Tapping in my pin number always makes me smile. If you know me well, ask me why – the answer is infantile humour but helps me remember it. I don’t have a good head for numbers, in fact I’d go so far as to say I’m pretty much number-blind. As I tapped in my pin the other day, I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of how my life is ruled by numbers and has been since the moment I was born and the time was logged by the midwife who caught me.
Numbers can be wonderful. Mathematicians assure me they can be beautiful. They are certainly at the heart of all creation, from the quantum level to the way the universe is expanding. But if you’re a birthworker, you know how unhelpful numbers can be too, how undermining they can be to a labouring woman and new mother.
I asked a few of my facebook friends to tell me what numbers meant to them in the context of birth:
28 day cycle
40 weeks gestation
10 movements a day
3 contractions in 10 minutes
1 Cms dilatation per hour
-2, -1, 0, +1, +2 station
Mls per hour syntocinon drip
1st, 2nd, 3rd 4th degree tear
Grade I, II, III, IIII Meconium liquor.
Mls Estimated Blood Loss
Number of sutures
15 mins breast feed
30 mls artificial feed
3 Hours between feeds
2 dirty nappies per 24 hours
6 wet nappies per 24 hours.
Kg weight at birth
Percentile on growth chart
% Weight loss in first 10 days
Ten centimetres – a suspiciously round number.
One centimetre fundal height per week of gestation: a suspiciously convenient coincidence.
One centimetre dilation per hour – ditto.
Feed every two/three/four hours – your baby came with a digital watch?
Numbers; interesting. It makes me think of control – where that power actually lies and who it rightfully belongs to.
Centimetres of dilation, hours of labour, minutes between contractions, how long are the contractions, then how long to feed, how much baby weighs, hours between feeds , hours of sleep or no sleep…
And there’s the rub – the minute we find out we’re pregnant the numbers start crowding in; how many weeks am I? When do I have my scans, my midwife appointments? What is my fundal height? My HB? My baby’s femur length? When is my ‘due date’? By the time we actually go into labour, whether that is naturally, or induced to someone else’s clock, we can been hypnotised by the numbers. Numbers have been ruling our lives pre-pregnancy anyway (the 9-5 job, the 6 o’clock train, the monthly salary, the mortgage, the bank account number…) so it’s hardly surprising that we can be so easily sold the idea that our pregnancies, birth and babies can be measured out in numbers.
So what’s the problem? Why can’t we quantify our bodies and our babies; measure them in minutes and hours, in centimetres, mililitres, in pounds and ounces? Why can’t we define, confine, analyse, portion and fix this journey? Can’t we take the uncertainty out of this life-changing event? Measuring also means controlling something. If we can explain and describe something, suddenly we have power over it, the fear is replaced with understanding – isn’t this a good thing?
Perhaps. Except that to truly measure and understand the butterfly, you have to kill it and pin it to a board.
Numbers come from our modern human brains, our neo-cortexes, the part of our brain we use to pay the mortgage and remember our pin number. Thing is, we don’t grow our babies, give birth or mother with this part of our brain. We do all that with what Ina May Gaskin calls our ‘Monkey Brain’ – our primal, mammal brain, the brain that is all instinct and deep, ancient knowing. The brain we can’t describe, define or quantify.
Us modern women need lots and lots of help to switch off our modern brains and let our primeval instincts take over. We are so primed to live our lives by numbers that we don’t even notice that we are the butterflies being pinned to the board. Those who wish to help us with all good intentions are so often unaware that their wish to ‘save’ us by managing and measuring, by doling out numbers-based advice so often does more harm than good.
As a doula, I find myself saying to women things like, “do you need anyone to tell you it’s time to poo, now? So why do you need someone to stick their fingers inside you to tell you it’s time to push?” or “Do your breasts pour out the same millilitres of milk per minute as mine? Can your baby tell the time? Does anyone dictate to you how long you must eat for and how many times per day?”
Some numbers can be reassuring, of course, or give us pause and remind us to look and listen more closely. When a pattern of labour seems to stay the same or slow, or a baby is sleepy and eats rarely, these can be clues to the bigger picture. But the final decision to act, or keep the status quo, comes from deep within.
It might be less awful if the ‘number-crunchers’ all agreed. However, the reality is that a mother can be bombarded with advice containing different, conflicting numbers; as some of my friends above so eloquently point out. It might be less awful if somehow it didn’t feel just a little bit like the number-crunchers were on a power-trip; consciously or unconsciously seeking to undermine our confidence in our bodies and our babies.
I have written before about oxytocin, that amazing molecule that guides our reproductive lives, bonding us to our partners and our babies, helping us live and love, grow and heal. It pulses through us most strongly at moments when time, numbers and measurements are at their least important. Imagine how difficult real love-making would be if you had to keep an eye on the clock, tell someone your postcode or count how many strokes it takes to reach a climax?
See, the thing is, you can’t measure love. Generations of scientists have tried. Only poets and artists have got even close to defining it. So if you’re pregnant, labouring or mothering your infant, let your monkey brain do it, plug your ears to the numbers, turn the clock to the wall, stop counting and recording, trust yourself and your baby and leave the numbers for those who have a use for them.