The Natural Alignment Plateau

As I discuss the benefits of labor and birth on the making of a mother I can not overlook something that is often missed or misdiagnosed. Within the Bradley Method it is called the Natural Alignment Plateau (credit to Marjie Hathaway). It is the time sometime during labor when there is a 'stall' in cervical dilation. Sometimes this occurs just before transition, but can happen at any time when it looks like nothing is happening! It is often misdiagnosed as the all too commonly heard "failure to progress" or "CPD" (big baby, small mama). What it actually is nobody really knows, but any woman who has cervical dilation checked frequently during labor may be familiar with it, if not by name.
According to textbooks, a woman should dilate in a specific way, usually so many centimeters per hour after she has reached active labor. If you are getting frequent cervical exams (another subject altogether) you may hear something like this:
3:00am = 5cm; 4:00am = 6cm; 5:00am = 6cm; 6:00am, still 6 cm; 7:00am =6cm (You must be broken!)
Around this time, if not earlier you may hear murmurs that you need a "little something to get things going" because "your body just needs a little help, you look tired honey, no reason to drag this out all day". This can be emotionally and mentally discouraging since this entire time you are laboring right along with no apparent progress, despite your hard work and even pain.
However, a woman left alone is often very different from a textbook left alone and is quite capable of rapidly dilating around 7:15 and having a baby in her arms by 7:30am.
This apparent break in progress that is easily measurable by a cervical check is what we refer to as the natural alignment plateau. It is a time in labor where it looks like things aren't happening (though it certainly feels like they are). It is easy to think that maybe this woman's body just doesn't work right when in fact, it simply works in it's own way and speed.
What is going on at this time? Let us assume that work is certainly underway- what is it? If you are not dilating your body could certainly be preparing for your baby in many other ways. Maybe the baby is rotating to a more convenient position so that it can edge its way out of that birth canal. Maybe your breasts are preparing to produce colostrum. Maybe the mother herself needs a few more hours to be pregnant and prepare emotionally for the birth of her child. Maybe she needs time to let go of the pregnant time (which some women really do love and miss) and prepare for the new journey into motherhood. Maybe mom needs a few more hours with just her husband before they become a family. There are many reasons why a woman would appear to "not progress" when she is in fact progressing in many ways- they just are not easy to measure or see.
If you are already a mother you can probably see how this stage in labor prepares you for your birth as a mother. We all love being mothers but it is without a doubt a job with difficulties. A mother who stays home with her children may find herself to be socially isolated, pausing her education or career, delaying vacations or other things for herself, and so on. We give things up to be a mother. Sometimes the things we give up make it look, from an outsiders view, like we are failing to progress.
I would contend that mothers do in fact progress as people and human beings, something Betty Friedan thought was a basic human need. However, when your day begins swirling a cloth diaper in the toilet, and ends... well, swirling a cloth diaper in the toilet, it is easy to feel like not much is happening. Besides of course, lots of cooking, cleaning, shopping, bathing, and basically jobs that even if you do them all day and go to bed exhausted, they are not actually over!
What do we learn from this journey as a mother? I think we all get to make our choice about that. It is easy some days to feel miserable and buy into the idea that if you are not producing something easily measurable (money in real life as opposed to dilation in labor) you just are not really doing much. But- we as women must recognize the value of our work, that though never finished, rarely appreciated, and often, simply unnoticed, it is indeed valuable.
It is important for us also to continue to progress as we mother, even if we are the stay at home variety. Education does not have to stop because we don't have time for a formal education. Nor does service, learning, personal skills or many other things. We are probably, just by the nature of our jobs as mothers, developing some pretty key life virtues. Namely, patience, unconditional love, charity, humility, and sacrifice.
Yes, the mother in our world is often seen as somebody who doesn't progress if she does not go along with the commonly accepted measurements, but she can certainly progress in ways unseen and unmeasurable. I feel incapable of preaching on this subject because I often feel like I am not progressing as a person as I mother my children every day. Despite my own failings in this area, I know that women need to find joy and value in this time of life. It is a gift given to focus on the things we need to improve that are necessary not for monetary benefit, but for spiritual and emotional benefit. Just as in labor, we must trust that our bodies are working, that we are capable, and that just because what we are doing is invisible, it is still work and it is still important. We must also forget about what 'experts' seem to think matters, and listen to our instincts about what we need to be doing at this time in our lives.
I certainly do not mean this as a sappy glorification of motherhood. I do not want to patronize anybody. But these lessons must be learned by all of us. It is amazing to me that our bodies try to teach us this lesson before we even have that baby in our arms.
Fight the Power!


Harshes said…
a very thought provoking post!
Laura said…
As a stay-at-home mom of twins and a natural childbirth (Bradley) educator, I fully appreciated this post. Thank you. It made me cry. You are so right, the progress of a mother is often invisible and that's so very hard on some of us.
Jeanna said…
I loved this reminder that even when it doesn't look/feel like I'm progressing anywhere, I can still be growing--and my kids too. Thanks!
VixenVillain said…
I love this. So true. Thanks for sharing.
Penguin said…
I wish I had read this two weeks ago before our birth. I plateaued at 5cm for 15 hours and went to the hospital for a c-section. I was pretty devastated least now I know next time for a vbac. :)