Erstwhile talk-show host extraordinaire Ricki Lake’s engrossing new documentary, The Business of Being Born, weighs the risks and benefits of having a midwife-assisted natural birth rather than delivering in a hospital with doctors and drugs on hand. The film isn’t exactly neutral on the subject – it’s easy to come away with a terror of hospitals – but the footage of blissed-out, drug-free new mothers and their no-nonsense midwives makes a strong case for an experience that’s often dismissed as crunchy or unconscionably risky.
Babble spoke with the newly single mother of two and her director, Abby Epstein (whose own pregnancy progressed over the course of the film), about making such a personal movie, giving birth the old-fashioned way and the challenges of being a working mom in Hollywood. – Sara Cardace
How did the idea for your new film, The Business of Being Born, come about?
Ricki: Well, I had two very different birth experiences, and the second one was at home. After the first birth, I felt intrigued to learn about midwifery, and ended up using a midwife for my second one. I’m so fascinated by the profession, and all the misinformation that’s out there about midwives. My second son’s birth was something I researched for a long time, and then I had this birth experience that was so positively transformative.
Honestly, my first instinct was that I wanted to be a midwife, that I had this calling. But then I realized that I was probably better off being an advocate for them, and talking about the birth system, and what better way to do that than with a film? Abby and I had worked together previously on The Vagina Monologues, no pun intended, and we’d gotten friendly. So I ran the idea by her and gave her some books to read by Ina May Gaskin and Robbie Davis-Floyd. I was so inspired by them. Abby said, “I think we really have something here.”
If there’s one thing you’d like for women to take away from the movie, what would it be?
Ricki: I think Abby and I are both on the same page about this – I want to empower women and educate women so that they can make the best choice for them. We’re not telling women, “Oh, you should do this. I had a home birth so you should too.” I think today’s modern woman needs to know what the true statistics are and what the risks are, both for a natural, unmedicated birth and for a hospital one.
Ricki, you’re an especially interesting study for pregnant women who are in the process of deciding what kind of birth they’d like to choose, because you’ve given birth both in a hospital, with drugs, and at home, in a bathtub. How were the experiences different?
Ricki: Both of them were positive experiences because I was able to have two healthy children, both vaginally, so I feel like they were equally successful. But for the second one, I was in control of my body. I was in control of every decision that needed to be made, whether it was who was there, how many people I had with me, where I went into labor, there were no restraints. I found that to be . . . I don’t want to say . . . well, yes, it was better for me. I felt empowered and changed in a positive way from doing it on my own terms.
How horrific was the pain? Be honest.
Ricki: Different women have different experiences. The worst for me was going from seven to ten centimeters. That was the fastest, but also the most intense. I absolutely reached a point where I thought I couldn’t do it. There’s a moment that I talk about in the film where I heard an ambulance siren going past and I absolutely said, “Get me out of here.” But I tell people it was manageable pain, because I was able to do other things that the hospital really doesn’t allow – positioning any way possible, like on the birth ball, on the toilet, in the shower, out of the shower. I had so many other ways to deal with managing the pain. And I also had a goal, not only to build my family and have more children, but also to have this experience, to get through it, so it was really magical.
Abby: What we try to show in the film is that there’s a whole aspect to birth that people overlook, which is that it’s incredibly emotional, psychological and sexual. A lot of the experience depends on what your perception is going in, and how much fear has been built up in you through watching too much on TV and hearing too many bad stories. A lot of people, once they see the film, walk away saying that it was the first time they really felt okay about birth, especially people who haven’t had children.
Ricki: When I got pregnant with my first child – I’m a Virgo, so I was planning everything to the day – a friend of a friend had had a midwifery experience, and she told me her birth story and I’d never thought of doing a natural birth with a midwife before. But then once I heard this positive story, there was no question for me when I got pregnant, I wanted to do it that way. But it’s really the luck of the draw that I happened to hear that story . . .
Abby: I’ve noticed making this film that it really takes very little to kind of crack open the door for somebody. You just give them a tiny bit of information and suddenly they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know that midwives work in hospitals!” I didn’t know anything going into this movie. If I hadn’t known Ricki and made this movie, I probably would have gotten pregnant, stayed with my OB-GYN, gone to the hospital, gotten my epidural as soon as I could. No question.
Abby, in the film, you try to give birth at home and you end up having to go to the hospital. Did you ever feel like you’d made the wrong decision?
Abby: No. I mean, it’s hard to know how fast you’re gonna go. Looking back, I’d say if we had left for the hospital an hour earlier, that probably would have made for a smoother transfer . . . [Laughs] But I didn’t know. It was my first baby, and I thought I’d be one of those ten-hour labors and I would have all this time.
I have to admit that whenever you guys talked about the possibility of just heading to the hospital when there are complications, all I could think about was all the times I’ve been stuck in a New York cab for forty-five minutes trying to go ten blocks.
Abby: I think that you have to realize that they’re talking in a half-hour safety time. They know where each hospital is, which is the emergency one, which is the backup, and they’re thinking a half-hour into the future. One midwife, Cara, who’s in the film, has been doing this for thirteen years and I think she’s had only one transfer that was actually an emergency, and it had nothing to do with the baby. The woman had heavy bleeding afterward. But they’re never going to wait until the last minute. Usually in a labor you know when there are complications way ahead of time.
So, how old are your respective children now?
Ricki: My son Milo just turned ten, and my little guy’s five and a half.
Abby: Mattheo is ten months.
Ricki, you’ve been out of the spotlight for a bit. What’s been taking up your time, aside from the period when you were going crazy with this documentary?
Ricki: Well, first I was going crazy with my divorce. That was my big focus for awhile. I did an independent movie last year with Cheri Oteri and Alec Baldwin called Park, and then I did a pilot for ABC that we’ll find about in a week or two. Mostly I’ve just been pretty busy being a mom.
What kind of mom are you?
Ricki: I hope a good one. I try to not make some of the mistakes that my parents made. My kids are really well-adjusted, happy, beautiful children, so I think so far so good. My ex and I did get divorced. We separated about three and a half years ago and of course that was hard, but in the last year or so, we’ve gotten really great together. We’re really partners in raising the kids. I tell people that we’re kind of the positive example of a good divorce. It’s not ideal, and it’s not what I would have hoped for, but it certainly could have been a lot worse. I’m really proud of the two people we brought into the world, who are the reason this movie came about for me in the first place.
Abby: She’s an amazing mom. She’s so hands-on. She drives them to school, she picks them up, she schleps them to everything.
Ricki: I’m picking them up right now!
What are their current obsessions?
Ricki: My oldest son is a guitar prodigy. He’s like Jimi Hendrix reborn. He plays his own gigs around town. He’s playing the Hermosa Comedy Club next week and he just turned ten. He’s amazing. And my little Owen is an incredible artist; my ex is a beautiful artist and Owen seems to have picked up his talents. They love basketball; we love the Lakers, and we still love the Yankees because we’re always New Yorkers at heart. It’s such a privilege to be able to call them my children. I’ve been laying low lately and that was a conscious decision. I’m an actor, but I will never do anything to compromise my children’s stability – their social life, their schooling.
It was a big deal moving out of New York three years ago, and I won’t take a job if it’s out of town for a long period of time, because I won’t take them with me and I won’t leave them, so that kind of limits the opportunities that come up for me. But that’s the commitment I made when I had kids. I had the show for eleven years and it was great for a working mother. It was the ideal job. When I wanted to do other things, there was no way I was going to be, you know, Demi Moore or all these actresses that are able to pick up and bring their kids with them for three months. I won’t do that. I don’t feel like I’ve had to make too many sacrifices. It’s easy. It’s just what I decided to do when I had kids. Like I said, I’m a Virgo, and I plan everything to a tee.
And Abby, you’re still working? Have you taken some time off?
Abby: It’s been pretty non-stop since the birth, especially since it was all filmed and I was the birthing mom and the filmmaker all at the same time. Editing with the newborn was kind of nutso. I think I’m going to take a little rest after this festival, hoping that we sell the movie and everything goes well. And then we’ll see. Ricki and I have a lot of little spin-off ideas.
Ricki: I think they’re big ideas.
Abby: Yes – big ideas. Even politically, we’ve been talking to the UN. They have this division called the UN SPA that tries to call attention to the horrible infant mortality rates around the world and improving maternity care. We’ve been talking to them about making Ricki a visible spokesperson that might go around the world with our film trying to raise awareness about safe motherhood. And then we have more commercial projects we’re thinking about, because it’s really sort of a bottomless subject. I feel like our eighty-minute film just focuses on the U.S. and we just really break the first ground, but there’s so much more to it.
Ricki, everyone’s talking about the fact that you decided to include footage of your own birth in the film.
Ricki: Yeah, I guess I kind of expected that would be titillating.
Abby: Meanwhile, it’s so ironic because there was literally a point when we were editing the film where we couldn’t figure out where to put Ricki’s birth in – just structurally, it was really hard! And Ricki was like, “You mean my birth isn’t going to be in the film after all this!?” We’ve been living with it for so long that we forget, and now of course all the news media are like “Ricki Lake! Naked in the tub!”
Ricki: They’re mean! They say Ewww. But I think it’s important. I believe in this enough to show an unflattering side of me. I felt like it was necessary. I’m scared to death, but I don’t feel ew about it.
Abby: I hope not. It’s gorgeous.