Raven Lang began her journey towards midwifery just as many other midwives did: she had a baby. It was 1968 in Stanford Hospital. She was not allowed to get up. She was given an “episioproctotomy” – an episiotomy that cut through the anal sphincter. After the birth, she felt that something was very, very wrong. She became aware of a “very giant dissonance” speaking itself, and she wanted to end it.
Raven had been a teacher, so nine months after her birth she decided to begin teaching childbirth education. She attempted to get certified, but was told that she did not qualify to teach because she was not a nurse. So she “certified myself” and began teaching. At that time, Santa Cruz County was a “sleepy retirement community” – the university has barely opened its doors. But Raven managed to find eight couples to attend her first class, and more than enough to continue them.
Raven learned a tremendous amount while teaching and she was hungry to witness birth. She longed to get an objective idea on what had happened to her: what was done during labor, why, and what could be done differently. She wanted birth to be a self -actualizing, self empowering experience. She wanted as many babies as possible to be born without unnecessary intervention, medications, and forced separations in the first hours and days of extrauterine life. She made herself available as a labor coach for her students, especially those without a partner.
Seven months after her first child was born she witnessed her very first birth, and it happened to be a homebirth. She observed a woman completely in charge of herself. When Raven had gone to her own postpartum check up some eight weeks after delivery, she brought a list of questions for her obstetrician to help her understand what had happened to her, and found he could not answer most of them. The homebirth she saw answered them all. She saw the profound difference between those who birthed in power and those who birthed in captivity.
Within a year, she attended a birth in which she saw a doctor completely destroy a woman’s labor to meet his own needs. As described by Raven in Suzanne Arms’ Immaculate Deception, the labor “was moving fast and well” but the “doctor had a luncheon appointment that he very much wanted to keep, so over the telephone he ordered a heavy dosage of Demerol to slow things down.” When he finally arrived mom was sleeping and labor stalled. He ordered Raven out of the room. Without informing the mother he gave her both pitocin and a pain medication that numbed her cervix so that “she could no longer feel contractions and as a result could no longer actively respond to labor.” The baby was ultimately born by forceps delivery, and was so stunned that he had to be hit hard and often on the buttocks before he established respiration, tone and color. He was then given to the staff. The mother did not get to see or hold him for hours. Raven realized that day that she would not turn down the next person who asked her for help at home. She knew there was no way she could do that kind of harm.
Raven was a true self-trained direct-entry midwife. She learned at people’s birth beds by attending as many births as possible. She didn’t call her self a midwife at first, just a birth “assistant.”
She did receive a lesson from Dr. Don Creevy, who was the head of the obstetrics department at Stanford. While she was working with the woman as a labor coach, he invited her to sit next to him and observe him doing a delivery. He explained every step of delivery, what he did during it and why he did it. Eventually, he invited her into Stanford library to study, but she didn’t look like the average OB student. When the university got wind that a young woman from the mountains had access to their library, they kicked her out.
Raven did primary care midwifery for 17 years. At that time there were very few other midwives, so the responsibility was tremendous. She traveled as far as Palo Alto to the north and Big Sur to the south. She did not charge any fees. “If someone needed help and asked for it, I did it. Looking back on those years and realizing just how much was given to this movement; I realize that I was one of the sacrificial lambs in the movement of midwifery.”
Raven was the founding force of the Santa Cruz Birth Center. In Immaculate Deception, she describes its inception. By 1971 obstetricians in Santa Cruz were refusing to provide prenatal care to women desiring homebirth. Raven describes how “I became aware of other women” involved in birth support and education. “I called them and invited them to my house… it became apparent that we could reach many more people in our community and probably do a more comprehensive job by unifying our energies… By March of 1971 a birth center opened.”
Raven began training apprentices almost as soon as she began to practice. After doing about a dozen births alone, she insisted on bringing an assistant. She says that apprenticeship is a political statement. She believes very strongly in this model of learning. She continues to train apprentices today. She was also the co-founder and designer of the Institute for Feminine Arts, the first non-medical midwifery school in North America. The Institute was even recognized by the state of California! It stayed in business from 1978-1981, when Raven went to Traditional Chinese Medicine school.
Raven has traveled throughout North America teaching about birth. She participated in the International Year of the Woman tour in 1974 and brought birth into every feminist conference in the US and Canada. She was a very loud spokesperson, and she didn’t sugar coat her message. She was reaching for all women to have voice and dignity in the birth process and to have babies born with dignity and love.
Raven stopped doing primary care midwifery 20 years ago after she became licensed in Chinese Medicine. Now she attends births as an acupuncturist or doula. She attends the births of children she saw born, just being with them and bringing all that she has – her needles, her knowledge, her feminism, and her humanity.
Raven is perhaps best known for writing The Birth Book. When she wrote it, very little else had been published about birth. All that was in common circulation were Lamaze and Dick-Reed. She felt that teaching only opened a handful of women to the possibilities of what birth could be. She wanted to shout it out to the world. The first edition of The Birth Book was self published. She had been in contract with a publisher, but she was informed that she would have to remove all pictures of vulvas and bottoms. She chose to publish herself instead. Today, editions of The Birth Book sell for as much as $200, so hold on to your copies, ladies, they are precious.
The Birth Book was the very first place where the concept of human perinatal attachment was discussed in print. Raven called it “imprinting” and the “formation of motherly love” because she had only known of this phenomenon by studying birds and animals. She met Marshall Klaus shortly after the book was published and spent an entire evening comparing notes, because he too was interested in these exact concerns. At the time, Raven learned, there was a collective shift into this perspective. People were simultaneously but separately beginning to explore the idea. Klaus had all the credentials, but none of Raven’s experience in observing immediate postpartum behavior without interruption and medical interference. The only births he’d seen were in the hospital, where separation of mother from baby was routine. At that point, he’d never witnessed what actually happened when a “squirmy bloody baby is given directly to the mother and they are allowed to remain together without interference for the first 3 to 4 hours of life.”
Raven was one of the original members of CAM, and prior to CAM, of a local group in the Santa Cruz area. Their meetings turned into study sessions with guest speakers and lectures from members. Raven remembers being “exhilarated by the experience in self-reliance and self control.” It was grassroots education reminiscent of the irregular schools that flourished in this nation during the 19th century, before the AMA monopolized medicine.
Raven recalls that CAM was both a study group and a place of mutual respect and support. CAM turned towards lobbying when women began to desire legal recognition. At the time CAM began they did not want licensing, because they did not want to be restricted by rules and regulations that would have been written by those not within the practice of midwifery. They sought recognition based on their skills, experience, and their own belief system and values, not that of the medical establishment. By the time midwives began to really explore legal certification as an option; Raven had become licensed as a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. She left the politics in the hands of others.
Raven describes herself as having “carried a machete and gone through the jungle carving a road for birth. And when it was passable enough, I extended a hand and said, ‘come, this is the road to travel’”. Eventually the machete was passed on to other women interested in similar values and goals surrounding birth.
Midwifery and birth in North America, she says, have gone through so many changes. In 1968 there was a 6% cesarean section rate. Now it is at an alarming 30%. Thirty years ago midwives like Raven were fighting to have women’s hands unstrapped during delivery. Now 1/3 of women have major abdominal surgery and many of them want it. Or they want an epidural. She says that it is shocking to see the values she and her peers had as young women – self empowerment, women actualizing their dreams for themselves and their families, and unmedicated babies who never left their mother’s sides – co-opted in the face of fear.
Raven says that we live in a culture and a time where fear dominates – look at our national politics. We cannot separate birth from this reality, from the influence of our culture on every woman. Women have lost sight of birth as a natural and normal occurrence. They foolishly acquiesce to abdominal surgery thinking it is something good for them. This horrifying reality is patriarchy in its highest form. It is the beginning of women really losing all their rights because birth is the epitome of women’s power. It is about women’s strength and sexuality. There is a pervasive sickness when society takes that from women and makes birth into an experience for them to fear.
These days, Raven teaches courses in obstetrics and pediatrics to practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine within North America. This fall and winter she will travel from Toronto to San Francisco to Austin and Ohio lecturing. She is also writing a book for practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine about care in pregnancy.
She has a thriving Traditional Chinese Medicine practice in Santa Cruz. Pregnant women come to her for treatment. They often come in their second trimester and work with her for months. Many women come to her to conceive and hold a pregnancy, because they have had trouble with conceiving or bringing a pregnancy to term in the past. Her work with them begins before they conceive and continues throughout their pregnancy. Sometimes she then attends their labors. These same women often come to her for their continued health care, and she becomes one of their child’s health care providers as well. This week she saw a woman who is due with her second baby. She provided care for her 4 years ago during her first pregnancy, and she midwifed her 36 years ago at her own birth!
Some women come to her for Traditional Chinese Medicine care, and they are planning on having epidurals in labor. Raven plants seeds in each session, sharing her views of birth as meaningful and positive, encouraging women to look at all they can gain from the experience – and she sees what gets fertilized in their minds and hearts. She is quiet and insidious, encouraging them to think. The ideas gestate along with the fetus, and 90% of them have embraced birth by the time they are at term.
Traditional Chinese Medicine can very beautifully take care of many problems in pregnancy that turn into pathologies in western culture. Raven has seen many women who would be labeled high risk – for conditions such as essential hypertension, habitual miscarriages, severe hyperemesis or threatened preterm labor – very simply helped by Chinese Medicine. These women go on to have straightforward, unmedicated, low-risk deliveries. With successful Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment, midwifery care does not have to be limited only to those women who remain consistently low-risk.
Raven wants midwives to realize that Traditional Chinese Medicine can address problems that midwivery cannot. Many people don’t know that something like pregnancy-induced hypertension, for example, can be very simply addressed by alternative forms of medicine, though it is largely untreated by mainstream doctors. Raven has even seen women at 39 weeks with pregnancy-induced hypertension and protein in their urine- and in just one week she has successfully treated them so that they have normal deliveries and healthy babies. Raven strongly encourages midwives to reach out to Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners as an extension to the obstetric care they provide. The two professions should reach out to each other and join hands. In doing so they would make birth a healthier, safer, richer experience for all.