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Montessori and My Journey Through Childbirth Education

Julia of the blog A Little Bit of All of It has started a ten week series on preparing for birth, and her topic this week is Childbirth Education. She has invited other bloggers to write on their own experiences with childbirth preparation, a topic I realized I haven’t discussed much here. I’m grateful for the inspiration, and thought I’d take this opportunity to write about my own journey with childbirth education, which began long before I was considering pregnancy. A portion of this post is modified from a previous article on my old Montessori teacher blog, so if you’ve been with me since way back then, it may sound familiar. I’ll be back tomorrow for Keeping It Real, even if I am a day late!

For most of us, childbirth education begins long before adulthood. We may see women in our lives preparing for their own births and later hear them sharing their stories. Some of us may even have the honor of being present for the birth of a relative or loved one. Even those of us who are not around birthing women will see depictions of childbirth in television and movies, and all of this plays a role, whether we realize it or not, in our subconscious feelings about birth.

Image Credit: andreannaarambula on Flickr

Growing up, I was one of the oldest grandchildren in a fairly large extended family, so not only did I see my own mother go through two pregnancies, but there was often a pregnant aunt or more distant relative, and I even had the honor of witnessing the birth of one of my cousins in my teenage years. When TLC’s A Baby Story came out, it quickly became one of my favorite things to watch. It was there that I first encountered the idea of a water birth, and outside of that, I was accustomed only to medicalized birth in the hospital with pain medication. This seemed to work out fine for the women in my family, and for most of the families on television, so I never thought to consider another way.

Then came my introduction to Montessori philosophy. It was Dr. Montessori’s writing that first led me to consider a different way to birth. I was barely eighteen when I began reading The Secret of Childhood, and it was then that my idea of birth was completely turned upside down. Dr. Montessori writes,

But what care have men taken to assist the child as it makes the most difficult adjustment of all, that of passing from one mode of existence to another? At no other period in his life does man experience such a violent conflict and struggle, and consequent suffering, as at the time of birth…it has grown in a place where it was protected from all assaults, from every change of temperature, in a fluid created for its rest. And in an instant it has changed this dark and silent home for the hostile air… The doctor handles it without any particular regard, and when it starts to cry in desperation no one takes it seriously…

… a newborn child should not simply be shielded from harm, but measures should also be taken to provide for psychic adjustment to the world about it… The needs of a newborn child are not those of one who is sick but of one who is striving to adjust oneself physically and psychologically to new and strange surroundings.

Our attitude towards the newborn child should not be one of compassion but rather of reverence before the mystery of creation, that a spiritual being has been confined within limits perceptible to us. The manner in which we touch and move a child, and the delicacy of feeling which should inspire us at the time, makes us think of the gestures that a priest uses at the altar. His hands are purified, his motions are studied and thoughtful, and his actions take place in silence and in darkness that is penetrated only by a light that has been softened in its passage through stained glass windows. A feeling of hope and elevation pervades the sacred place. It is in surroundings such as these that the newborn child should live.

The first period of human life has not been sufficiently explored, and yet we are constantly becoming more aware of its importance. Hardships and privations in the first months of a child’s existence can, as we now know, influence the whole course of his future development. But if in the child are to be found the makings of the man, it is in the child also that the future welfare of the race is to be found.

Too little attention is paid to the newborn child that has just experienced the most difficult of human crises. When he appears in our midst, we hardly know how to receive him, even though he bears within himself a power to create a better world than that in which we live ourselves.

Of course what Montessori speaks of above is the newborn period, but I believe her words are also applicable to birth. She points out that, “At no other period in his life does man experience such a violent conflict and struggle, and consequent suffering, as at the time of birth…it has grown in a place where it was protected from all assaults, from every change of temperature, in a fluid created for its rest. And in an instant it has changed this dark and silent home for the hostile air…The doctor handles it without any particular regard, and when it starts to cry in desperation no one takes it seriously.”

It only makes sense to me that, if we have options that might allow us to prevent as much as possible the conflict and struggle inherent in many medically managed births, we ought to start our special care of the newborn there. If we can lessen the difficulty of the transition, let us do so. In most births, there is no reason why a doctor must be the first person to handle the infant. If we can, let us ensure that gentle, loving hands are the only ones that touch our newborn children.

It was this particular passage that led me down the path to learning about natural childbirth. Years before I would ever become pregnant, I was determined to offer my child the most gentle transition into the world that I possibly could.

Fast forward to two and a half years ago, and my experience with more formal childbirth education began, heavily influenced by the words of Dr. Montessori. While pregnant with Annabelle, I read the book HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method, and learned that birth did not need to be a painful or frightening event. I devoured Birthing from Within, and learned about the fascinating process of birth. Developing a respect for this process was so empowering! Next, I read Dr. Sears’ The Birth Book, which only added to my feeling of empowerment and excitement about giving birth naturally.

As the time for my daughter’s birth approached, I decided to take a more formal childbirth preparation course. I purchased the HypnoBabies home study course, and jumped in with a healthy dose of skepticism. This program focused on reprogramming the mind to replace old thoughts and fears about birth with affirmations and positive feelings. It taught a number of strategies for reaching within oneself and using the power of the mind to eliminate fear during birth, and subsequently the pain that often accompanies that fear.

I never fully embraced the program, but I followed it carefully and hoped it would “work” for me anyway. I had the birth experience I was looking for, but I think this was due in large part to my anticipation and complete lack of fear. I’m sure the daily positive messages I received while listening to my HypnoBabies cds were helpful, but the key for me was simply being prepared and trusting my body and the natural process of birth. This sort of attitude, I believe, makes all the difference in the world. I’m so grateful to have discovered resources that helped me develop that trust!

This time around, I have read a few books on birth that I wasn’t familiar with when pregnant with Annabelle. Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth have been favorites, for example. I have made halfhearted attempts to review and prepare with my HypnoBabies materials, and I’d like to do this a bit more, but ultimately I feel ready either way. I have seen what my body can do, I have seen the process of birth, and I know that I have nothing to fear. This is the greatest gift my childbirth education has given me, and I think it’s the most important lesson any birthing woman can learn.

Did you take a childbirth preparation course, or prepare on your own with books? What helped you the most?

12 Responses to Montessori and My Journey Through Childbirth Education

  • Jessica says:

    You are amazing!!! Seriously, write a book. I have learned so much from you.

  • Love the topic! Unfortunately for me I went on what others experienced. Lots of scary stuff, mostly probably exaggerated. I think my child rearing days are over,but if anyone ever ask me what it is like for now on I am going to send them right to this post. Thank you for sharing.

  • OOPS! I did not mean child rearing, what I was meaning to say was childbearing.

    • melissa says:

      Thank you! It’s a shame that the scary stuff gets so much more attention than the numerous matter-of-fact births that take place every day. And yes, you have plenty of child rearing ahead of you yet ;)

  • Kylie D'Alton says:

    This is a lovely article. I think it may be worthwhile for your readers to clarify your choice in photograph, Montessori was strongly opposed to wrapping infants even from birth, in this photograph the child is restrained and cannot touch their face as a point of reference. This is really important following birth.

    • melissa says:

      A valid point. Thanks for mentioning it. I simply chose a stock photo of a newborn, but it’s true the image is not representative of exactly what Montessori would have recommended. My main point here was to share the fact that The Discovery of the Child was my first inspiration to consider birthing in a calm and peaceful environment. Thank you for stopping by!

    • melissa says:

      …and I finally got a chance to switch the photo out for a more Montessori appropriate one. Thanks again for mentioning the discrepancy.

  • Anna says:

    I went on a fantastic course in London when I was about 33 weeks pregnant, that was weekly until birth with the NCT (National Childbirth Trust). We focussed on natural birth and ways to cope with the pain. However, I did not have an easy first birth and did need intervention in the end, otherwise we would both have died. This was not a negative experience for me, however because of the NCT classes. I knew that some women’s bodies do struggle more with birth and that in countries where there are not the resources and expertise in natural childbirth there are many deaths. Although I had as natural birth as possible and had a midwife with me who advocated on my behalf, there came a moment when it was no longer possible. The important point is that I did not feel like a failure. I felt like a hero. I had given the baby my best effort and then I had accepted help. My subsequent two babies had to be born in hospital because of my first experience but were completely natural. Natural birth is a good aim but it is not always possible and preparing only for a natural birth without understanding or accepting the gifts that modern medicine can give can e dangerous as it sets the mother up to feel like a failure if they don’t achieve it.

    In fact, I think the more important thing is to prepare for the life you will lead after birth. Essentially, so long as the birth keeps mother and bay safe, it is successful and soon over, life after is what is important. The most helpful lessons from the NCT were how to hold, breastfeed, bathe, clothe and bond with the baby once it was born.

    • melissa says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Anna. How wonderful that your births all left you feeling empowered, even if the first didn’t go according to plan. I agree that being knowledgeable about and prepared for the issues that do occasionally arise in birth and how they might be handled is extremely valuable. Most of the books I mention here do a pretty good job of covering some of these. Personally, in addition to my birth plan, I had a “Cesarean Birth Plan” tucked away, just in case. I’m grateful that I didn’t need to use it, but it felt good to have an idea in mind of how we might respond to a change of plans.

      I agree that learning about infant care and what to expect is incredibly valuable. I have a hard time with the idea that as long as mother and baby make it through birth safely, all is well, however. Certainly a birth does not need to be “natural,” or to go according to plan to be successful, and all women deserve to feel proud of the way they birthed if it worked for them. At the same time, however, birth is a rite of passage that is wrapped up with all sorts of complex emotions, and oftentimes situations surrounding it can disrupt the experience for women in a way that leaves them needing to process and heal emotionally from a difficult situation. I have heard from many who were ignored or made to feel selfish for wanting to talk, or needing to process what they went through. I do think the experience matters, both the mother’s and the baby’s, but there are many ways to have a positive experience.

  • Amy says:

    What a wonderful and different take on Dr. Montessori’s ideas! Thank you for sharing!

  • Lovely post, Melissa! I really appreciate that you shared so many ideas and resources. I always liked the concept of approaching childbirth without fear and and as naturally as possible.

    My childbirth experiences and resulting feelings were very similar to Anna’s. I think being prepared and having a relaxed attitude is very helpful even if the birth takes a different course than expected. I pinned your post to the collaborative Pregnancy and Parenting Pinterest board at http://pinterest.com/annmdouglas/pregnancy-and-parenting-on-pinterest/

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