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I asked folks to “Toss Me a Birth-Related Word” on my Navelgazing Midwife Facebook Page and “Primal” was one of those words. Here, I’ll use the words as springboards from which to jump. 

Is birth primal? 

Some definitions of the word primal include:

  • having existed from the beginning
  • in an earliest or original stage or state
  • serving as an essential component
  • first, original
  • of first importance
  • fundamental

I know when I hear the word primal when used with the topic of birth, it brings up images of a woman squatting in the sand on a beach or holding onto a tree as she standingly squats to push her baby out. I see not-white women birthing… the video “Birth in the Squatting Position.” How racist can I get? By the definitions, primal does not mean primitive, which brings up its own set of considerations.

So, I’ll stick to primal birth. What would that look like?

Primal birth could be anything from unassisted birth to hands-off birth to birth in a locale that doesn’t have midwives. Hmmm… or does it have to be birth without midwives? From what I know, most cultures around the world for eons of time have had midwives or, at the least, a knowledgeable female helper at birth. I don’t know enough birth anthropology or archeology to know if there are remnants of midwives in fossils or cave paintings, but do know that more recently, we have been written about and drawn about in Egyptian pyramids and the Bible.

So, what would birth look like in its original state? Do we really know?

Let’s take the definition fundamental. Don’t we fundamentally want a safe birth? (Using the word again…) Isn’t a fundamentally safe birth kind of subjective? What of the mom who had a horrific hospital birth and is choosing a homebirth for the subsequent birth, having complete informed consent and accepting the risks of not being in the hospital? Isn’t her desire for a fundamentally safe birth? But, would that be considered a Primal Birth? Probably not necessarily.

I think I don’t have a good answer for this question. Anybody else have any ideas? I’m not doing such a good job.

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Reader Comments (4)

For me, primal conjures up much more the internal state that women go into when we are deep in labor and giving birth. I think of how my everyday consciousness melted away, and my body was doing this thing that I didn't know it knew how to do, but it sure did know. The "me" was gone, something bigger than "me" was at work. It is more about the internal space of birth, of women working with deep, old, primal instincts, than about whether she is squatting or has a trained care provider present. I would propose that any woman who has gone through an unmedicated birth, experienced the veil between the worlds getting a little thinner, felt like a galaxy was compressed into the space between her legs, or had a vision of her birth connected in an unbroken line through her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother back to the beginning of time, has had a primal birth.

So, by my definition, I think you can definitely have a primal birth in a hospital setting, even with an OB (as long as the care provider is able to sit quietly as the guardian, not the manager, of the birth).

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine

I think of birth being primal....not so much "Primal Birth". Primal Birth sounds like a lot to live up to, a script of a romantacized notion of how birth used to be back in the ancient day....isn't birth almost ALWAYS in it's original state? I don't think it's biologically changed much since the first woman grunted and moaned and pushed her baby out. The locations may have changed, the way birth is managed may have (drastically) changed, but the physiological aspects are the same. We keep trying to take the primal out of birth...to make it less scary, less wild, less primitive, more controlled and pretty with inductions and epidurals and sterile fields,.....but it's fundamentally the same. The woman squatting under a tree in the bush, the woman with a traditional midwife in a yurt or mud hut, the woman in a candle-lit bedroom, and the woman in a hospital bed with IVs and monitors, are all doing the same thing.....giving birth. A process that has not changed since time began.

(Side note: I think squatting as a birth position is as cultural as laying down on her back...I don't think I have ever seen anyone truly, instinctively choose to squat. While it does facilitate second stage the pressure is mind-boggling!)

So, birth being primal, to me, looks like birth.....Mother working hard to bring her baby out. Isn't every moan, cry, grunt and push primal? Isn't mother being primal when she strips off the last bit of clothing and falls to her hands and knees? Isn't the swaying, rocking, and reaching out for a supportive hand to hold being primal? Isn't the overwhelming urge to PUSH THAT BABY OUTTA THERE! as primal as it gets?

Every woman I witness giving birth *is* the Original Woman....when she loses her inhibitions, stops trying to control her reactions to the pain and pressure, when she gets down to the business of birthing her baby....she is reaching far back into her ancestral memory, and doing what her foremothers did before her, depending less and less on what she learned in childbirth class and more and more on her instincts.

Being primal.

I think, too, that the primal is one of the things we fear most in birth.....not only the pain, but how will we react to the pain? Will we lose control, get loud, say mean or vulgar things? Will we get sweaty, and smelly, and poop and pee in front of strangers and loved ones alike? Things like, "When the baby is coming, you lose all sense of modesty!" can be very, very frightening for many women. I think this is the main appeal of Hypnobirthing, Lamaze, Bradley, and the epidural.....the ideal that she won't lose control of her Self, that she will behave in a manner that is socially acceptable even when going through a largely uncontrollable process.

And the obligatory disclaimer.....I am not, in any way, shape or form, saying that this is the preffered, or only, way to birth. I, for one, and extremely thankful that we no longer have to birth in a field somewhere with no one but Granny to attend. I am thankful for pain meds, for c-sections, and for midwives, doctors, nurses, and hospitals. What I am saying is that physiological birth itself is primal by it's very nature, it hasn't changed since the very first birth, and unless ALL babies are born by scheduled surgery or are grown in womb-tanks in a science lab, it's probably not going to.

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColleen

Colleen - I wonder if you have ever been at a birth where the woman squats all day naturally. I think it must be very different. When I lived in Africa it was one of the most striking things for me to notice - women squat all day, because they don't own chairs or tables. Everything was done on the ground. Imagine cooking your dinner with your one burner stove on the ground, everyday. I suspect you would be much more likely to choose a squatting position for birth.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

I think of birth as primal too, rather than a primal birth. I think of the deep, bellowing animal sounds of involuntarily pushing, and the heave and concentration of that second stage.

July 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAB

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