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  • Writer's pictureNeža Krek


with Chitra Natarajan

My guest today is Chitra Natarajan, originally from southern India, and now living in the Netherlands with her partner and their daughter. She's an HR professional turned birth educator, a certified hypnotherapist, businesswoman and a podcaster of the “Baby, ahoy", where she talks about women's health, birthing stories, human rights and babies.

When she doesn't do that, you will find her singing in a women's choir, drinking loads of chai, taking long walks in the woods, or diving into interior design. Or maybe she'll be lifting weights.

We met each other about six years ago and facilitation brought us together in a way. I became her client when I was pregnant with our first. I know from experience that if I hadn't gone through your education with your guidance, I would have had a very different birthing experience. I'm so grateful for that knowledge you gave me through your practice. That's why I really wanted to interview you. It is about education. But for me, it's so much more. It's also about what are we learning. What do we need to unlearn? What have we forgotten as fundamental knowledge of our body, wisdom, society and community?

How do you go from being an HR professional to being a birth educator?

I was working in the corporate field and doing my compensation and benefits. I was doing performance appraisal, employee engagement, and connecting with people. Connecting with people gives me a lot of energy. So that's something that I've always sort of held on to. I have a background in sciences, and I actually wanted to become a dentist. So I did my graduation in sciences and then I decided that doing research under the microscope was not my thing. I wanted to diversify and got into human resources.

I did my Masters in Human Resources, and got into being a recruiter. We were in Africa and wanted to have a child. We wanted to move back to India because every single country that you live in has its own hospital system and birthing system. I was not very happy with the kind of access to the hospitals that we had there. When we were thinking about having a baby, we said: “well, this is what it is”.

We were also really young. So we moved back to India. And I again, picked up a job in a corporate ID company. I was working in HR when we got pregnant. And I decided to actually stay back in India because I wanted to have the family support to be able to navigate the whole process. As soon as we moved to India, Anand's company wanted us to move to the US.

I freaked out immediately saying: “Oh, my God, we've just moved from Africa to India and from here all the way to the US”. I definitely wanted to have the support system, I knew the system in India and I would be able to work. I had a very good birthing experience. I had an OBGYN, only later to realize that that was not a norm. That was an exception. I had a very healthy pregnancy and my OBGYN was also extremely positive. You're young, you're healthy. How bad can it be?

She was guiding me in a very gentle way. She was not telling me about all the wrong things that could happen, the other things that can go wrong. She was not pushing me into anything else. But there was one thing that she basically mentioned, which I also didn't question. When she said that we'll wait till 40 weeks, and I don't go into labor, they would induce me.

I didn't think too much about it. I was preparing myself because I was still working. But I was also preparing myself with Ina may Gaskin book. I was doing yoga and a generic childbirth education course. I was trying to read but at the same time, I was also sort of falling into the category of “maybe she knows best because she seems to be letting me be”. She knows best.

Luckily, I went into labor at 39 weeks and four days. I always wonder how it would have been. If I hadn't gone into labor by 40 weeks, she would have definitely induced me. I think my experience would have been a completely different birthing experience to what I had with money. I think I was lucky. Later I got to know that there were a lot of things that happened in my birth that could have been different as well.

We moved to the US when he was three months old. I was raising him and I had a few of my other friends who got pregnant. They wanted to know how I had such a great birthing experience. I gave them tips, tricks and the books that I read. The things that I did. And the feedback was so amazing. They told me I am really good at what I do and say and that the resources were amazing.

I was waiting for my work permit so that I could start working. Again, in HR, I was not even thinking about doing any of this. The paperwork took some time. Anand came home and told me we had to move to the Netherlands. It was a fantastic opportunity for us. We decided to go for a year or two and then move back to the US.

I've been here for 10 years now. It doesn't let you move because everything sort of works really well. To a point where you find your tribe, and your space, you feel comfortable about staying here. I think that's the beauty of living in the Netherlands. I was also really apprehensive in the beginning because I was trying to learn Dutch and I applied with the same company as my husband. I had a job offer to join them. I moved here thinking that everything would be great.

It was always about getting back to HR. I moved here only to realize that there was a 48 month waiting time for putting my child in a daycare. We used to live in Utrecht at the time. I would literally call people and I would beg. I'm talking about 15 years ago, where people were not extremely friendly when it came to somebody speaking to you in English. There were not many expats around.

It was such a difference then. You sort of felt like people would talk. You're in my country, you should be speaking the language. I responded that I've just arrived and they would ask me why I am here? Everyone was just curious about why we were here. It was literally like hitting a wall. I had to say either yes or no to the offer of the company. They really wanted somebody to take over the corporate training for Benelux.

I thought I would put money in a daycare. I would work full time. Once in three months, I was expected to either be in Brussels, Luxembourg or LA. I said yes to everything. Sometimes you are just young. And you think all of this is possible. Nothing fell in place. So I was really upset about it. I came in an identity crisis. I'm a mother, and I really enjoyed that role. But I am also this other person. I'd really like to have my identity back. There was a little bit of resentment with my husband, that he made me move here. He made a point, because I did get the job offer. But what we didn't know was how difficult it would be to get into a daycare.

I'm also talking about the time where there was no social media, no connections whatsoever, you have to do your own research. I was also a bit bitter with the company that gave me the offer, not wanting us to know about any of this, just saying that everything would be fine. It was not fine. But nobody told me that.

What clicked at that moment? How did you then make the move towards being a birth educator?

That was also the time when Anand's father passed away very suddenly, and then my dad passed away within a span of eight month. I had to basically be shuttling between India and the Netherlands with the baby. I've always had this thing with me that what I do, has to be enjoyable. And that's what I need to connect with and be happy about. With the things that I was going through at that point, there was a lot of turmoil in the household, he lost his diet, and he was trying to process it. I lost my diet, I was trying to process it.

I just said that going to the corporate world just wasn't going to work anymore. So I had two options. One was the birthing world. I really like what was happening in the Dutch maternity care. Also because my next door neighbor in Utrecht was pregnant. She said that she would definitely go to the hospital to give birth. She ended up giving birth at home and I could hear the baby cry.

I was so in awe of what had happened. Of course, the next morning, they had to go to the hospital to make sure the baby got checked. But it was a home birth. That sort of opened my eyes to possibilities and I wanted to explore this field. I was still interviewing with a lot of other companies. But at the same time it made me want to look more into maternity care.

That's when I wanted to do a certification as a birth professional. I went to the US to work with a mentor and did my training. And I was going to give it a try and if it doesn't work, I would find a way back into the corporate world and wait until my child is in school. I wanted to give it a go because I was really passionate about it. I had an amazing birth and I was trying to connect the dots. Talking to my grandmother, where she had given birth at home to where my mother gave birth to me in the hospital, where I gave birth to my daughter in the hospital. So I was seeing that disconnect from what happened and how the transition from home to hospital birth happened.

Whereas in the western world in a country like the Netherlands, it was a long standing tradition of giving birth at home. That made me very curious. How is it even possible that we think it's a risk, while the Dutch women think it's absolutely okay to give birth at home? Why is it that people go to a midwife, whereas we think that it's important that we go to an OBGYN. I wanted to understand the cultural aspects of why mothers feel comfortable doing that. That's how my whole passion for exploring the birthing world came into existence. I think it was just curiosity.

Could you tell a bit more about the purpose that drives you?

Losing my dad, and losing Anand's dad. Because his dad was my best friend. So quickly and so all of a sudden, changed my attitude towards life. I no longer wanted to work for someone else. I've always had this entrepreneurial part in me because my dad was an entrepreneur. I've had multiple conversations with him where he told me that I was like him, that I should get a business and that I should get into something that would make me feel comfortable rather than working for someone else.

But then I also really liked the discipline that came with the corporate world, because there are certain processes that you need to follow. You're also learning and growing, there are a lot of other training opportunities. It sort of helps you reorient yourself and helps you grow as a person. So I really like that. But at the same time, I always sort of thought about what my dad used to tell me.

When we were really young, my dad had an opportunity to move to Germany to work for TV. He was an electronics engineer. He wanted to explore possibilities. But then he also declined this because he had two small children and it was going to be difficult to get a visa for the whole family. He also didn't want to work for someone else.

If tomorrow, Anand said that we would have to go to Sweden, I should be in a position to pack my bags, go there and establish myself. There will always be birth, all the time. It was not only about achieving or making money, but to give something back to the community. About how I can work with women and make sure that they understand that physiologically that all of this is a possibility?

Why is that combination of independence, women and understanding that there's a difference so important to you?

I didn't know a lot of things when I was pregnant. Nobody told me. And again, nobody should even tell you. I think everybody has to do their own research to come and find out. It was extremely important for me to feel safe in the environment where I was pregnant. I didn't want anyone to tell me, I was also not seeking that information either.

There was an institution that I was going to follow. I had that mentality that I thought they knew what they were doing but I would do my own research and try to find a balance. I was not going to question the system. For me, even as I was doing my childbirth, education and everything when I was pregnant, there were a lot of things that they told me that I didn't question. Rather than to ask why.

I wanted to question the status quo, I wanted to make sure that people understand that there is a different way. I wanted to understand this advancement in medical technology, and advancement. How can science help us? Because we have enough data and research. At the same time, I want to talk to women about their own rights. I think that's very important. For me, I felt so much more empowered, when I started reading up. When I started understanding the whole physiology of labor, and the science behind - it was fascinating. I wanted to bring science and work with people together to empower them and make sure that they have a good birthing experience. That made me passionate about the birthing world.

The unfortunate thing was with all my friends in India, at that point in time, most of them have had a C section. And they were all very young. Really healthy but having C section births. They told them it would be too painful so you will have a C section. And said it's easy for you to recover from a C section. They'll give you pain medication. So there were constant conversations around C sections. There were no conversations around what happens with that in a book. To look back I've had enough time and experience now to reflect back on what was happening.

Why should we young women have a huge surgery? Honestly, I was also prepared for that if there is an emergency. If you have to give me a C section, I'm absolutely fine with it. But thank God that it went so well. I was an exception. I couldn't come to terms with the fact that I was an exception. It means that only 3 or 4% of the population would have this kind of experience. We have enough money to be able to spend on health care. Why is it that we are being given routine C sections? Whereas a mother who comes from below the poverty line probably needs a C section and probably a blood transfusion. But she doesn't have an opportunity to do that, because she's poor.

So now you've had your practice for 12 years now? You offer a course in Hypnobirthing. Can you briefly explain what Hypnobirthing is? And what is this course about?

I trained Hypnobirthing with Marie Mongan. She wanted to bring in hypnotherapy tools into the birthing world for her daughter, when she wanted to give birth to her grandson. The idea is, how mothers cope when they're in labor. We've been asked to lie down. When attached to machines, we were asked not to eat or drink. Lying down is the worst thing that you can actually do to yourself when you're in labor.

Freedom of movement is very important. If you think about any animal, you can't ask an animal to lay down. What do they do, whether it's a domesticated animal, like a cow, or an animal in the wild, they walk and they move around. Us human beings, we also need to walk and move around. The fundamental concept of lying down in bed and being monitored, needs to be taken away from the laboring room. Try to be as flexible and as mobile as possible. Freedom of movement is very important. That's number one.

People always think that Hypnosis is an out of body experience. It's absolutely not. It's like being in a state of trance, a meditative state or asleep-like state where you're open to suggestions, which you're normally not in the normal waking level. You've had experience with hypnosis, we're very logical, because we want to put the best of ourselves in front. We want to feel pronounced and present. There are different cultural messages that go on when we talk to each other when we're very logical. But when we are not logical, it means the left side of the brain suppresses and the right part of the brain takes over, which is the most creative and the most emotional part of you. That would happen when you're in that sleep-like state.

That's why we end up having nightmares. We end up having dreams or abstract thought processes that imprint what happens over a period of time. So we explored conditioning of the mind over a period of time. When you talk about birth in a positive way, you reaffirm yourself with certain thought processes over and over again over a period of time. That helps you feel comfortable and safe in the space that you feel okay with. That's why we teach you tools from reading techniques to hypnosis and relaxation to visualization. Because visualizations are very powerful.

Let's do guided imagery and deepening techniques. These different techniques will sort of help you cope. I also think that mothers should not be giving birth in isolation, she needs some sort of help and support. Having a birth companion with the mother, or maybe even having someone else like a professional support person, your best friend or your sister who's super positive about labor and birth, who can actually hang out with you and tell you everything is okay. Having the support of the midwife as well. Because the role of the midwife is to facilitate labor and birth.

It's this hands free approach to what the mother is going through is intuitive. Let's not go and disturb the mother constantly. All of this in terms of low risk pregnancy. If you fall under high risk pregnancy, we could simulate a similar kind of experience in the hospital as well. A lot of times people think Hypnobirthing is just about giving birth at home or giving birth in the birthing center, but it doesn't have to be that way. If it's normal physiological labor, where everything goes really well and the birth unfolds the way it is supposed to unfold. You don't need Hypno birthing tools.

You can give birth without, but I think the tools will come handy when things become tough. When you have to make decisions, because we are never in a position to say: this is exactly how your birth will unfold. Every single birthing experience is so unique, that you have to be prepared for different eventualities. It was fascinating to know how this perception of “there needs to be pain” arose when men took over, as medical professionals. Somehow birthing became like a disease and started being treated like an illness. Instead of getting through the birthing experience in a community of women who know what's happening and support you. In my case, it was extremely important to be able to understand this process and to really become birthing partners.

What is the biggest challenge that your clients need to overcome in order to have a beautiful, calming, full of ownership birthing experience?

I want to clarify that we don't promise a pain free birth. That it's a different kind of discomfort that you go through. Every single mother goes through that. The threshold for all of us is very different. When we go through something so intense that discomfort that we feel is just unbearable or unmanageable. That's when the tools need to kick in. Most of the time, it's your breathing techniques. I always say this: your breath is the anchor from within. If we don't make use of our breathing techniques, you're basically resisting what your body is asking you to do.

What is the challenge for women and men that are accompanying their pregnant wives? What is the challenge that they need to overcome in order to get to that relaxed state?

It's important for them to work with each other and not panic. To not be anxious about it.

Some births are an intense experience. Some are over in 5 hours and some take really long. Having to trust your body is key. You might not like the experience, but when you make use of the tools you overcome the feeling of resistance.

If you are going deep sea diving, you are really scared. What happens in your body is that your adrenaline takes over. It want to say that what you are doing is really stupid, but that it's here for you as a part of your body. All your muscles become really strong, your heart palpitation increases and you have an ecstatic sensation. The overwhelming sensation to dive. You want to have that exhilarating experience. But at the same time, you also have fear.

It's the constant push and pull that you would actually feel. But we need to understand that as soon as you dive, you need to make use of your breath in order to be calm and have a slow heart rate. Then you can start to enjoy the underwater world. It's the same with bungee jumping, paragliding or running. You have to regulate your heartbeat with your breath.

Why do you think it's so difficult for people to trust their bodies nowadays?

It's because we've been constantly told what we're supposed to do. If you think about a grandmother, as soon as you would sneeze, they would quickly make some sort of a concoction. Drink this and you will be fine. Or they'll just say don't worry about it. Why don't you lie down for a couple of hours and you will be fine.Your body needs to heal and you've picked up something. Listen to your body.

We're also in time and space where we run all the time. Our body might be giving us some clues. But we don't listen to them. Because we live in a world where we are expected to run every day. Whether it is running for work, or whether it is training for something, or whether it is being present. You already have committed to a certain work, you have to show up, you don't really have much of a choice. We sort of suppress those feelings, whether it is having a pain in the shoulder, or whether you're having pain in your low back, it could be any of that. We try to push it away, and we try to push ourselves to the max.

Because as a culture, as a society, we don't want to take some time off when our body wants to heal. When there is that disconnect, there'll be more of that disconnect when you're pregnant. I'm not saying that we can do all of this without modern medicine, absolutely not. We need modern medicine. We are in a position to do what we are supposed to do for glorious pregnancies, home births or birthing with midwives because we have a clear understanding that if there is an emergency, that they can jump in and help.

Not all pregnancies end up being an emergency. Most of the time it unfolds as a normal physiological labor. The most important thing for us is to understand what goes on in our body. When you are constantly questioning what's going on, you are probably resisting it. When you acknowledge it and start embracing it by breathing, moving, eating and drinking. Asking your partner to give you a massage, showering and sitting on a ball. It helps you cope.

What were the skills or the mindsets that you needed to step into? What did you need to unlearn in order to be able to do the work you do?

I had to go through a lot of unlearning. Because it's the cultural conditioning of the top down approach. I was told by my OBGYN that I needed to lie down flat on my back with my legs on a stirrup to give birth and that I needed an episiotomy to give birth. I did not question that. When I was lying down to give birth to my daughter, I did tell her that this felt uncomfortable. Before lying down I was moving and that felt good.

If she would have told me: "You don't have to lie down. Find a position that feels comfortable for you." Maybe I'd have been in an upright position. What I really wanted to do was to sit on the toilet. But she didn't let me. And my whole experience was so beautiful. Until that point, where they did the episiotomy to me. There was no consent there, it was more like “we're going to do an episiotomy”, and she cut rather than asking me for consent.

When I was reflecting I noticed that it could have been different. As much as it was a great birthing experience. But I didn't have this information. You need to unlearn or relearn in order to be able to do this work with women. One is unlearning how the hierarchical structure works. And it's also about negotiating and working with each other. So I wanted to go to the point of collaboration rather than resistance and being aggressive.

I'm seeing so many parallels to what I would like to see more of in the current education system. That the teacher and the student are actually collaborating partners. And it's not about top down, but it's about: what will serve you right now? How will you be? How will you be your own self in that very moment, so that you can learn the best. Or in your case as women who are about to give birth: "How can we be the relaxed versions of ourselves?" Because when you start collaborating, you start trusting yourself, you start trusting the other person. When there is trust, everything in the room relaxes. Why?

Because everybody has one goal. In your case, if you're talking about a teacher and a student, the goal of the student is to learn. The goal of the teacher is to make sure that the student learns, so there's only one goal. It's the same thing. My goal is to make sure that the parents feel comfortable enough and safe enough to trust their body and confident enough to be able to have the kind of bird that they want. Having an understanding that the room that they are in and the people that they are with are trustworthy. Trust needs to happen so that you can collaborate.

If you're going to constantly look at the other person and say that I don't trust you, that's not going to work. The whole chemistry and the dynamics in the room will change when everybody is relaxed. That's why it's really important for us to work in a very collaborative way. Rather than have that resistance.

I remember being afraid of numbers and math, just because I had this horrible teacher. If I become a birth educator and say that only normal vaginal home births are the best way to do it. And that all the other births are useless. Then I'm not doing justice to what I'm supposed to do. I need to be in a position to say that different births have different eventualities or possibilities. And how to prepare you for that so that you have the birth that you want.

If you had a magic wand, and you could change the education system what would you do with it?

I think, trusting yourself. There's that strong, intuitive feeling that you would have about something. When you're clear about what you want then it means that you will go out and seek what you want. Most of the time people are confused about what they want. But when there is that little bit of clarity about what you want, then you go to the outside world, and you start seeking what you want as answers. When people sign up for a hypnobirthing course, or when people sign up for even my other generic childbirth education, they're seeking something.

They have made the choice of what they really need to do to make sure that they have what it takes to get the birth that they want. That clarity needs to happen. But we can't force that clarity. So that has to come from within. I think about it not only in health care, whether it is the school that you go to, or whether it is certain situations that we get into with relationships and friendships. It all comes from within, you know that something is not okay. But you don't want to act on it.

Do you have any tips for educators? How could they help their students to trust more in that intuition that you're talking about?

For students, if the student approaches an educator, and says that this is something that they don't understand. Or they don't feel comfortable sitting with this as a concept. Rather than telling them that they have to do this, maybe we need to look at why that student is having that difficulty. So that we can help the student a bit better.

Because that's when institutionalized education comes in. There are certain structures that we need to stick to and I completely understand that. But you can make it more democratic and approachable. We need to have conversations about it.

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