Ricki Lake Wants Women to Take Control of Childbirth

Filed under: In The News

If you're a 40-something parent, you probably remember Ricki Lake from the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, where she played "Pleasantly Plump" Tracy Turnblad, who used her fame to speak out against segregation. These days, there's nothing plump about Lake, but she's still taking advantage of the spotlight to call attention to what she believes in. In 2008, Lake teamed with director Abby Epstein for the release of The Business of Being Born, a documentary about childbirth in America. The film "explores the history of obstetrics, the history and function of Midwives, and how many common medical practices may be doing new mothers more harm than good."

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Lake drew widespread attention when the film was released because it includes footage of her son's home birth. Lake, who has two children with ex-husband Rob Sussman, gave birth to her first child in a hospital. After his arrival, Lake says, "I felt like I was the only woman to ever give birth." She started researching childbirth and learned that the medicalized hospital birth that most of us take for granted is not the only way to have a baby. "I felt a calling," she says, "I was obsessed with midwives." Instead of becoming a midwife, though, Lake opted for making a film about birth, and about the choices women can -- and, Lake says, should -- be making when they have a baby. The success of the film has lead to a book, Your Best Birth, as well as a social networking site for women, MyBestBirth.com.

Lake acknowledges that the choice to have a baby at home is controversial. "Most women will not feel safe giving birth outside of a hospital," she says. She is less interested in pushing a specific agenda -- she doesn't believe, for example, that hospital births are bad -- than she is in encouraging women to make informed choices about how their children are born. "I did tons of research" into home birth, Lake says, and "fought friends and family who didn't support my decision." She laughs. "And there were a lot of them."

For Lake, giving birth at home meant that she was able to be in control small, simple things during her labor. She was able to decide what positions she labored in, who would be with her, what music and lighting she wanted. She was able to make her own choices about eating. "When you're giving birth, it's a normal process; it's a huge energy-consuming process," she says. "I didn't want to be somewhere where I could only have ice chips."

Lake says that she was "transformed" by the experience of having children. "I love that I get to be their mom," she says of her sons. "I love that the work that I get to do now stems from them coming into the world. Their births -- both the hospital birth and the home birth --- got me interested in this subject matter." Her sons, she says, caused her to make the film and write the follow-up book, and she is clearly grateful for that opportunity.

Lake is awed by other Hollywood working moms, with busy film schedules. "I don't understand how they do it," she says respectfully. "I understand how hard it is to be a single mom." Lake has made a choice not to do movies that will take her away from home for long stretches of time. "I'm missing a few ball games" to promote her book, she says, "and that sucks." Like any other working parent, she is striving to balance her career with her role as mom, and it has taken her work in a completely different direction. Her job, she says, comes second to her sons' needs. "I don't believe in taking the kids out of school and out of their social circle for my work."

Lake's work as a birthing advocate has changed other parts of her life as well. She recently turned 40, and has a whole new attitude about her body. "I feel great," she says. "I've maintained my weight loss, and shopping is fun again. I'm a normal person now. I can't say I always love my body, but I work out all the time and I love how strong I am." She sees a clear connection between her comfort with her physical self and her passion about birth: "I don't think I could be doing this work without working through the issues of body image. I love the fact that I can hike for four miles and the fact that I can give birth on my own terms." For Lake, her choices about how to bring her children into the world have changed the way she sees her own place in that world.

Ricki Lake is very clear about why her choice to give birth at home was the best choice for her; she is also very clear that what she wants to see is not a movement of women giving birth in their bathtubs, but instead a change in the way we think about birth. She wants more women to think through their choices and to put themselves in a position to have ideal birth experience. "Women should be connected to their birth experience," Lake says, "not cut off from it or numbed to it." She is hopeful that her advocacy will change the way women -- and doctors -- think about the business of giving birth.

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