The Business of Being Born
Filmmaker Abby Epstein, along with Ricki Lake, has shed light on American birth practices
When Ricki Lake decided to make the movie about birth methods she wished had been available to her when she was first pregnant, she brought in director Abby Epstein. Like so many unfamiliar with the realm of natural births and midwifery, Abby needed some convincing. By the time she got pregnant, two years into filming, her views had changed drastically and she ended up weaving her own story into the final work—The Business of Being Born.
The film is an intentionally provocative look at standard obstetrical practice in the U.S., which often includes doctor-ordered medical interventions that the woman doesn’t want or doesn’t know to question. To this day, Ricki and Abby are shocked by the overwhelming response to the film. Along with their website, it has essentially reshaped the cultural conversation about birth in this country. Last year, the pair released a sequel in four parts, one of which, Special Deliveries, features the birth stories of such celebrity mothers as Alyson Hannigan, Gisele Bündchen, Christy Turlington Burns, and Alanis Morissette. (Gisele compared natural birth to yoga, while Alanis found it akin to a bad drug trip.) —Kate Guadagnino
How did the film come to be?
I met Ricki when I was directing her in the off-Broadway production of The Vagina Monologues, and we stayed friends. I knew her when she had her son, but her interest in natural birth wasn’t anything we connected about. I thought it was a little crazy. It’s an oddly taboo subject, and people who are ignorant about it have strong pre-judgments. Here I was, someone who had just made a documentary about women (Until the Violence Stops), yet I had never thought to associate birth with female empowerment. But I began reading about it, and then Ricki showed me the home video of her giving birth to Owen in her bathtub, and I was completely compelled by the visual. If you’ve never seen anyone give birth, all you know is scary hospital stuff maybe picked up on T.V., but this was a literally bloodless birth, and it was my friend. I should add that it was not my hardcore hippie friend, but someone who likes her comfort, let’s say! That’s when I thought we could really do a film on what birth can be.
Do you think time and the need to turn over hospital beds is the main factor driving the epidural/Pitocin cycle?
Yes. There’s also probably an anxiety factor. There’s a lot of fear in hospitals, and the longer the baby’s in there, the more nervous everyone gets. They want to see one centimeter every hour, and I think women are surprised that they’re being kept to that and that someone comes in and says, well you know you haven’t dilated in the last three hours, so I think we’re really going to need to do this. The woman is fine and the baby is fine, so she thinks, what’s the hurry? Finally, I think it’s because this is how people are trained. Many obstetric residents have never seen a natural birth; they simply don’t know a birth that’s not on Pitocin.
What did you take away from working with the celebrity mothers?
A lot of people think that when it comes to home births, celebrities are playing by a different set of rules, but that’s not true. Gisele, for example, had as hard a time finding a midwife in Boston as the next person, and she also had to convince her husband (New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady) to go the home birth route. She didn’t have anything special except a strong belief that her body could do this. Alanis had the perfect birth in somebody else’s eyes—at home with her husband on Christmas morning—but I love her honesty about how it was very difficult for her. We also featured Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington Burns. It’s interesting that these women, who have so much beauty and success, still saw this as the ultimate personal triumph. In the movie, Cindy says this was the one thing in her life she knew was all hers, that no one could say it was the lighting or the photographer.
Is it safe to say you’ve been pleasantly surprised by the film’s success?
It’s beyond what Ricki and I would ever have imagined. The effect has not been about people choosing home birth, but about couples waking up to what the system of birth has become and not going in all glassy-eyed and leaving everything to the doctors. There are a lot of amazing doctors out there, and you have to do your research and make sure you have one of them. At the end of the day, this is your birth. It’s a huge experience, and you don’t want that taken out from under you based on technicalities.
So, natural birth or bust?
My whole thing about birth is that I would never advocate any kind of birth over another. Natural birth is very intense and it can be painful, and the most amazing thing that ever happened to somebody can be a nightmare for someone else. I would say that you want to feel like a participant with your birth, part of the decision-making process, because this is the beginning of parenthood. The whole time you’re pregnant, you’re making choices for your child, and it shouldn’t stop when you get to the hospital. Bottom line, just know your options!
Photos courtesy of: The Business of Being Born