Rhea Dempsey gets up from the couch, takes a firm grip of my T-shirt and tugs. “You’ll excuse me for the little role play,” she says. She’s close, her golden-grey curls cascading around my face, and it’s with a great deal of force that she says, “Help me, help me, fucking get me drugs.” She steps back to the couch and begins talking about mothers. “This is a crisis of confidence. It’s a bit harder to head her off at the pass when she’s fixated – and drugs, that is the cultural message.”
Rhea sits back down, smiling. I smooth my T-shirt. We’re in her apartment. It’s on the ground floor, facing out onto parklands. Her first grandchild, Luka, was born where I’m sitting. Her second grandchild, Emmaline, was born in a tub where the dining table now stands formally. By us, there’s a copy of Carl Jung’s The Red Book. It’s giant and, I can’t help thinking, blood coloured.
“When women reach these crises of confidence, akin to hitting a pain barrier, that doesn’t get normalised for the woman. She wants out. She’s thinking, ‘They were right, all those women in the supermarket who said, Just you wait. They were right. You’ll need that epidural. They were right, I do need it.’ The hospital setting is based on that pain-relief paradigm,” she says. “I’m known for this issue about pain – the way I talk about it.”
Rhea is passionate about redefining the language around birth. It’s not pain, it’s intensity. Over 34 years, she’s seen more than a thousand babies born. “Because we have placed birthing so strongly into that medical situation – in anything to do with other medical situations, if there’s pain involved, then of course the automatic link is that it’s dangerous, there’s something terribly wrong … so that’s the framework,” she says. “Because we’ve stuck birth in it, and actually birth is much more akin to – when it’s going straightforwardly – peak performance of the body. The pain in that context is quite a different pain. It’s actually about a body working brilliantly.”
She calls it functional and physiological pain. The way she speaks about childbirth is akin to how people talk about sport. She started her career in physical education, although she is now a birth attendant and educator. For the birth of her first child she was “very fit. I just assumed it would go straightforwardly.”
“Obviously in the hospital they’ll know what to do, to help me do what I need to do to birth my baby. That was quite a naive way of thinking about it. There’s a whole lot of other agendas. I’m not saying they’re necessarily – none of them probably deliberately to disempower women – just the effect of them can be. The birth did not go well,” she says and, whispering, “I came out of that thinking, ‘What the fuck happened there?’
“Quite quickly that radicalised my thinking about birth. If you’re a purist, for a normal physiological childbirth, probably only about 1 to 5 per cent of births would fit into that. I don’t think that’s the reality of how painful childbirth is.”
Rhea says, upfront, in voice with an orator’s quality to it, “Supporting, and educating about physiological childbirth, isn’t to say that all of the interventions in birth that have been designed for medical need, all of them have absolutely got their place, and we’re privileged to live in a country where we’ve got access to them when they’re required.” She’s obviously said all this before. “The big shift that has occurred is that so many of those interventions that were designed for true medical need for a mum or a baby have shifted much more into that realm that we might call routine.”
There is a shift in birth culture in Australia. In Victoria, programs instituted through Monash Health (Casey Hospital) and Western Health (Sunshine Hospital) give women the chance to work with hospitals using a “case load” midwife. They can birth at home, with a midwife that sees them through their pregnancy, with the support of the hospital, funded by Medicare. “In the ’70s we talked about natural birth,” Rhea says. “It’s so tied up with hippies – and there’s still plenty of neo-hippies around who would use it, but we tend not to say natural birth now.”
She doesn’t look like a hippie. Black ballet flats, a white quilted jumper and a thick string of turquoise around her neck. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a hippie myself, but she has presence. Like the strength it takes to “hold the centre” of a birth has necessarily carried through into her regular life.
“What’s it like to see more than a thousand babies come into this world?” I ask.
“What a privilege, huh? Can you imagine? In that space you’re just taken so intimately into one of the core, intimate experiences in the life of a couple. To be invited in. Unbelievable.” She throws her hands into the air like she can’t believe it.
“At so many levels there’s such fantastic stuff going on,” she continues. “Big hormones that are running through the women’s body through the labour are part of hormonal systems that are secreted, and are then in the atmosphere. So all of us who are hanging out for a long time in the birth are getting all buzzed up on oxytocin. The endorphins and sometimes, of course, the adrenalin rush, then that sweet feeling of everyone falling in love with the baby as soon as it’s born. Delicious.”
I can’t help thinking that that’s a pretty cool drug. Addictive.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Birth controller". Subscribe here.