Coffee Talk with Penny Simkin

Recently, I was invited to coffee and conversation with the legendary Penny Simkin. Penny is a physical therapist, internationally known speaker, birth educator, doula, doula-trainer, co-author of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn, and author of The Birth Partner.

I was invited amongst a room of doulas, midwives, and childbirth educators because I am a chapter leader of ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) of Southwestern PA. I want to write about the coffee talk from my perspective as a woman who works to support women who’ve had cesareans and desire a VBAC, (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean) or who plan cesareans and seek a peaceful experience.

There’s an article circulating the Internet right now that’s getting a lot of attention, and I hate it because one of the first paragraphs is all about how childbirth is “just a single day in your life,” and “so what if you wind up having a cesarean?” (This, by the way, comes from a woman who admits to having had all vaginal births) So, that’s been sticking in my craw all week and it was good for my soul to hear Penny discuss her project involving birth satisfaction.

She interviewed women decades after they’d given birth and found their remembrances matched exactly with birth stories they’d written down right after the fact. She reminded us this was in the days before photocopiers, so the women were truly going from memory. Penny told us her findings were that a woman’s sense of satisfaction with her birth was tied with her lifelong sense of achievement and accomplishment, her sense of empowerment and self-esteem.

The women could quote doctors and nurses who’d spoken to them harshly. In some cases, Penny was hearing words of assault and violence that were spoken to these laboring women. Hearing these recounted traumatic experiences moved Penny deeply (She said, “I was not prepared to hear about births that broke their hearts”) and inspired a new direction in her work. And I’m so glad, because Penny has been a champion of the VBAC and has just done so much work with ICAN.

She said, “We can’t control how long or how hard labor is, but we can always control how we care for women.”

And that’s what brings her to Pittsburgh–she’s the keynote speaker at a conference for labor, delivery, and postpartum nurses. Her keynote presentation will address the emotional affects of a traumatic birth on the mother.

Her target audience will be nurses who are in most contact with mamas in the hospital setting, the folks in a unique position to offer comfort and validation instead of hurt and confusion. I had some wonderful nurses in the hospital after each of my children’s births, but I also had some nurses say really careless things to me. Like, “Well, it’s your second cesarean. You should know the ropes by now,” or “Oh, were you trying to do it the other way??”

I am so happy she is visiting and speaking about her research and work, offering insight on how to care for women. I am so glad these health professionals will hear about what it means to a woman to feel disempowered by her birth or to have her reality diverge so sharply from her expectations for childbirth. Penny’s compassion is quite contagious, so I’m confident this new perspective will work wonders for the nurses attending this conference!

What do you remember most about your birth experience(s)? What did your support network do to help you feel empowered during birth?

1 comment to Coffee Talk with Penny Simkin

  • Yes, I agree, Katy. I think she really struck a chord when she shared about women retelling their birth stories years later, with emotion and accuracy. How a woman is treated in birth greatly affects many areas of her life. How we support and treat women in labor is of utmost importance. I found Penny to be such a compassionate woman, and an inspiration.

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