Finding My Voice Through The Reproductive Health Movement

Photo: Courtesy of Ricki Lake.
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After my first son was born, about 20 years ago, I had an epiphany. When my mother arrived at the hospital to meet the baby, I said to her, “Mom, this is my midwife. She delivered my baby!” My midwife stopped me and said, “No, Ricki. You delivered your baby. I helped you.”
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That was a real moment of ownership and pride over my power, and it truly initiated my interest in the reproductive health movement and the art of birth as a rite of passage. I was in awe of these women, these midwives, who got to see the magic of birth every day as their profession. I even wrote a story for SELF magazine called “I Want To Be A Midwife.” I started reading everything I could about childbirth and attending conferences about it. I was just so full of curiosity and wonder.
And then 9/11 happened.
It was just two months after my second son was born in my apartment in the West Village, less than two miles from the Twin Towers. I went from having this incredibly empowering and sacred experience in my home to witnessing a devastating, earth-shattering attack firsthand. It felt like the end of the world, and I was terrified for my life and for my sons.
That fear sparked something in me: It made me take a hard look at what I was doing with my life. When I thought about my talk show, as incredibly successful as it was, and as financially comfortable as it had made me, it wasn’t really my voice, and it wasn’t my passion. I wanted my legacy to go beyond baby mama drama and screaming step-siblings. I wanted to do work that was impactful and educational, work that was really going to help people, particularly women. And when I thought about what my passion truly was, I immediately thought of midwifery and how transformed I had been by my own birth experience.
The result of that introspection was the documentary The Business of Being Born, which is the most rewarding project I will ever do. It was so personal. And it was so on a whim. I had met the documentary filmmaker Abby Epstein (who is a complete genius and real visionary) when I was performing Off-Broadway in The Vagina Monologues (quite apropos!), and we’d stayed in touch over the years. It’s incredible the way the two of us came together to create this project and the way it turned out, if you think about it: Abby knew very little about midwives and had no interest in the subject at first. I had no clue what we were going to have at the end of it. And we certainly had no idea that our film would give birth (no pun intended) to a whole movement. We didn’t know the longevity that this film would have, the changes it would spark in the way hospitals handle childbirth.
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Last year, The Helping Hand of Los Angeles, which is a support group of Cedars-Sinai Hospital, named me Woman of the Year, which is so crazy to me, because we were the devils to these hospitals when the film first came out! They were angry about the truths we were uncovering about the questionable safety and unnecessary expense of their overuse of medical interventions during labor and delivery. They were offended by what we were saying. But our goal wasn’t to offend anyone — it was to educate people about what their options are, and make them aware that they have options in the first place.
Today, a crucial area where I believe people need to know more about their options is birth control. After all, there are pros and cons with any birth control choice you make — but it can be difficult and confusing to figure out what’s actually right for you.
Personally, I feel like I’ve tried every kind of birth control, and for many years, I shifted from option to option, from brand to brand, without thinking twice or truly questioning my medical providers about the benefits and risks. Now that I look back on it, I realize that some of the symptoms I dealt with over the years — think hair loss and mood swings, among others — may well have been related to the birth control choices I had made. That’s a big reason why Abby and I decided to collaborate on a new film, Sweetening The Pill.
While every body is different, and while, for every birth control option out there, there’s at least one person with a uterus who will feel great (and get just the protection they need) on it, it’s also true that there can be very real side effects. Even, rarely, dangers. My intention is absolutely not to scare people away from any one birth control option — it’s to help people gain true body literacy. I come from a place of no judgment: I don’t care what choice a woman makes when she’s having a baby or choosing a birth control — I just want her to be educated.
Part of me wants to say I wish I knew back then — back when I was making these choices early on in my journey as a woman — what I knew now. But truthfully, I don’t think I’d be doing this work if I had known. In a way, I needed that naivete to push me forward. And I’m so glad I have.
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Ricki Lake is an Emmy Award-winning television host and pop culture icon. She has channeled her nurturing spirit and drive for social change into passion projects that are altering the way society views birth, breastfeeding, and birth control. She and Abby Epstein will be presenting a sneak peek clip of their new documentary, Sweetening The Pill, at the CYCLES+SEX event in New York City on April 30. For tickets and more information, click here.
The views expressed here are the author's own.