Living WildRhea Dempsey
Childbirth Educator, Speaker,
Counsellor, Birth Attendant
Women going into labour with confidence in their body,
confidence in their support people, plus the knowledge
to give them the best possibility of natural birth.
Physical Education and Outdoor Education Teacher
Changing the face of birth, one baby at a time
Rhea Dempsey is a well-known childbirth educator, speaker, counsellor and birth attendant with experience at over one thousand births.
I came across Rhea’s work when my women’s circle leader lent me a signed copy of “Birth with Confidence – Savvy choices for normal birth.” I was 16 weeks pregnant and packing up my house, ready to start a job in Denmark. As I wasn’t able to attend any of Rhea’s Melbourne workshops, her book became my bible and I took it with me all around Europe.
I was quite militant that I was having a natural birth and I insisted that my support crew of husband and mother-in-law read the book too. The outcome? They were incredibly robust during my labour and did not give me a scrap of sympathy!
That was over two years ago, and while I’m not planning another child anytime soon, I decided to re-read Birth with Confidence. I found it incredibly healing and for the first time experienced self-compassion for my behaviour in transition. This was when things got ugly and I started negotiating for Panadol.
I had deliberately chosen independent midwives that didn’t even have access to the real drugs, but I had seen a box of Panadol in the bathroom cupboard and oh, how I wanted it! My midwives, perhaps a little bit intimidated by my dictatorship-style birth plan, did not give in to me either.
I spoke to Rhea via Skype on a bright sunshiney Spring morning. It was such a privilege to talk with her about men in the birthing suite, unravelling in a crisis of confidence, and embracing the primal woman.
I see natural childbirth as a rite of passage – something all women anticipate and fear and look forward to for much of their lives. All in-hospital ante-natal classes that I know of talk about the benefits of a natural birth and that interventions are a last resort. So before the labour starts, most birthing women, their partners and the hospital all advocate trying for a natural birth. And yet, Australia has some of the highest rates of intervention globally. This doesn’t make sense to me. What are some of the factors at play?
They are cultural, they are structural and they are dominated by an obstetric/medical framework of birth, which is becoming not only more medicalized but more technologically driven. Sadly, a lot of the decisions around birth are also made with regards to the bottom line. In Australia, we have both the state and the federal budgets funding birth so there’s this cost shifting that happens. For instance, I never know quite which way it is, but the time women spent in the labour ward is funded by the federal budget with the post-natal funded by the State (or vice versa). To cost shift, the staff want to get women through labour faster, to get them into post-natal quickly so somebody else pays for that. But then they want to get women out of postnatal quickly so they are saving money there, and we see that reflected in terms of short stays. Some of these cost factors play into the perfect storm, undermining the philosophy of natural birth.
Midwives are the natural caretakers of normal physiological birth, but in fact in Australia, the medical hierarchy, the unseen and seen power, is obstetric – so midwives, even though midwives are autonomous practitioners in their own right, in most hospitals in doesn’t quite work like that in the unwritten rules. I mean there are feisty midwives that push all those limits but it’s a difficult gig for them, and so midwives are often overridden.
My particular passion is about the cultural message of pain in childbirth. The cultural messages around childbirth are really pulling the rug out from under women, because they have these negative messages that it’s too much, or they don’t have to be martyrs or they should be comfortable.
The cultural message that women in Australia get are around the Three Cs:
- that women should be Comfortable in birth
- birth should be Convenient and
- birth should be Controlled.
Those three things underpin our culture and now it’s become possible to even have that way of thinking. Firstly because of the epidural that is the seduction of the comfort – we know that it hijacks almost everything else but it can fulfil that promise of comfort.
The use of synthetic hormones to start and speed up and finish birth can provide the convenience, as well as the elective Caesar rate which is 20%, can give that illusion that we can decide when we have our babies and make it all convenient. They also play into the aspect about control.
I’ve been around birth for so long and so I am attuned to what the nuances of the messages are.
One of the things I find so sad now and I hear it a lot in my birth debriefing, is that so many women feel strongly that they want to, or that they must be in control of themselves while they are labouring.
They feel they must be in control of what they are doing, how they are acting, the sounds they are making. Not just controlling when the birth is going to happen and how it’s going to be and how it’s going to work out by those technologies, but somehow that’s now translated to women not just wanting to be a good patient or quiet or whatever. There is just no space for the Primal Woman who knows what she’s doing with birthing, to enter into the whole thing at all.
These are some of the factors that are playing into it, and I talk about it a bit with the idea of a perfect storm.
A little bit of this, a little bit of that, unintended here, unintended there but what we get is this discrepancy between what supposedly the philosophy is and what the actual outcome is.
How do you keep on keeping on in the face of such a dominant attitude?
I’ve been privileged really through most of my years in birth work to work in the home birth scene where of course we are seeing a differing story, we are seeing how birth can be.
Where I am up against battles in the hospital or where I know the mother, the family and the whole situation, and I am expecting that it should go so beautifully, and then it gets hijacked one way or another – Then I think, I need another homebirth to nurture me, to feel that possibility and exuberance about how birth can be.
Also I guess, I’m a grandmother now and one of the things about being a grandmother – it’s so clichéd I know, but it’s not clichéd when you learn it yourself – your sense of the future just goes another generation out. For me, I’m passionate about birth, but I’m also focusing on what will it be like for my granddaughter and all of that fires up that feeling that there’s still a lot to be done.
I still have a voice to be talking, I’m still engaged and involved. I can’t let it go really.
You mention being the good patient in hospital I wonder what you think about whole concept of being rescued and doing what the man in a white coat says, and refusing to engage in the ultimate feminine and primal act of childbirth. Is this actually a symptom of our wider experience of being woman in a patriarchal society and not just about childbirth?
Yes, absolutely. I feel there’s this need for women to control themselves, and so they are not touching into the deep feminine or the deep rhythms of their nature, finding the Primal Woman who knows what she’s doing in birth. Rather, there are these control mechanisms about how women need to be.
I’m old enough to have been around the second wave of feminists with women finding their way out into the world through a male pathway – what work is and how to be in that work space. They were wanting to separate from mum at home and all that represented, so I think we are still stuck a bit in this awkward, difficult space that we are negotiating between wanting to have that place in that world, which is still a patriarchal and male-dominated scene. But not yet having a way for that to be a really feminised way.
We haven’t quite got it right yet and birth is right at the centre of that intersection.
Becoming that mother, then do we become our mothers? We don’t want to be our mothers in the ways that they were confined, but if we are strongly wanting that model of that more male way, which might work well creating our place out in the world, but it doesn’t work very well in that birth space. The power model, the hierarchy – it’s still quite male dominated. It’s not easy for a woman to negotiate and navigate all of that.
No it’s not easy. Regarding a Crisis of Confidence, you write that “what happens at this point is actually up to who is supporting her and what they are going to do about it. Because if it’s left to the birthing woman now, it’s a done deal – breathing is out, and drugs or an epidural are in.”* Australian Hospitals do have unusually high intervention rates, but you make an interesting point here that even with a willing birthing woman, pain dynamics can and will take over and that the woman’s choice of her support team is vital to keep her on her natural birth plan. Can you talk to me more about that?
I guess I’m premising it on that cultural message women get told – and it’s embedded in her back brain too, as well as in her mother and her partner and whoever else is in that birth space – that she could be comfortable. So when she’s reaching those points in her labour – those beautiful, fantastic points in the labour when the whole thing is intensifying and going beautifully and efficiently and we should celebrate them as moments of triumph of moving forward and shifting into that next intensity – instead, it’s framed in terms of pain and then we get into that place of “We don’t like it, we don’t want to”, and then that unravelling can happen with what I call a crisis of confidence.
The mother, at that point, thinks about the cultural messages “People are telling me I can be comfortable, I don’t have to be a martyr”. Labouring is not really valued and going through those points of intensity are not valued. That’s a belief strongly held in the wider community, so whoever is with the mother has that mindset too. Right at the point when mothers feel that vulnerability, often she’s supported by her partner, her mother or best friend, who get caught in a sympathy loop with her. “Oh the poor thing, it’s too much. Yes, yes what people are saying is true, that it’s too much.” Then they support that part of her that is in that dissolve.
Rather than people that are experienced in birth, who see these as points of beautiful movement into that intensity, that need to be reminded and held and supported.
Really, a crisis of confidence that is beautifully supported lasts 3 – 5 contractions, so not very long, but they are crucial because if they are not supported, the drug pathways come in and then that whole cascade of interventions gets going. So it’s really important for women to choose people who have experience for supporting the tough gig of labour.
Another thing that happens is that we are blurring the roles of support people.
(Laughs) That’s my next question – go on!
It’s not even one complete generation in and it’s only in small pockets of affluent countries where it even still happens that fathers are present at the birth. It’s transformational in terms of social structures that fathers have been present at birth. We are seeing such strong, beautiful change that’s coming with those waves of fathers wanting to be nurturing, connected, loving fathers of those babies and small children, separate to that 50s fathering model of being provider fathers who were not really very connected. We see this shift now of fathers being present at birth and surprise surprise, are falling in love with their babies! So that’s absolutely brilliant!
But, and the recent research is starting to look into is, the intervention rates have been going through the roof since fathers have been present at birth.
I think we ask a lot of them – culturally, for decades, ions of our human history, it’s been women’s space, women’s business. And we’ve placed men in this rarefied atmosphere with rarefied energy and expect that they will have all of this DNA information in them about how to be there, and to know what to do. We are asking a lot of them. It’s not so great for them and it’s not working out so well in terms of what’s happening with the birth.
We do a disservice to fathers and we do a disservice to birth because women are choosing their male partner over a closer bond or relationship with an experienced woman – either a midwife or someone else in their circle experienced in birth – and then what can happen in the birth, is that they both start drowning.
Ideally women would be thinking about who is going to be helpful to support them in the work of the intense labouring – it’s called labour for a reason!
Then there are the people who are going to be part of the loving circle around the baby when it is born – of course the father, of course the grandmother, all of those people to love and welcome the baby.
But they are not necessarily the only people to be there for the work of the labour. That’s some of the blurring. Yes, you want your partner or other friends or family there to welcome the baby, but they get all caught up with what’s happening with the birth, without any experience on how to be in that space or how to boost the mother’s potential for a normal birth.
A lot of midwives say that it’s at the point when the partner starts to become distressed that often the epidural comes in. We might say that this is the woman trying to take care of her support people. Or that sympathy comes into the situation – the mother feels sympathy for herself and people around her feeling sympathy too that “It’s all too much, it’s all too hard.”
We are not tempered with the experience of being around birth, seeing the hard work of it and seeing the celebration of it.
You are in service to women at such a wild, primal time in their life. What’s the most beautiful part about the work that you do?
That “wild and primal time” is generally starting to be expressed at those points of Crisis of Confidence. Another way of talking about the crisis of confidence is the unravelling of the ego, the unravelling of the civilized, 21st century, latte-sipping, chic woman. The unravelling of those outer aspects.
What we are seeing, particularly with first births, is that Primal Woman is often coming out a bit scared, a bit not knowing and trusting her strength, a bit not knowing the territory. Of course in our cultures, often she’s been wounded by a whole lot of other things, and when Primal Woman is starting to come out, often it’s expressed as that crisis of confidence that “I can’t do it” or “It’s taking me somewhere I don’t want to go.”
Being in that space for me is holding sacred those unravelling moments; that this is the pathway, this is the territory of that unravelling.
That opening of the heart and opening of that deeper strength within to birth that mother, at the same time while I am helping birth that baby.
I mean really, what could be more privileged?
You give a lot to birthing woman and also in trying to change our birth culture. How do you replenish yourself?
Generally, I’ve had a good strong body – I used to be a physical education and outdoor education teacher so generally I do a lot of physical activity so that’s always really helpful.
I’m well nurtured by my own family, and the deliciousness of grandchildren, who would have thought that could be so delicious and nurturing?!
Those of us that are in the birth space are really supportive of each other, because we feel that need to lean into others that feel that passion. There is lots of space to lean in when you feel you need to or take everyone forward when you can. Also, those of us that do this work are pretty skilled at nurturing and reasonably skilled at self-nurture so it’s all pretty good.
Tell me about the success of your book, Birth with Confidence.
I’ve been so thrilled about the book, in ways that I haven’t really understood would happen.
One is, it seems to be well received and useful so that’s wonderful. It does justice to all of those thousand or more babies and what they have taught me in all of those births. Plus those thousands of hours hanging out in that rarefied atmosphere. So that’s beautiful to do that justice.
Secondly, in situations where people don’t know anything about birth, but somehow they know what I do and then something about a book comes up. “Oh you’ve written a book! What have you written a book about? Oh that must be so hard!”
People are so revering of books, even in this technology age when you can just about download anything. There is something about honouring the work of it all.
I’ve been quite taken and surprised with all the acknowledgement. That makes me feel quite proud and grateful.
And rightly so! You’ve attended more than 1000 births. That has to change a person…
It has to change a person, it has to change a person. It’s just so privileged to be in that energy, that possibility, that transformative possibility of woman to mother, mother to one or mother to two. Often it’s that transformation too of man to father that’s happening when he’s well supported to be in that birth in that way, plus those babies coming into that loving embrace.
We talk about being oxytocin junkies being in that Lovingness – I coined that term Lovingness, it doesn’t exist but I think it should be in the Macquarie dictionary! You just can’t describe what it’s like to be in those spaces when that oxytocin is pumping! It’s like a thick haze that you are all in. It’s heart-warming, it’s heart opening, it’s probably good for our physical health and well-being, I’m sure.
And there’s this opening too of what we might call the spiritual – the mystery of opening those channels, of those little beings coming into the world.
It’s just 100% brilliant! A brilliant thing to be doing and spending your time doing!
My daughter was born on the eve of a full moon exactly on her due date. Do you find there is a connection with the moon and your work?
Not always, of course now with all the inductions and things happening those connections are being lost. New moons, full moons and storms, we tend get these clusters of births. For those of us on call, we will have a number of women due at the same time so on paper you are trying to space them out, but then a full moon comes in and they are not spaced out at all!
There still is this connection to this natural world which may become more tenuous because women are not necessarily cycling with the moon anymore.
It’s more controlled now about when we are menstruating or not menstruating with the pill and other technologies. Of course there are brilliant, brilliant things that have happened with these so-called advances, but there is loss as well. Maybe over time we’ll lose that connection with birth and those full moons. But your baby was pretty well on the case!
It was no surprise to me that she was born on her due date, but it was a surprise to all the women around me. My cycle had shifted about 4 months earlier to be in synch with the moon – ovulating on the full and bleeding on the dark.
In mainstream, people are not thinking at all in terms of the moon. Certainly, some of us are still thinking about it, but menstruation, babies and birth are being viewed quite separately now to the moon.
Yeah, which I find sad. Rhea, if you were in a position to lead a group of women, to lead them into a life more wild, a life more feminine, what would your battle cry be?
Embrace… Embrace the wildness. Embrace the dissolving. Embrace the unravelling.
Rhea is working on a new book, due out in 2018. We’ll be sure to share all the details with you!
*Dempsey, R. 2013. Birth with Confidence, Savvy choices for normal birth. Australia: Boat House Press. p.137
I need to hear more stories about strong women leading beauty-filled and spiritual lives, and so I created Empress Crow and Rabbit. It’s a forum to showcase the inspirational stories of women in uniquely feminine careers. It's also a bridge between what we think we know and what we feel is right. Thank you for joining me – let’s all learn, grow and celebrate the feminine together.
Photo credit: Lucy Spartalis