My message is about empowerment during childbirth, but it is so much bigger than that. The way that we experience birth matters for a lifetime. A mother will take the birth journey to her grave, remembering most every detail. How she is made to feel during that journey will impact her self-confidence for the rest of her days. You see, birth is on a continuum from traumatic to empowering, with very few women landing in the middle. There is so much at stake here since the majority of women will land on the side of trauma. Birth doesn’t have to be that way! And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The birth experience also affects the baby lifelong. It affects mother/baby bonding and thus family relations that spill into social relations and in turn effect whole communities. In fact, there is an American Indian proverb that says, “If you want to create a tribe of warriors, you traumatize their birth; if you want to create a tribe of peace makers, you caudle their birth.” Because birth has a huge impact. Moreover, there are physical or clinical impacts! At the end of the day, what my books and the surrounding workshops, lectures, and courses offer is so much more than just childbirth preparation. We are talking about life skills and a turning point that affects people’s experiences with the world from this moment forwards.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aisha Al Hajjar.
Aisha is a mother of eight naturally born, breastfed children. She experienced birth in three different countries, starting with her home country, USA, followed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Recognizing that many mothers suffer trauma in childbirth due to lack of knowledge, preparation, and support, she set out on a journey to study midwifery in order to gather experiences that guided her preparation of a package of childbirth education books and curriculum used to empower expectant families around the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
When I was 9 years old, I told my mother that I wanted to be a baby doctor, the one who delivers babies. She replied to me, “You know, you’d have to work on all the major holidays and even on your birthday.” This discouraging statement crushed my dreams of becoming an obstetrician before they could even start. Little did I know, I would eventually become a midwife and international advocate for birthing rights and that I would travel the world to train community childbirth educators and doulas and to speak at conferences and workshops where I am able to influence the perspectives of obstetricians and other maternity workers from very diverse backgrounds.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Not a book, but a person. When I was seventeen, I was acquainted with a woman who had five children, I believe her name was Lori Huckaby and we both lived in Las Vegas. I remember thinking at the time that she had too many children! Little did I know that I would later have eight myself! She was someone who had a passion for childbirth and was always talking about it. I heard she had a home birth and that seemed so extreme (and now I’m a home birth midwife!). I didn’t know what all the hype was about at the time, but she definitely got my attention. Later when I was twenty — six and expecting my first baby, I remembered her passion for birth. I still didn’t know what it was all about, but I knew that it was starkly different than anyone else who spoke to me about childbirth. It seemed there were two extremes, the masses who described birth as a dark cloud looming in my future, and this woman, who made birth seem like the most empowering event of your life. I wanted to get a little taste of her perspective and so I began my quest for knowledge. I lost touch with this woman long before I had my first baby but I wish I could find her now and tell her how much she influenced me and thus the multitudes that are forever changed by the work that I now do. I’m quite sure she has no idea that she made such an impact on my life, and the lives of others.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Well let’s say from my motherhood “career,” which relates to my birth work. When I was giving birth to my last baby, number eight, I didn’t make it to the hospital on time. In fact, I didn’t even make it out of the house! Now, mind you, this is before I was midwife. I ended up birthing the baby in the washroom and, thankfully, my husband caught her and kept her from hitting the floor. However, in the midst of my most intense moments, my husband says to me, “HUSH! You’re going to wake the kids!”
I looked up at him, with a sense of disbelief, and said to him, “You can’t hush me now!” I mean come on! I was in the middle of bringing a baby into the world!
As a result of this experience, I took away a lesson that was huge. You see, birth is instinctual and will run itself if left undisturbed. However, we rarely will birth in an undisturbed state. Most will deliver in a hospital setting with three to six people watching them. These people, be they partners, family members, doulas, nurses, doctors, midwives, are all well intending people, but they will constantly interrupt the birthing mother’s rhythm. They will interrupt her instinctual mode and pull her into her social or thinking brain, over and over again.
Every statement made to the birthing mother, and especially questions or judgmental words, will interrupt her ability to access her instincts. You see, when my husband said, “HUSH! You’re going to wake the kids!” it was as if he pulled me into an altered sense of consciousness, from my instincts into social awareness. He broke my rhythm and I realize now that I was very fortunate that I was able to turn away from him and get back down to business. However, what I recognize, having accompanied numerous families in labor, is that most women, once they are pulled into their thinking or social brain, they cannot get back to instincts. This leaves them vulnerable to instructions and dominance from anyone who speaks up and takes charge. This is why birthing women will go against instincts in favor of submission to harmful medical practices (such as lying on their back to give birth) and they feel powerless to speak up for themselves. It’s because they cannot access their instincts, which drive birth.
This is why knowledge about, and preparation for childbirth are so important. If you are going to be birthing in an environment with interruptions, especially in an overly medicalized environment, where we do too much to women in labor and actually cause more harm than good in some cases, you need to have education and preparation and a birth plan to back you up. Knowledge is power and preparation is key!
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
My message is about empowerment during childbirth, but it is so much bigger than that. The way that we experience birth matters for a lifetime. A mother will take the birth journey to her grave, remembering most every detail. How she is made to feel during that journey will impact her self-confidence for the rest of her days.
You see, birth is on a continuum from traumatic to empowering, with very few women landing in the middle. There is so much at stake here since the majority of women will land on the side of trauma. Birth doesn’t have to be that way! And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The birth experience also affects the baby lifelong. It affects mother/baby bonding and thus family relations that spill into social relations and in turn effect whole communities. In fact, there is an American Indian proverb that says, “If you want to create a tribe of warriors, you traumatize their birth; if you want to create a tribe of peace makers, you caudle their birth.” Because birth has a huge impact.
Moreover, there are physical or clinical impacts! At the end of the day, what my books and the surrounding workshops, lectures, and courses offer is so much more than just childbirth preparation. We are talking about life skills and a turning point that affects people’s experiences with the world from this moment forwards.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
In the AMANI Birth book, I talk about the dangers of pharmaceutical pain relief that is given to laboring women. Most families don’t realize that these medications come with risks or that there are any other options than drugs for coping with the discomforts of labor. I share a story in my book of a woman who was offered an induction of labor at 38-weeks (two weeks prior to her due date) because her doctor had vacation plans and wanted to be the one to catch (a paycheck).
She accepted, as she was enticed by the doctor’s offer of an epidural (regional anesthesia administered in the spinal cavity that numbs from the waist down) before starting the drugs that would bring on contractions, thus she wouldn’t even have to feel her birth at all. Being young and scared, this sounded like a great idea. But lo and behold! When the epidural was placed into her spinal cavity it was placed a bit too high. This rendered her paralyzed from the nose down. She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t breathe (voluntarily nor involuntarily), and she couldn’t even raise her arm to reach out to anyone. Luckily, they realized what was happening (thanks to the fetal monitor revealing a baby in severe oxygen deprivation), and the doctor did an emergency, bedside, cesarean section while the anesthesiologist intubated the mother and started a breathing machine. Thankfully, they saved both mom and baby.
Ironically, at the end of the day, this mother feels fortunate that her care providers acted quickly to save her and her baby. Either she doesn’t realize, or prefers not to accept, that it was the unnecessary and risky medical interventions that almost led to her and her baby’s demise in the first place! Had she just waited and let the natural process unfold, she wouldn’t have been in a dire emergency to begin with!
There are so many cases like this one, where medical interventions are offered and accepted, more as a matter of routine or convenience than a matter of true medical necessity. Afterwards, our doctors are left chasing the complications these interventions cause with bigger and bigger interventions to mitigate the cascade of issues that follow. Now mind you, all the while increasing the cost of the medical care being delivered. If we would only realize that most of the interventions given to us in labor are not be necessary in the first place. We could reduce so much trauma and damage, if mothers would just be patient, trust the natural process, and get prepared to cope with the normal physiologic event of childbirth without all of these unnecessary pharmaceuticals and interventions.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I had five children, all born naturally, without pain meds or interventions, in various hospitals in the United States before converting to Islam and moving overseas. When I had my sixth baby in Egypt, I realized that birth was even more dominated and medically interventive than back home. I also discovered a birth culture where women were not educated or prepared about their coming journey, fathers were not involved, and most every woman was being drugged or even put to sleep for the most miraculous event of their lives. It was routine for their birth canal to be cut during delivery, if not just given cesarean sections.
When I moved to Saudi Arabia and was pregnant with my seventh, I found it to be a bit better, but there was still lack of knowledge in the community about childbirth, with no education opportunities and doctors were making all their decisions based on routine protocols and practices, many of which were/are outdated and even harmful.
Then it hit me, “If anyone should be trusting the natural process of birth, it should be my Muslim sisters!” I mean, after all, Muslims are a community of people who believe that God created all things. If you start from that premise, wouldn’t that mean that He created women to conceive, carry, birth, and feed their babies? The idea that Muslim societies were turning their back on what has been created by God and accepting all these unnecessary routines and harmful interventions, as if they were the norm, blew my mind.
I set out to raise awareness. To bring childbirth back to its foundational roots. To work from the bottom up and top down, that is to prepare families for childbirth while also training medical personnel to support the normal physiologic process, unless there truly is a complication warranting interventions. Having said that, I also committed to preparing my materials in varied languages, and to-date we have my books and training materials published or being translated from English to Arabic, Indonesia, Bengali, French, German, and Urdu.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Where to start!?! There are literally thousands. However, a special one that comes to mind is a mother of petite size who had two cesareans before I met her. She herself is a medical doctor and she trusted her obstetrician when he told her she was too small for childbirth and elective surgical birth would be best.
Unfortunately, she is a severe asthmatic and she had adverse reactions to the anesthesia in both of her surgeries and she ended up in ICU, in critical condition, separated from her babies the first days of both of their lives. She and her husband had wanted a large family, but after these experiences, they decided two was enough.
Well, God had other plans and she got pregnant again. Both she and her husband were terrified to go through the trauma again…and then they found me. They read my books and they attended one of my workshops. They left empowered and prepared and they had evidence-based information at their fingertips. They felt ready for a normal birth.
She successfully had a VBA2C (Vaginal Birth After 2 Cesareans) and it was the most empowering experience of their lives. They went on to have several more children, including a set of twins, all born naturally and without any further interventions or complications. Mind you, they had to work hard to find supportive care providers for their first VBAC and especially later when she was expecting twins.
As a result, this couple has gone on to be great advocates for AMANI Birth, the book and the childbirth education program, and they have dedicated their lives to bringing this knowledge to their community. We cannot even count how many lives their advocacy has impacted and they are firm believes in the AMANI philosophies and have taken the torch and carried it forward. Childbirth is supposed to be empowering, and with knowledge and preparation it truly is!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Absolutely! Number one, revamp the way that doctors are trained in medical school so that there is a focus on normal physiology before pathology is studied. Insist that medical students experience normal, non-medicated, respected and supported childbirth first and foremost, and then they can go on to learn all about complications and their life-saving interventions
Second, every mother deserves childbirth education and doula services. In fact, these programs and services are proven to result in better clinical outcomes. At the same time, childbirth educators and doulas deserve to collect a living wage. With the high rates of maternal and infant morbidity and mortality in the US (and other issues around the world), it is time that our politicians create legislation that would require these services to be covered by all insurance providers with a reimbursement rate that values the work and the lives impacted and even saved.
Third, hold medical systems responsible for evidence-based and respectful care and require updating and eliminating harmful practices. We are performing far too many unnecessary interventions, including cesarean sections, and we are at a point where we have lost sight of normal physiology. In fact, the World Health Organization says, “By medicalizing birth, i.e. separating a woman from her own environment and surrounding her with strange people using strange machines to do strange things to her in an effort to assist her, the woman’s state of mind and body is so altered that her way of carrying through this intimate act must also be altered and the state of the baby born must equally be altered. The result is that it is no longer possible to know what births would have been like before these manipulations. Most health care providers no longer know what ‘non-medicalized’ birth is. The entire modern obstetric and neonatological literature is essentially based on observations of ‘medicalized’ birth.”
We are overdue (pun intended) for childbirth reforms that focus on education, nutrition and physical and mental preparation of women in pregnancy, and support during labor, birth, and early postpartum; along with medical training and policies that are supportive of normal physiology, which can reduce harms and even save lives.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the act of inspiring others. As a leader in the field of birthing rights, it is my job to pass the torch, to train and teach others, and to reach the masses. In this regard, I have not only authored a half dozen publications, but I have also established a curriculum based on these texts that trains local community members to go forth and raise awareness, teach, and serve others. Leadership means to stand up for the most vulnerable, in this case birthing mothers and their babies, and speak out for evidence-based change for the sake of better outcomes for each and every one.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I can actually share five things that were told to me that were inspiring and life changing on my journey.
- When I first began my professional journey, I knew I needed more than just my own personal birth experiences to write a book or build a program. With this understanding I enrolled in midwifery school and set the pathway of learning. The night before the first day of classes, I was scared. I was already a mother of eight. I didn’t need a new career and committing to a four-year degree seemed daunting at best. I expressed my hesitation to my husband, who told me, “If not you, Aisha, then who? You were blessed with eight, beautiful natural births, you know what birth can and should be. If you don’t speak up and raise awareness about the Secrets from the Labor Room, then who will? In our religion, we are told, if you see an oppression you must do something about it. If you cannot act, you must speak up. At the very least you must pray. Aisha, you were gifted the ability and the means to do this. How will you answer to your Lord on the Day of Judgment if you don’t take these gifts and carry them forward?” And with that I jumped head first into my studies and my vision to empower mothers and bring a new perspective of childbirth to care providers around the world and I have never looked back.
- When I had just a few chapters of my first book left I was feeling really bogged down. I didn’t feel like writing much anymore and I was more concerned with re-editing (for the 100th time) the pages that I had already written. It was my husband again, who said, “Just finish it, Aisha. Stop editing and get it done. Stop trying for perfection. Get it published, get it out there. You will always find a typo, or little things to fix in your writing. Your message is too important to sit on your desk waiting for one more read through.” Although I was nervous to release my work, I realize now that he was so right! My need to edit was a manifestation of my fear to show the world what I had written. “Stop editing and get it done,” was the push I needed to move forward.
- After four years of study, I earned my Bachelor of Science in Midwifery. I was relieved to be done and tired of school. Then I received an invitation from the president of my college to continue on to the master’s program. My knee-jerk reaction was, NO WAY, I’m done now! And you guessed it, it was my supportive and guiding husband who encouraged me, “Take it to the next level. Never stop learning, updating, researching your topic. Continue to discover, grow and revise. You will always have something new to learn and taking it to the next level ensures you are delivering stellar products and services to your followers.” So, I did. I went on to get my Master of Science in Midwifery and the professionalism I gained through that journey has been priceless. It has also given me more leverage when dealing with medical professionals, as there is an increased degree of respect that comes from earning a higher degree.
- At various junctures on the journey I have hesitated to make an investment of time or money in something new. My husband has always been my rock and has reminded me, “Don’t worry about the time or the money. Invest what you need to and let God worry about the provision. Walk through the doors He opens. He brought you to this, surely, He will bring you through it!” This has played out time and time again, from the investment of time and money into my education, to the global travel to teach and speak to varied audiences. We haven’t always earned what we’re worth, but we’ve always been provided for. God sends His servants out in the morning to do His work and they come back fed and satisfied in the evening. I truly don’t “want” for anything in my life, except for my work to reach the many people who need it.
- I’ve always been the type of person to do it all myself. I’m intuitive and a quick learner. But there are some tasks that, although important, are routine or menial and are better done by a hired staff, and there are other tasks that are highly technical and beyond my immediate scope of ability that should be outsourced to people with talents in the needed area. I hesitated hiring others for the first nine years thinking we couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do work I could do, or figure out how to do, myself. “Don’t be afraid to ask for or hire help. You cannot do it all on your own. Let it go and get the help you need.” In 2019 I finally submitted to his advice and we contracted twelve of our AMANI affiliates to work with us and support our efforts. I was really nervous about how we could afford to pay them, but over a year and a half has passed and, somehow, we manage to make payroll every month. What’s even better is that the support from their work has freed me up to create. I’ve written two books in less than a year and we have moved our entire training online, which has really removed barriers to access and allowed us to reach even more families and communities than ever before.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can do anything you set your mind to.” This came from my mother. Yes, the same one who distracted me from my dream of become a “baby doctor.” Despite that moment of discouragement, she was otherwise consistently supportive. She always believed in me and she instilled confidence in me that allowed me to take risks and push myself harder than most of my peers. I was never afraid to fail, and it is my mother’s words that drive me to just get out there and do it, because I know I can do anything I set my mind to.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to have a chat with Eddie Redzovic of The Deen Show. Eddie is a Muslim convert who inspires hundreds of thousands of followers with his talk show. He interviews guests and recently did a chat with a home birth midwife from Chicago. I was so impressed! I tried to write to him through his social media, but I’m sure my messages were not even noticed. So, I sent him a free copy of my book, AMANI Birth, Quick Guide for Fathers, which is, as it is titled, a quick read for dads to help them support their wives through their childbearing journey. As with all of my materials it is founded on evidence-based practices and religious principles. Although I know the book was delivered to him, or one of his staff, I don’t know if he’s seen it and I haven’t heard from him. I would love to have a chat with him about why childbirth and the way we go through it matters, especially to the Muslim family. I feel that his audience would benefit from knowing more about normal physiologic birth and how birth is a form of worship. So, I hope you do tag him and that he responds. ☺
How can our readers further follow your work online?
First of all, they can get a free copy of my latest book, Secrets from the Labor Room, and they can sign up for a free live webinar with me. They can visit amanibirth.online/resources to find out how to request their free book and to purchase my other publications, explore becoming an AMANI Birth teacher or doula, to enroll in online childbirth education classes for expectant parents, or to find a local AMANI Birth teacher in their own community. Of course they can also like AMANI Birth on Facebook where I do weekly live interviews called, “AMANI Changed my Life,” and Instagram.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!