Childbirth is shrouded in mystery.
On one hand, women perceive it as raw and beautiful. One the other, it’s deemed sordidly offensive. But childbirth can be a transformative experience replete with potential to intimately connect with our bodies, babies and selves.
Studies show that the duration of labor is longer in women who fear childbirth and the experiences had by those devoid of fear is far better. Doula, birth photographer and mother of two, Angela Gallo, who just received an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Annual Photo Competition held by the International Association of Birth Photographers, said our preconceived notions have sterilized childbirth and have taken the humanity out of it. Now, she’s setting new precedents.
“I’m finding that the common denominator has been attitudes. It has become clear to me that women who come in with a negative attitude, go into having a negative experience. It doesn’t matter how prepared they are. It doesn’t matter how much research they’ve done. If they’re in a negative frame of mind, it negatively affects their births and their postpartum experiences,” Gallo said. “I’m not trying to undermine the women who do have difficult experiences. I’m not trying to do that at all because that is a reality. But, the people having those experiences are usually the ones who…haven’t had any women tell them positive experiences. They had a very distorted attitude…So then they go in and they almost self-sabotage and then manifest their own experiences.”
It wasn’t until she gave birth to her first daughter that Gallo recognized discrepancies in birth care.
“In an attempt to find adequate support in my pregnancy, I started doing research on professional labor support. [For work, my husband] would go away a month at a time, come back for a week. My parents were on the other side of the country and I found doulas…I decided that I needed to have a doula at my birth, and then the more research that I did, the more I thought about birth photographers. So I decided to hire both. My husband actually ended up being there for the birth, which was great. But being so involved and seeing how much that support transformed me and how appreciative I was of those images, really propelled me into the career I have now…On a spiritual, emotional, physical level, it completely changed me.”
Gallo has since aided and photographed about 30 births—both prenatal and postnatal—herself, and consults women in navigating birth and care models and providers, as well as handling the postpartum period. But she isn’t stopping there.
Because perceptions vary across all corners of the globe, Gallo is raising money via an Indiegogo campaign to finance a six-month project, for which she’d travel, photographing pregnancy and motherhood. Her mission is to publish a book that’d explore inimitable birth cultures, exemplify the gamut of options in childbirth and empower women to seek out care models that align with their values to, ultimately, catalyze healthier, happier experiences.
The adventure will culminate in a collection of photos tied to a paired online vlog series. Gallo hopes to vlog in hospital waiting rooms, clinics, midwife schools and beyond, and that everyone from obstetrics and gynecology professionals, to children in sex education classes to pregnant women will see her work.
“The women who are positive go on to have much better experiences, much better outcomes, significantly less interventions, significantly less injuries. It’s really clear to me at this stage that, perhaps if I go around, and from a cultural perspective—countries and people and lifestyles, behaviors—and I collect stories and I use images to bring those stories back in a visual way, maybe I can get people inspired. Maybe I can get people to look for a better level of care that feels more authentic to them. Maybe I can inspire them to seek out a more fulfilling experience,” she said. “My idea is that if women know that better exists, then they are more likely to settle for a better standard of care, which would ripple into the system. Healthcare is going to have to raise the bar up. This is what I’m trying to do…bringing pleasure and joy back to the birthplace.”
Gallo chose a book as her platform because, unfortunately, social media massively limits what she can share.
“Because birth is graphic with nipples and vaginas, the impact that I want to make can’t be made on social media. I needed another platform. To me, it is a book. I can share everything that I want to share,” she said.
And there’s a lot to share today, whereas about 50 years ago, partners weren’t even allowed near birth spaces.
“Birth was an act of illness, not wellness. It’s constantly this grossness. You’re in a gown. You’re the patient. You’re ill. There are so many factors as to why we see birth that way. In movies, the woman is screaming. She’s in terror. It’s agonizing. She’s punching her husband in the head. She’s got a gaping vagina and she’s riving in agony,” Gallo explained. “If we’re talking about biblically, childbirth was punishment for Eve eating an apple off a tree. So historically, childbirth has always been something that’s punishment, something to endure and the burden of the woman. And for so long, the language surrounding birth has been so negative. So that has essentially set up the foundation for attitudes around birth now. It continues to be perpetuated because of that fear.”
But Gallo added that there exists a subculture of women who don’t have that fear, or horror stories.
“It’s been massively challenging—changing the language, changing the attitudes, changing the culture, so that women can have better experiences… For me, where birth was really intense and challenging, I could still find pleasure in it. I work with women who’ve had orgasmic childbirths and loved it. And I work with women who don’t make a noise and they’re smiling the whole time,” she explained. “Everybody has to see what’s happening because this is possible.”
But there are so many stigmas surrounding birth that prevent women from choosing both their own methods of care and pain alleviation. Masturbation, for example, relieves headaches, hangovers, insomnia and…labor pain. Stimulation of the vagina or clitoris makes women less susceptible to pain as the transmission of sensory neurons to the central nervous system are stymied and as masturbation sets adrenaline, oxytocin—which causes uterine contractions during childbirth and is released during sex—and endorphins into action.
“There’s a fear of sexuality stemming from childhood due to the fact that vaginas and breasts—they’re so hypersexualized that, as a society, we’re more comfortable with pornographic content littering our social media and our billboards and our advertisements using sex to sell, than we are as women doing what they are naturally meant to do,” said Gallo, who also wrote Why I Touched Myself in Labour and said that clitoral stimulation shifted her focus to her vagina and the energy brewing within her, allowing her to feel connected and in control. “Pleasure is so taboo because women are meant to endure [birth] and because it’s supposed to be painful. It’s okay to have sex like rabbits to have the baby. And it’s okay to have sex to naturally bring on babies…But the second a woman touches herself or brings pleasure or finds pleasure in the birth place, the world stops. What a slut. She’s crazy. That’s terrible. That’s repulsive. Why? Why are we bringing shame to that woman? Why can’t she find the experience enjoyable, even though, anatomically speaking, it’s all the same parts of the body, same hormones?”
A woman’s choices in childbirth are limited—distance from care providers, legality of midwifery, finances if she were to go outside of the public system and have to pay out of pocket, high-risk labels: race, age, skin color.
“Your choices in childbirth are directly affected by some of the most trivial things,” Gallo said. “My vision is to see women have access to truly women-centric, compassionate, competent care in whatever arena they see fit. So, if they want a home birth, that they have access to beautiful, competent, compassionate care in the field. And if they want to be in a hospital because that’s where they feel safe, power to them. I just want to make sure that they have access to the care professionals who are giving them full transparency, accurate information, who are celebrating and supporting them, who aren’t using coercion, who aren’t using lies to get them to abide by protocol or policies. If they want to birth under a tree with the deer unassisted somewhere, that’s cool.”