I remember one morning, when I was three and a half, sitting on the end of my mom’s bed with my two-year-old sister. I had a flashlight, and every so often I would turn it on and use the light to peer at the little tunnel from which Daddy said that our baby brother was about to be born. I confess that I don’t actually remember watching his birth (although I know I did), but I remember the excitement of being there.
For various reasons I missed the next two siblings’ births, but at ten and a half I was wakened early one morning by my brother (the one I’d seen born) bursting into my room with the words “mom’s dilated to a six!” I remember that birth much more clearly, as well as the ones that followed two and five years later.
Birth is part of life, and I find it sad that in our culture it is so often hushed up or hidden. There is nothing dirty or shameful about birth. There should not be anything scary about it…and yet most women go into their first labor with little but screaming media renditions and horror stories to guide their expectations. How much more confident would we women be if we had been present for several births prior to doing it ourselves? How much more quickly would older siblings connect with the new addition if they witnessed the birth and even got to participate in things like cutting the cord or announcing the sex? (Wolf cut Bear's cord, and has requested to do so for this baby too.)
I know a number of women who invite their teen or pre-teen daughters to attend the birth of a younger sibling, presumably with the rationale that said daughter is nearing her own childbearing, but I wouldn't dream of limiting attendance to just daughters or only those over a certain age. In my experience it is the smaller children who actually show the most interest, and why not take advantage of their impressionable age to let them form their first opinions of what birth is? Imagine the impact we might have on our culture's concept of birth if little children of both sexes grew up comfortable with birthing! Imagine if not only the future mothers, but also the future fathers, and the future doctors, midwives, and nurses all had witnessed a birth (or several) prior to adulthood.
Some women have told me that they think their children would be upset at the sight of mommy in pain, or would be distressed by “all the blood.” I suppose every child is different, and perhaps some would not do so well at a birth…but my tenderhearted Wolf showed nothing but excitement when he watched Bear’s birth, and both boys have informed me in no uncertain terms that they want to see this baby be born.
Obviously I would not force a child to be present if they didn’t want to be...but I hope to always keep the option open for my children. I do take the time to explain the physical process of birth (the baby is in mommy's uterus, the uterus will start squeezing to get the baby out, the baby will come down and out through a tunnel called the birth canal). Depending on the age of the child, we might look at diagrams or photos in books to enhance their understanding.
I also try to help them understand some of what will happen (mommy will be working hard, so she might make weird noises or be loud because she's working. She might be tired and sore and won't be able to hold you or play with you while the baby is coming. There might be some blood but it's ok because nobody is hurt it just goes with the placenta...)
I also show them some birth videos--yes, graphic show-it-all videos. I preview them first of course, but I think it's healthy for them to see that one woman might just hummmm and another might scream and holler and it's ok either way. I think if they see it on film first it helps them be comfortable with whatever may happen in real life.
Finally, I arrange for a "kids' doula" or babysitter...It's not truly a babysitter, because I'm not sending the kids away to be babysat. It is someone that they feel comfortable with and that I feel comfortable with, who can attend to their needs (food, sleep, play, etc) during my labor, answer their questions, take them out if they feel uncomfortable, and make sure they able to see as much as they want to see.
So, I'm curious what you think. Did you ever get to witness a birth before you were there as the parent? Would you invite your children to witness their sibling(s) birth(s)? What sorts of preparatory measures would you utilize?
Incidentally, lest anyone think that this sibling-attendance thing is limited to homebirths, or birth center births, it's not. Bear was born in a hospital. Being in a hospital or other such facility makes it all the more important that there is someone specifically designated to supervise the siblings, but they can still attend the birth.