I asked myself this question as I drove home from a birth last week. I was particularly curious because this time I knew I was missing that climactic moment of delivery; when in unmedicated births the air is thick with oxytocin, tension finally breaks and there are tears of relief, joy and love. Even in complicated or surgical births this is a magical moment- when parents finally see their child face-to-face, a mother's pregnancy is done, and waiting is over. As transcendent and euphoric and addictive those minutes are, I know that's not only it. In this recent birth I regretfully missed that victorious act, yet still I felt bouyant, pulled back to the experience, and truly enjoyed being there for this woman's labour. Most of the births I have witnessed and attended to I'm tied to by family, love and at least friendship. I care about the mothers, the families, and the babies being born. But still, there's something about the stories I love to read, the videos and the knowledge I seek. I'm drawn to it magnetically, I want to experience it more. Birth work is a difficult world to live in: long, inconvenient hours, unpredictability, being on call. Too much for me to arrange for regularly with my life of small children. But there's the feeling that if I was called at the drop of a hat to come to a birth happenening now it would be a resounding YES. And I'm obsessed with it enough that I need to paint it, re-create it to represent all the meaning I find in it. What is it? Why do I think is it so cool?
I think one reason is the rare experience of witnessing the mysterious 'stripping away' that often happens in labour. Quite literally, a woman has layers of inhibition fall away like the clothes she often discards as labour progresses. It's fascinating and moving to watch a woman turn inward, to lose her concern for others and the world around her, to say exactly what she wants, to become attuned to only her own body her baby. It's an honour to be present for these intimate acts. While it feels a bit voyeuristic to enjoy watching this, it's also humbling and awesome every time. It's simply amazing to see a woman's body perform such a monumental task so gloriously and glow with power and energy as it does in labour. Many women shed their clothing, and it's that rare we allow people other than lovers/partners/spouses or children to see us nude, especially naked and uninhibited. It's a wonderful thing! As a figure artist, of course, I love the figure- the body, the human form, the flesh. Sure, artists have more than average opportunity to see people naked, but even models are usually inhibited. A labouring woman is not- and her body is an amazing thing. The extra weight a woman usually puts on in pregnancy is not treated with loathing (hopefully), her curves are magnified and her body is doubly infused with life. She's created a human being inside her, and the transformative process of brining it forth is happening before your eyes. In a 'good' birth, a woman can work with her body to cope with the sensations, to move as it needs to, to bend and stretch and open and release. Being present at a birth means getting to observe things society rarely is privy to- this emerging of a new person, a mother's body rippling and shining with exertion, her working with or against her physiology, tapping into her animalistic nature, retreating into herself, expressing emotion and feeling openly. It's really, truly awesome. I need to paint it because I want the world to see that power, that beauty and that strength that a woman has, but I know it needs to be respected and protected in order to emerge in labour. A labouring woman is beautiful, and while most women probably don't feel glamourous or pretty as they're moaning, sweating and grunting, I would argue that in fact, they are stunning.
Of course, there's also the spiritual dimension that I recognize is such a powerful part of birth. Labour and birth time is sacred- it's set apart, it's outside of regular time. Often labour starts and a woman continues normal activity until she needs to focus. Once attendants are called or she goes to a center or hospital, it seems to remove from 'regular' time. Everything is suspended, and it was once believed (and still is) that as a woman is bringing new life into the world she is hanging between the states of death and life; that she is especially connected to the spiritual realm. No matter what you believe or your religous affiliation, I think this aspect of birth is often unappreciated. I feel that there is a 'holiness' surrounding birth, that it's sacred- of special meaning and honour. We know that we can't truly control birth, it's a physiological function but it's also an experience- one that can shape and change us. We tap into our inmost selves, we rely on God, we listen to our bodies, our hearts and we communicate with a child within us. Many meditate to cope with labour, others re-think their belief system after becoming parents. My personal beliefs cause me to feel birth is a 'holy ground', and that we are brought a little closer to God as our hearts are pulled by life forces.
Birth is also simply awesome. To consider what our female bodies do in order to bring forth a child, to think about how we've grown a human being, to realize that this new thing is a PERSON....what? Unbelievable. We, women, get to do this- get to grow life. Our pelvises, our breasts, our uteruses are awesome- amazing! Of course, arms and fingers are cool too; I'm pretty captivated by the human body, but women are pretty fantastic.
To be serious, there are so many thing I love about birth. The emotional high. The uniting of mother and child outside the womb, who've been together for so long but had to go through a body-and-heart-wrenching process first. The euphoric moment I referred to earlier- when a woman's work is rewarded and she grasps her child and hugs him to her breast, often sobbing, shocked, ecstatic, stunned. It's over-the-top, messy and fulfilling. It's about mystery- the way our bodies are so perfectly designed, the unveiling of the child that's been so close, but so hidden for months and months. It's about the mystery of something so basic, so intricate, so uncontrollable but so common. It's often about the victory over fear, doubt and pain. Of course, and yet unmentioned, it's that about that strange wrinkled creature who's head is so soft and breath so intoxicatinly sweet and fruity.
The list goes on, the reasons birth is so profound are numerous. Different people would answer that same question in different ways. But I think this is why I love it. Birth is awesome, and women are great. They mystery, the stripping, and the strength. And of course that incredible climax of reunification...the sweet reward of great patience.