Camalo Gaskin and I became friends eight years ago. I was twenty-eight and had few investments beyond the horizon of the self. I had recently moved to Berlin, a city where the middle-aged party with collegiate vigor. Becoming a mother was something other people did, an entertaining prospect but a sobering reality. The threshold of infertility felt at a safe remove.
I was first introduced to Camalo as an artist, one with a long history in dance, textiles, and curatorial work for places like the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I was intrigued by Camalo for many reasons, one of which was her style of being a mother; she was deeply present to her curious, energetic young daughter, but not ruled by her. My conversations with Camalo were substantial, intimate, and unhurried; she didn’t check her phone constantly, as many mothers do. I would later learn through a mutual friend that Camalo had delivered her first daughter by herself, at home in her bathtub in Oakland—an unattended water birth, it’s called. Her labor was compelled, in part, by a late night of listening to tabla and xylophone music. She had also been deeply moved by the movie Birth Day, which showed the home birth of the Mexican midwife Naoli Vinaver Lopez. The film, she said, was the final piece of information she wanted in her system before giving birth.
Camalo has since become a birth companion (a term which she prefers to the more common assignation, doula, which means servant in Greek) and an internationally sought-after speaker and writer on birthing. She has lectured on the relationship between obstetrics and imperialism, and looks at how the legacy of slavery has lived on in bodies and birthing practices. She has recently co-authored Entrepreneur Finds Her Way, a children’s book that “stretches beyond the idea of financial independence into the realm of self-actualization.” The daughter of a Black Panther, she draws fluid connections between the need to liberate childbirth from surveillance, the police-state she witnessed growing up in Oakland, and Michel Foucault’s panopticon.
Before this conversation, I hadn’t heard Camalo’s voice in seven years. Despite the distance, and although I still am not a mother, Camalo remains a beacon for me, studious and stubbornly intuitive, unapologetically multiple, someone who walks the walk of an existentialist philosopher, prizing lived experience as a central form of knowledge.
Lauren Du Graf: I just revisited what you wrote about giving birth to your first child, Ghi Ghi, by yourself in Oakland. It’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever read.
Camalo Gaskin: You know, at a certain point, you don’t reflect on that again. But because of the nature of my work, I think about my birth all the time, because it’s always in contrast or in juxtaposition to the belief systems we have embedded collectively around birth.
If I had just read theoretically, then it would be quite easy to shake me. When I’m working with people, there’s guidelines and standards and recommendations for people to go away from their body and this internal listening experience. And we forget that birth itself is an embodied experience. We go so readily into fearing it, and there’s good reason to have fear. But it seems like there’s more of a good reason to have a desire for embodiment. When I go back to my story, Ghi Ghi’s or Giacomo’s [her second child] narrative, it wasn’t that I didn’t have any fear. It was just that I was interested in the lived experience of giving birth. And I always say it wasn’t a radical act, but it was more of surrender into what was happening and what is in me.
I feel like I’m in that state right now too, where I’ve been working with someone who does fascia therapy [Marcello Windolph]. That’s a shorthand term for using touch, or the art of perception in touch. You can touch any body, humans, cats, dogs, horses, and if you touch in a certain way, you can start to feel this pulse, an internal movement that we all have. And if you use your touch at a certain slowness, you can start to feel what is underneath someone’s body. And when you feel it, they feel it. And when they feel it, they start to perceive different depths of their body that they didn’t before. So they can feel behind their uterus or behind their stomach or into their knee, and then they can feel that they are space and that they have feelings and emotions that are associated with those places. And in the experience of giving birth, I got a massive glimpse into this and that was more inviting than whatever my brain was going to tell me about being afraid. I say this in hindsight, but I think when I wrote about it originally, it was also a fascination with what my body was doing and what new questions my body was presenting to me, but not only to me, but the whole discipline, and all the disciplines that have been built around childbirth. What I was seeing kept defying all the things that I thought were normal and that we still teach people as normal. I feel like I’m a fraud if I teach what the textbooks say.
LDG: When you were approaching giving birth, were there other narratives that informed you or were you more guided by an intuitive curiosity?
CG: I’ll talk about my first pregnancy because it was different than the second one. I had already become a birth companion by the time Giacomo was born—not in the depth that I am now, but I had already started down that pathway.
Before Ghi Ghi, I had come across Ina May Gaskin. Because we share a last name, I knew about her and her husband and their adventures in building up the farm, this commune for many things. It was about self-determination and communal living, and they just happened by default to need midwifery skills. That’s how she became a midwife. And there was nothing particular in terms of factual information that I took away from her, so much as her trust in birth. The way that she spoke about it gave me a sense of reassurance that the things that I suspected about other things in life, like culture or food…I had been for a long time someone who didn’t eat meat, and I had never even heard of vegetarians when I made that decision. And I felt that some things are just our way. Sometimes you have an inclination towards something even though you don’t know much about it. So it was kind of sensible for me to question convention, but not even in a radical way, but more like, I feel better outside of those conventions, because when I go to a doctor, I always feel comfortable when the doctor is happy that I asked questions and the final decision is my decision. So when I go into birth, I would think the same thing.
When I was maybe eighteen, I think it was in ’96 or ’97, I went to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Saint Helena. Lemonade is referencing Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, and the people in Julie Dash’s film are the family that I stayed with. The same people. And while I was there, I met a woman who was an indigo harvester, a herbalist and a midwife. And she had mentioned that she had learned midwifery from her grandmother. And so that was the first real encounter with midwifery. And the first time I heard the word midwife was from an article about Ina May Gaskin and Stephen Gaskin. They mentioned Stephen Gaskin the commune leader and his wife Ina May Gaskin the midwife. I just had that word, but I have no idea what a midwife was at that time. And that was when I was 14. So I had these references.
And then I came across a film called Birth Day by Naolí Vinaver Lopez. She was a midwife in a rain forest in Mexico and she gave birth with her Japanese carpenter husband who built this house with a pool with the Earth Tub and all this. And during labor, she’s walking in the forest. I remember watching it later in my pregnancy and just being like, this is the final thing I need to consume.
CG: Because it just created an image where I was like, okay, I’m home and this is possible. That’s all I need. I can keep that vision. I took some prenatal birth classes in San Francisco at this birthing center. And honestly, they just created anxiety and I didn’t absorb any information. I just felt inundated with all kinds of information that overwhelmed me. So I felt uninformed, but I came out knowing that you can give birth anywhere. And then once I saw this film, I understood my own lifestyle, that atmosphere matters. Sound matters, plants matter, access to nature matters, all those things. People, intimacy matters, privacy matters, autonomy matters. All those things came together and I just thought, “oh, I have everything in my house that I need.” So after that, I didn’t read any books. I didn’t speak to anyone. I just kind of went into myself. That was what I needed.
One more thing worth saying is that I was in Berkeley when Ghi Ghi was born. I had never heard anything about home birth growing up. There was a home birth movement in the late seventies in the Bay area and I had two older women friends, probably in their sixties, and they were good friends of mine, but they had children my age and I spoke to both of them and they mentioned their home births. So it put a chip in the back of my mind that that’s also safe and possible and normal. But there was no social media and there weren’t really many people for me to discuss that with, so I had very few impressions compared to the amount of impressions people get today. But they were sufficient.
LDG: I’m thinking about this almost like entrepreneurship, having to source your own means to create a solution that works for you. And I’m also thinking about your work as an artist. When we met, you were actively engaged in dance communities and in textile communities. How do you conceive of the connection between your artistic path and in your work around birth?
CG: When we talk about art, sometimes we see it as something that is just transferred into a material form. Fascia and the body are lived-in places. We live in our body and be perceive in our body. And so we are in the act of needing to make art.
[As an artist], I was just trying to find a way to communicate what was not communicable. The reason I got into textiles in the first place is that I could not speak for about a year. I was stuttering basically. It was just something that evolved out of probably trauma experience. It was witnessing, not seeing, but the awareness that somebody had committed suicide where I lived in Japan. It wasn’t sudden, but at some point I realized I couldn’t really speak and my throat would constrict itself. And while I was in Japan, I started painting. I read a lot James Baldwin and would paint in relationship to some of the things that I read. But I would also just take photographs that I had and teach myself how to paint and how to observe these subtleties, like changes in color. And I can’t even say I know what was happening, but somehow that translated itself into me buying five sewing machines and teaching myself how to sew. And then from there, realizing that I wasn’t sewing just to make clothes. I was really trying to say something with the things that I was making. Like the textiles were a metaphor for something.
I remembered saying, let’s say to the universe, to God, whatever, however you would describe this kind of unknown entity that might be responsible for timing and biological timing, I did not want to have babies and I said, I will commit myself every day to making a piece of art and I do not want to have babies, but I wanted to have these intimate experiences with people and explore and build a way of life through making things and creating rituals for myself. And they weren’t, I wouldn’t say, spiritual rituals. They were more like disciplines where I would sew at least two hours every day and I would go to a woman in Oakland’s Chinatown who grew up in Vietnam, but she was ethnically Chinese, who had learned this French couture way of sewing. And she taught me all these tricks and it wasn’t that I needed it for anything except for my own discipline. And the feeling of that time was not so far from the feeling of my pregnancy, especially the first one. And I never was someone who thought, I want to have children, but when I did, I thought of it as another project, looking at an experiment through a new lens. And usually that was art, but with the pregnancy the project was to look at who I was as a person and ask myself, what do I have in terms of life experience or way of living that I could transmit into the life of another person? And that I would probably still feel like a child, and when that child came, that I would be in awe. I always felt respected as a child and I had a lot of adults who saw me as a peer. They could listen to me and gave me space to speak. And so I thought, yeah, that’s how I would like to approach this experience. I didn’t think of myself as a parent or a mother. Those things didn’t occur to me naturally. It was just kind of like an extension of the rest of my life.
LDG: I feel like I remember that from being around you and Ghi Ghi in Berlin. We could be together, have a conversation, have brunch or walk through a farmer’s market and Ghi Ghi usually was there. But the mother-daughter dynamic didn’t feel superimposed, like you had to change into a new character to be with her, which I really admired. I’m 36, on the precipice of my own decisions about motherhood. So I think about these things a lot, and I think about the people and the experiences that color how I think about what’s possible. Spending time with you in Berlin is a touchpoint. I had never been around many mothers who seemed like potential models. So I’m glad I get a chance to talk to you as I’m in the midst of this very deep questioning of my own. And since I’m here in this personal moment, one of the fears that I have about giving birth is that it’s crossing a threshold from which you can’t retrieve yourself. How has becoming a mother impacted how you view that threshold, or that question? I guess I’m trying to ask the very fundamental question, was having children worth it, but in a more nuanced way.
CG: I’ve thought about this a lot because I’ve spent a lot of time with people who would relate to words like feminist and have questioned whether or not this thing makes them just a reproducer. Motherhood wasn’t valued among the people that I respected and felt very much close to. And when I grew up having a baby was not an accolade. It was more like, “oh no.” [Laughs.] It was kind of like the end of your life and chancest. This teenage mother archetype doesn’t die from imagination too easily. It’s almost seen as a failure in certain places. It’s easier to have a baby than it is to have a career, or this sort of idea. So that was what was floating around in my mind. But afterwards I realized that how you walk is how you walk. [Laughs.] So if you are a certain way before, that is who you are, in essence.
When I became pregnant, I was not within anybody’s dialogue. I was sort of very independent, far away from where I grew up. So this kind of teenage mother thing didn’t apply. I was 30 when Ghi Ghi was born, almost 30. But I still felt young. And I think when it happened, I also didn’t have that many models around me. I didn’t have too many people, so I didn’t feel like I was part of a wave. And I think that was to my benefit because I could influence the way I wanted to make that experience play out and I kind of lived on my own away from family for many years and travelled… I didn’t travel, I lived in different parts of the world and kind of started from scratch many times with my identity, my feeling of belonging. So I felt like becoming a parent, giving birth to a child was also like landing in a new identity in a new place. There was a new geography that I had to explore on my own and develop my own language around it. I’ve written about a term that I wanted to use instead of calling myself an expat. I referred to myself as a translocal. I was looking at the relationship between that concept as an outsider who has become a local by way of creating commitments and responsibility and accountability to the place you’re living while feeling that same thing in multiple places at once.
In giving birth and being with a child, I also feel that I’m straddling two identities or more at once. I am simultaneously home to this child and a home to myself and all of my contradictions and wildness, not one or the other. It’s not like I belong to myself and I’m betraying myself because I’m with a child, or I belong to the child and I’m betraying the child because I belong to myself. Because I live here doesn’t mean that I don’t belong in Oakland. I can coexist in those places and it’s not like I lost myself. I just become a little bit more complex in going through that experience.
LDG: It also makes me think about being mixed race too….
LDG: …how you have to hold a space for, or contain multitudes in a way that’s visible and also invisible.
CG: Yeah, that’s, that’s another one, because people will say that someone is half or mixed or something. And I’m like, no, they’re just both.
LDG: Can you tell me about how your upbringing intersects with your work in birthing communities?
CG: I grew up in a quite a big family. I’m the eighth sibling. But we also have a very big extended family in Oakland. Both sets of my grandparents from my mother and my father’s side migrated from either the South or the Midwest to come to California in the 1920s and 30s and they were some of the black first black families in the Bay Area. And they were well established, and I would say successful in some senses too, although there was some struggle to get there. And my grandmother’s sister told me at some point that they were mixed. So their father was German Jewish and their mother was black African. I think their lineage was from Mozambique. They came to the Bay Area and that was the time of the anti-miscegenation laws, too. So it was quite a unique experience they had, but they established themselves and they found community and people that they’ve been friends with their whole lives. Each of my grandparents also had five siblings. I have a lot of people to refer to and that place was a homecoming for me when I went back to give birth there for Ghi Ghi. My other grandmother was the first mother of the year in Oakland, and she was the first black person who was the mother of the year. She hosted people like Haile Selassie and was friends with Dorothy Dandridge. You can see the spectrum.
My mother was a Black Panther and my father worked at a laboratory for a while. And at some point when they met and came together, my mother had already had her first son with a Chinese man in San Francisco, but he had to give up his relationship with my mother or lose his connection to his family. So there was some tension there in the in the family story. When I was born, my parents had joined a community and I think that in the aftermath of the late 60s and 70s there was a lot of turmoil in that political space. Leaving the Black Panthers and looking for some kind of sense of home and belonging I think is how they found that community. That’s where I was born. But we left when I was about 10. We kind of fled because it became kind of culty, in short terms.
My parents didn’t really value money and careers and things, although their parents did. So when I grew up we experienced what it was like to live in poverty, and the people around us too. They sort of abandoned their ties to that family in order to journey into some self-exploration in that community they joined.
When I was in Oakland growing up, I always felt very proud. My parents were very proud people too, and they really saw the light in me, let’s say. But also I think it’s because they grew up seeing quite a lot. That’s not to say they didn’t have their insecurities. But I think I always had a big vision of how I wanted to traverse my own work and path.
I went to public schools when I was in Oakland, then at some point I realized what boarding schools were. My parents weren’t in a position to pay for it, so I decided to figure out my own way to do that, and I did. I ended up going to a very kind of elite private boarding school that was in Pebble Beach for some years and that was sort of my pathway to university and then my pathway to looking for the other homecomings that I could experience in the rest of the world. And when we were in that community we studied Japanese. My mother used to be a koto player so she had an affinity for East Asian art and culture world views. I was exposed to that quite a lot and living in the Bay Area, there’s a big intersection with East Asian communities, so it didn’t feel foreign to me. I studied martial arts when I was a child with a Japanese sensei. And through that I also got this exposure. When I was at Oberlin, I immediately developed more of an affinity for meeting the people in the worlds where they came from, international students. One of my mentors was a prime minister candidate for Trinidad and Tobago. He took me with him to London, to Trinidad and Tobago. I also went to the Sea Islands with another professor of mine at some point. Then I traveled to India by myself for some months and from there I went to Japan. And when I got to Japan, I had an invitation to stay so a year later I think I went back and stayed. I moved there not as an experiment, but as something I thought would be long-term. I was so drawn to it because I had studied Japanese philosophy and ancient Chinese history.
I lived in London for five years. I studied anthropology there at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and my work there was looking at how surveillance can superimpose meaning onto bodies. I was looking at areas where migrants lived and how surveillance cameras would criminalize them. But I think I also started to look at the Panopticon from Foucault. And looking at institutions and how they inevitably make us feel observed and watched. And in my work as a birth companion I do apply that knowledge and that perspective into what I see when I’m in hospitals and things like this. I look to liberate the body from being watched and the observer. And that is also crossing over into the work of Michel Odent. In my mother’s experience in the Black Panthers, I also realize that’s a theme too—being watched. Being in the black community, feeling like you’re observed from the outside, but then you also observe outwardly to feel, to understand your safety boundaries. There was always that sense of surveillance in Oakland in the 80s. And that does translate to disenfranchisement.
When you look at things like breastfeeding, I remember when I just gave birth there was a woman in a supermarket in Oakland who was stealing formula because she was a teenage mother and nobody had ever told her that she could breastfeed and it’s free. Formula was the most expensive thing in that shop, so they had it behind some closed door. It was just so sad to see, to know that was happening. These gaps in awareness, knowledge, education are becoming more known now. But at the time, nobody was talking about this, but it was on my mind a lot when I entered this work. There is this sense of activism to it and also just, you know, beauty. You can see that people have access to beauty and I would like to be part of that.
I wanted to back up a little bit because I talked about Ina May Gaskin and I feel that it’s also quite significant to mention Michel Odent. I didn’t expect to encounter a man in the field who’s a doctor, a surgeon, one who became known because he helped develop the Caesarian. I didn’t expect that person to become a confidant and mentor and somebody who gives robustness to what I discovered in my own experiences and the work that I do. I feel that coming across him was no coincidence. I had many people pointing me in that direction, but people were feeling maybe intimidated, because we have this reverence for medicine and the doctor-authority. And I just thought I should meet this person and have a conversation. Years ago, I decided to contact him and I ended up having hours of conversation. This person told me that, after attending 16,000 births, that I probably knew more than he did from having the internal experience that I had of either being alone and observing so closely what happened in my body. I remember him saying that there’s always going to be people who try to standardize what you do. He said, in the end, the people who are most effective at being birth companions are people with a certain essence. It’s this very essential thing that enables you to help people. Trust and confidence and autonomy and all these things. I felt like I could use that statement also when we talk about parenting or other kinds of identity. Standardization doesn’t really work for us. It invited me to go into my ideas and to realize that my questions were being investigated by somebody who wrote 22 books on the subject. But they were specific to my questions because I was wondering, why did I not have an impulse to push? Why did I have this kind of involuntary reflex or why did I feel this deep sense of transcendence? Why did the music, the depth of the tabla and the xylophone, impact me and synchronize with my body so much that I didn’t even know I was in labor? What are those things?
Now I have a body of work to refer to. I’ve explored quite a lot over the years, but it didn’t come before my births. In hindsight, I needed them in order to feel the relevance of telling those stories in their totality. I know that people do have traumatic experiences and I wouldn’t want to just tell a story as if it’s the truth and it’s the only way things can be. But I think when I start to understand that you can interrupt these kinds of impulses very easily by creating strictures around experience, around identity, around autonomy, around what people should do or not do, then you can easily kind of take people away from that transcendence that I’m talking about. I look at that quite a lot in my practice being a birth companion, a doula. Like how are we interrupted? Or how are we inviting people to take over this experience for themselves? You’re putting their hand on something that is at the pulse of humanity and, enabling them to touch it in the way they want to. When that happens, you create something quite radical, or…
LDG: Right. Radical meaning radix in Latin, root. When you’re talking about putting people at the pulse of humanity, you’re talking in a very philosophical way about something like a seed. Aristotle might talk about a seed, when you study the purpose, the cause, or the function of something. You’d talk about that from an of external perspective, and we would call it philosophy. But I haven’t read a whole lot of philosophy about that moment of touching the pulse of the humanity from an embodied female perspective, but now my mind suddenly craves it. I’m sure I’m totally missing like an entire body of literature.
CG: But most people are too. This is kind of the importance of that encounter for me, because I think philosophically, it speaks to me. What I’m looking to say needs more than a simple…maybe I do need more simplicity, but I usually have to wander through my thoughts and questions to encounter some kind of new idea, a new set of ideas.
When I experienced this birth, I knew I touched something and when I came out and I found one of the first books of Michel Odent, there were two, he had one called Childbirth and the Evolution of Homo Sapiens. He had another one called The Functions of the Orgasms which looks at birth as an orgasmic function. Birth, breastfeeding and the sexual orgasm that we know and looking at women, historical women I’ll say, because people, the women identity is not binary, we know that already. Women as guide into deep intimacy and sexuality you have all these metaphors in almost every tradition. Chinese, Vedic, Tantric, ancient Greeks, whatever, you have these guides talking to people, these lost wandering male figures and they stumble upon this wise woman who guides them into an exploration of their sexuality. Looking at this transition that happens in Christianity, where you have all of this language around the genitals and female sexual organs, and anatomy being described in words that are synonymous with shame. In German, the word for the area around the vagina is Scham, the root of sham is shame. And then you have the word vagina, which means sheath, which puts the focus on the man or a penis, let’s say. And then you can understand the lineage of birth becoming something that has all of this hidden fear around it. You need to cover it up. It’s wild. Men didn’t attend births until the late 1800s because it was too wild and untamed. And then when men did attend births, it became something that was synonymous with incarceration, women tied to beds and drugged. So there’s a lot we can think about and talk about.
I’m lecturing also on the heritage of obstetric culture and the heritage of imperialism. And I’m also looking at the origins of obstetrics, where enslaved women were experimented on without anesthesia in order to come up with these very popular, gynecological procedures. Those things have legacies in the bodies of people. I see it in my work. People have this collective fear about what has happened in these spaces where people go to give birth. I join elbows with Michel Odent in sort of asking questions that are relevant for more than the next five years. If we look in the long term, what are we doing? Are there long-term implications for the things we do, for the surgeries that we suggest people have, for these drugs and the treatments of ways of speaking to people and the detachment that they do or don’t have with their child? And what do we know about mental health, long-term mental health and how babies are born? In a way there’s a politic and a philosophy and an activism that underlies the work.
Back to your question about the shift into motherhood or being a parent, it’s a living field or living discipline. I don’t have that identity conflict anymore where I think I’ve given up on my autonomy. I just feel like you can have it in anything you do, like being a cleaner and being in an activist space. Whatever you do, if you enable yourself to listen into it, you always have a way. You have an invitation to look at this thing you’re doing through a different lens. And that’s what I try to do and I try to find good company doing it.
You work as a doula, as a teacher. You’ve mentioned you speak to chiropractors about how to work with pregnant women. You’ve written about birthing. What words do you use do you circumscribe your connection to birthinge?
CG: I’m a birth companion. But I see that as many things. I see it as a ritual space. I see it as an activist space. I see it as a quiet space. It’s very intimate. There are many frontiers, really. I also founded The Center for Doula Pathways, which is an interdisciplinary, intersectional space for developing curriculum, education, and practices for birth companionship. I’m working closely with Marcello Windolph, who is a fascia therapist and there’s a lot of overlap philosophically in what we do, trying to point people back to their humanity. Like when we were co-teaching a course for chiropractors. tThey just have this short amount of time. Can you in 20 minutes or 40 minutes remind people of their humanity? Can you do that with touch? Can you do that with the way you speak with them or the way you ask questions? And they were asking me to come because they wanted to know how to communicate with pregnant people so that we don’t trigger trauma? It’s not that I have a formula for that, but if I know who I am or what’s the source of my own humanity, like how I relate to other people in the world, and if I’m clear on that, that’s transmitted in my practice and it is infused in the language that I use. Or if I believe in other people’s autonomy, I must also believe in my own. So as a practitioner, I can’t just be acting as a clone. I have to engage my empathies and my intellect in order to serve those people. That was sort of my starting point to teach. If I’m teaching children, it’s the same thing. If I’m at universities, the same thing.
When I’m with families, they ask me, what does doula mean? I say, well, the origin word is servant. And I’m very clear I’m not in this work as a servant. I’m in this work because I experience life when I come into contact with birth. When I witness that other people feel that too, then I’m moved and I am advocating for them to have access to that if they want. So I say that I’m a guardian of intimacy, you know? That’s an evolving reality for me. I’m understanding intimacy in a very different way than I used to before.
LDG: What do you mean you understand intimacy differently now?
CG: You can see intimacy as people just being together. But when you start going into understanding that you have this massive internal landscape that is accessible through meditation, through breathwork, through what we’re doing with fascia therapy—that one’s new to me, but there are these tools and traditions that enable us to feel more fully who we are. Then when we feel who we are, we can actually feel the world and the environment and the atmosphere that we live in. When we see people moved, we cry, we feel. I see that transmitted to people who are going through birth together, and they enter a level of intimacy that they’ve never touched upon. It’s not as superficial as I thought it was, and even my definition used to be more complex than most people that I was seeing in the birth space. But now it’s deepened by coming into contact with people who’ve done, you know, like Taoist training, or lived with monks in Venezuela and gone to caves in the French Alps, or people from, you know, China or wherever. Michel Odent was saying he just witnessed a woman who had a phobia of hospitals and she said, I cannot give birth in this hospital. Can you accompany me somewhere else? He was like, well, of course. I’ve never done that before, but I will. Once he did, he was given access to life, this primal experience that moves you out of the ordinary. It’s an out-of-the-ordinary experience that doesn’t allow you space to remain the same.
LDG: How would you describe Michel Odent’s main intervention into how we think about childbirth?
CG: He’s looking at what happens when we don’t disturb this experience. And it’s a very daring question, because it’s very hard not to disturb, because if you feel you’re there, you feel like you have to do something. We have a pretty intense culture of doing stuff to save people. It’s kind of a saviorism, which I kind of associate with colonialism or neocolonialism and the culture of NGOs going into places and missionaries going into places and thinking they’re safe. That same mentality exists in the birth space. He investigates what happens if you do nothing and what we start to see when you don’t disturb that which is innate. Obviously, there are going to be times where it’s useful to step in and offer somebody some guidance. But if you’re looking at the bigger long-term picture, the more we intervene with things that interrupt our normal physiological processes. In birth, you have this dose of hormones that are released, very specific hormones— oxytocin, endorphins, melatonin, catacholamines. These are released at a dose during birth that isn’t seen in any other time in human experience. If we’re doing things like introducing drugs that replace the body’s ability or need to release those hormones, then we could be interrupting a function, a genetic or epigenetic function for that thing to work. He explains that in epigenetics, if something is used a lot, it will express itself. If it’s underused, it will go dormant.
Since the 1950s, we already see kind of an increase in the length of labor. Human labor is two hours longer in the first stage of labor. We don’t know why exactly, but we do know that there was a lot introduced in that period. One is Caesarians, the other is all the drugs around it. We know that when a baby comes through the birth canal or the vagina, you get the biggest release of oxytocin in human experience. And then the one hour after, which is the breastfeeding period. Those moments are the most disturbed in birth. Like they could leave you alone your whole labor and everybody will show up right when the baby’s coming. When the baby comes out, they take the baby away and do the things like wash the baby, all benign things, but we don’t know that that interruption can be causing like a weakening of that function. That function is also the same as sex function. Like libido is associated with oxytocin release. It doesn’t really just have to do with making babies, but it has to do with lovemaking, you know, the experience of love and the oxytocin. It’s a love and bonding hormone. For us to be thinking about more individual and profession-based questions rather than, will we be able to give birth in a thousand years? What are we doing that has no long-term analysis whatsoever? Basically, everything. The only thing that we know that isn’t disturbing any of those functions is just to see what happens when people are by themselves to some degree. And obviously if you wanted to have somebody there and you felt safe with that person there, of course, it’s important to have people, but we’re talking about policy. It’s not judging. It has nothing to do with personal, individualized judgment of people’s choices. Any individual has the full right and my full respect if they decide they want to do absolutely anything. They can do it. I’m looking at, as a collective, what are we doing and what are we telling people? What are the long-term implications of our agendas?
LDG: You mentioned over email before that you were the first to breastfeed in your family.
CG: I remembered in the early and mid-eighties going sometimes to the pediatrician and them recommending something called Similac to my mother. My mother had eight children and I was the third. I had many younger siblings to witness. I remember that this was free basically. Similac is a formula for feeding babies. That’s what I knew of as child’s food. iIt never crossed my mind that babies suck from a breast. I think education is underestimated, we don’t realize that some very basic things are not very basic and obvious to most people, that mammals feed their young from their breasts. I understand that this is a very layered thing because there’s a lot of prudence, especially in the US, places where there’s a lot of shame around the body and a sense of covering up. I remember I was with Ghi Ghi at a public pool in the US and she wore nothing and all of the kids went into panic because she was naked and she was probably two or three years old. Maybe four. You just forget that has some implications on what you believe is normal in terms of how you give birth or whether or not you breastfeed your babies. I don’t know where the information came, but I absorbed somewhere that breastfeeding was a possibility when Ghi Ghi was born, but it was also instinct, because I had such an instinctive birth. I was alone. I literally just picked her up and put her to my breast. It wasn’t an intellectual decision or anything. It wasn’t a radical act. In fact, it was, but it wasn’t intended to be. I realized the connection that was there when it happened and these sort of things that are great and profound. But I also had complications with it and later I met many people who had a very difficult time breastfeeding, but it was painful and it was a very big challenge, but also for some people, it was very strange to have somebody suck on your breasts. It’s a sexual space, you know? If people had any kind of sexual abuse or trauma or anything in their lives, it emerged in that experience of breastfeeding. A few years ago I was invited to speak at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. One of the other panelists was perinatal psychologist. She talked about a study where they had worked with a lot of people who had had sexual trauma and the ones who breastfed, the memory of that experience was no longer there, or it was altered in a way, so there’s actually something happening where the brain itself is reforming.
Marcello often says, it’s not that we have a brain and we have a body, but we’re a body and we can use the brain too. But the brain is the back and the back of the pelvis and the pelvis is the leg, the body is everything. We have these memories everywhere in our body. It’s not so much about, you know, this brain, this neuron, this neurotransmitter did this but it’s like all of these experiences are bodily. They’re part of the environment that our body, the lived experience that is our body and everywhere in our body where we remember touch or welcome touch or unwelcome touch is informed in all of our tissues, and all of our tissues speak to each other. In breast feeding, you have these memories, but you also have this opportunity to rewrite some of them and superimpose new knowledge. When you move, and this is what I’ve experienced in fascia therapy, when you move, when you access this enclosed space or shadow within your internal body, it releases emotions. There are psycho-emotional releases in physical space. You house things and once it’s released, you can educate your whole body in new ways to create trust and new memory. I see the breastfeeding experience in that way. I also know that it’s contentious. That having a male partner who can’t have that same bond, the competition that happens, there’s all kinds of things that I encounter in my own experience, but seeing it happen with so many other families…You have these very contemporary men who want to defy their gender role and participate fully. But then there’s some things they cannot do.
I remember Giacomo asking at some point, “mama, am I still you? Are you still me?” when he took a pause from breastfeeding. I feel like that says so much about this, you know. What are we talking about? You know, are we separate? You know, if I intellectually believe we are, is it real? Who knows where the boundary is, you know? I feel like we’re just scratching the surface.
LDG: What stones do you want to turn over that haven’t been uncovered?
CG: The things that I just talked about, this embodied experience, I’ve experienced in such a profound way in the last three weeks that it sort of changed the trajectory of my thinking, or infused it with a new set of impulses in a discipline that is not one that I’ve been familiar with—that is, exploring the fascia, which is a sensory organ and communication system. It seems like a very practical thing or tangible thing but the experience of it is so huge. In my work, I’ll show up and somebody will be 30 hours in a birth and then I will use this touch with them and then the waters will break or the baby will suddenly change position or the person’s body will just change its rhythm and then the baby is born after an hour or something. I’ve seen this happen a bunch of times and I’m just thinking, you know, there’s so many old disciplines and traditions that have been studied for 4,000 years in different parts of this planet.
LDG: You’ve also recently written Entrepreneur Finds Her Way, a children’s book that Rosario Dawson was just photographed reading aloud at a public event. How does this book fit into all of what we’ve discussed?
CG: The book emerged from an experience sitting with Ghi Ghi in the night. She was five years old, and she had gone on a series of preschool field trips. One of these was meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ghi Ghi kind of had a panic attack, because she saw all these people — the prime minister was someone one of the parents in her preschool worked with closely, and there were a bunch of other artists that she met while on the field trip. But she realized she couldn’t see herself doing any of those things. She was wondering, how do I find happiness, how do I earn money, and what things are there in the world?
To guide her out of the panic, I started doing something I later called story channeling. As she was going to sleep, I would improvise around an idea. And I came up with this character named Entrepreneur who would venture out into the world, not have to go to school, and she would meet people and ask what makes them happy. They would start to explain to her what their version of happiness was. Eventually, she asked me if I could turn that into an actual book, so I could read it to her as a book and not just have it in this other, improvised way. So we did. And Aubrey [the co-author] and I got together and we decided we would put our efforts together and write another story about Entrepreneur. And it really was a way to give her an example of what it means to be self-determined, autonomous, and resourceful. In me doing that, I thought, I’m giving her an example of a parent who has those abilities.
Camalo’s reading list
The Functions of the Orgasms by Michel Odent
Childbirth and Evolution of Homo Sapiens
Sisters on a Journey, Portraits of American Midwives by Penfield Chester
Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, eds. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick Janet Price, Margrit Shildrick
Childbirth in the Age of Plastics by Michel Odent
How We Birth: A course with Dr. Michel Odent and Liliana Lammers
Preparing for the Gentle Birth by Blandine Calais-Germain and Núria Vives Parés