maelstrom of intensity. I felt like a child, and I also felt like a warrior. I was able to acknowledge that I was a human being who would always require support from others, but I had also never felt so firmly that I was a human being with incredible strength. Watching the birth of my son on film was essential to my processing and developing insight about my experience.
Seeing a birth film can facilitate healing if a birth was experienced as frightening or traumatic by integrating the neutral raw footage with the mother’s internal perception. Since we give birth from a primal zone and not a cognitive zone, our memories of the event can sometimes be distorted. Some women feel shame, sadness, or anger about aspects of the birth. Seeing the film allows them to create a reframe of their experience. One friend shared that her impression of her child’s birth was that she was shouting uncontrollably and bellowing like an animal, only to realize with shock upon viewing her film that she had been utterly silent the entire time. Another good friend experienced a complication in her birth that caused her to feel terribly disappointed and victimized. When she was ready, she watched her birth film and to her surprise she didn’t see a victim whatsoever—she saw a woman who faced hours of difficult labor with tremendous courage, who “talked back” to her contractions, sang and lost herself doing lunges in the birth tub when she was already beyond exhausted. Because the film provided more nuance than her memory of the events, she gained a perspective that aided her in beginning to release her pain.
Birth films are important because they teach children that birth is a normal life event. They also demonstrate the intensity of birth in a way that children can connect with and appreciate. As a play therapist, I strongly believe that children are empowered when we tell them the truth in a way they can understand. It shows that we trust them and think they are intelligent and capable. Locking birth away, making it something mysterious or thinking children can’t handle it, implies either that we think the child is inept, or that birth is something shameful or scary. Both of these perspectives are damaging to children. By making birth accessible to our children, by sharing with them the stories of their own births and of their siblings, by being willing to answer their questions with confidence, we de-mystify the process and instill a positive conceptualization of birth. Films that depict birth in a respectful, non graphic way but also celebrate the powerful emotions of the experience are an excellent tool for teaching children about birth in a way that is body positive and relationship-centered.
The child who probably will benefit most is the child whose birth story is told in the film, because they get to see how deeply they are loved, how the belly that cradled them was the whole world on that day. Thousands of women give birth every hour, but you are the only one giving birth to your baby. No matter how many times it happens, it is never ordinary, it is never commonplace. On the day of their birth, every child is the most important person in the world.
That day in my sophomore health class that I described earlier, we were given an image of a birth in which the woman and baby were merely objects used to demonstrate a bodily function. There was no context for the mother’s experience, no expansion in that film that included what she felt during her pregnancy and labor, no indication what this birth might mean to her. It felt barbaric to watch because it was a stark, reduced portrayal of an event that always, always is part of a bigger picture. A woman giving birth is a whole person. Her past, her relationships, her beliefs, doubts, fears and hopes all meld together within her experience of giving life.
The Touch of Life birth films are powerful precisely because the birth itself is framed inside of the larger context that tells a story of people who love each other welcoming a new soul. It is a minute documentary of a day that will never be again. We see what the world outside looked like on that day, stillness in the trees and blooming flowers, or fresh snow. We see the tender preparations for the new baby, ultrasound pictures tacked on the walls, carefully folded receiving blankets waiting softly for the little one. We get to see a husband braiding his wife’s hair as she rocks back and forth on the birth ball, a doula soberly holding a birthing woman through a hard surge, sporadic bursts of laughter. We see the expression on a new mother’s face as she realizes how much this is going to take, and then somehow finds the determination to keep going. There are tears, fervent affirmations, the break through to joy and relief when the baby finally comes and is clasped in loving arms. When we see births like this, we connect to what is shared, the shifting between lift and dark, anguish and ecstasy. We feel humbled by our own promise, what we are capable of. We remember that we are all we have. We honor the process that marked the beginning of light on the horizon for all of us, and by honoring it, we are healed, humbled, taught. We are given light again.