Berry Liberman on Rhea Dempsey
We could all agree that the best outcome of labour is a healthy mum and bub. That’s a no brainer. There is, however, a rather huge journey to get to that point and a hell of a lot of politics in between.
In the Western world, birth has become highly medicalised and intervention is the modus operandi. Most people nowadays would argue that it doesn’t matter how you give birth, as long as the outcome is perfect. A woman’s choice of how to birth her baby gets heatedly battled out on blogs, forums and in the playground. Judgement, anger and fear surround this topic and very rarely do empowerment, joy and pride factor in.
One woman on the frontline of this debate and a passionate advocate for the natural birthing process is Rhea Dempsey. Known around the world for her earthy pragmatism as a birth support person and educator, she’s attended over 1000 births and knows a thing or two about how our attitudes to birth can be better.
The journey began for her after the birth of her first child in London, when her natural instincts were at odds with hospital protocols. Made to ride in an ambulance, hooked up to a drip despite her protestations, given an episiotomy she didn’t want and separated from her baby when she wanted to be near her, Rhea discharged herself and her baby early, uneasy about her experience. A physical education teacher, she was used to thinking of her body as a strong and capable friend. So began a 30 year career change which saw Rhea become one of the most revered birth attendants in Australia.
When I spoke with Rhea, I was 37 weeks pregnant with my third child. My previous labours were long and biblical. My husband and I trained for them as if for a marathon. Months of mediation, natural birthing courses and pelvic floor preparation. It paid off for my first two. I went into them eyes wide open, aware of the challenges and completely blind to the reality. The outcomes were extraordinary. I experienced my own strength in a way that surprised me. They were empowering experiences that were less about pain and more about my rite of passage as a mother.
Ironically, after my conversation with Rhea, I endured two days of labour before I had to be wheeled in for a caesarian. At that point we all agreed that a perfect outcome rather than a perfect birth was what we wanted. That’s what I got. The anaesthetised, weirdness of surgery followed by weeks of slow recovery with a new baby… I had to conclude that this was not the preferred option. So why do we do it? Why does everyone think it’s perfectly normal? More curiously, why do other mums look at me like I’m a total weirdo for wanting a drug free birth?
Rhea Dempsey is one of these rare guardians of the primal space between mother and baby. She’s all about being ‘with woman’ at her most powerful and profound.
And for those of us who are game to try it, there aren’t many people left who will walk into the wild with us. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to be reclaimed, some kind of knowledge and connection that’s been forgotten. We’ve lost the art of singing our babies into this world. It begs the question – what else have we lost in the process?