Pregnancy and childbirth used to be so dangerous in centuries past that most women wrote their wills once they knew they were pregnant. Now we write birth plans, specifying the type of music we want playing while we’re in labour.
Progress is a wonderful thing, but have we become so invested in the process and performance of childbirth that it’s now a measure of our success as a woman?
The health and survival of the mother and child are now so taken for granted — at least if you happen to be white, wealthy and/or westernised — that concern has now shifted away from the small matter of whether you and your baby are healthy to whether or not you gave birth the right way.
And, yes, apparently there is a right way. And only one right way.
A drug-free vaginal birth is held up as the gold standard of female empowerment. Anything different fills women with shame and a sense of failure.
One of my friends is two weeks overdue and is refusing to be induced because ‘it’s not natural’. Her doctor cautioned her that she could be putting her own health and that of her baby’s at risk, but still my friend will not budge.
This is an extreme case, but it illustrates how ‘natural’ has come to be so fetishized that it is assumed to be good and superior.
But that’s a problem. Arsenic is ‘natural’. So is uranium.
And, to be clear, before you go mad in the comments section and say that I’m likening natural childbirth to poison or radioactive substances, I’m not.
My point is that just because something’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for you.
By today’s standard’s, I’m crap at giving birth. There were three critical points of failure during the birth of my daughter. Firstly, I was induced. Secondly, I had an epidural and, thirdly, I had an emergency C-section.
See, completely rubbish.
If I had had a ‘natural’ birth, it’s almost certain that my daughter would have died — and I probably wouldn’t have been too peachy either. But rather than considering the birth a success and a medical miracle, people commiserated with me because I was unable to do it naturally.
One midwife, who I happened to bump into in a café, was kind enough to tell me about a study where sheep who had epidurals didn’t bond with their lambs. What a study on livestock had to do with my daughter and me — other than to reinforce my ‘failure’ at childbirth — I don’t know.
One of the reasons the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians lists in its recommendation for vaginal births is that women find it more fulfilling. But surely it’s only more fulfilling because if you dare to birth any other way you are considered weak or become an object of pity.
Not all the medical profession is in agreement as to the superiority of natural births anyway. Urogynaecologist Peter Dietz recently said at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists conference that, ‘The rising C-section rate … [has] had no negative impact and might well have had a positive impact on the really important outcomes, which are maternal mortality and perinatal mortality.’
Aside from heaping unnecessary pressure on pregnant women, our obsession with ‘naturally’ rather then healthy, can put both mother and child at risk.
We need only look as far as our own backyard to see how lucky we are for ‘unnatural’ interventions in childbirth.
Although there isn’t robust monitoring, an article in the journal Pregnancy and Childbirth earlier this year reported that the rates of maternal mortality among Indigenous Australians are 5.3 times higher than non-indigenous.
According to the World Health Organization, at least one woman dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth every minute. That’s 287 000 women a year.
While some of these deaths are due to other factors than the birth itself, such as pre-existing health conditions, better (i.e. ‘unnatural’) medical care could have meant a different outcome.
If people want to use childbirth as a path to self-actualisation then good for them. But let’s stop creating another hurdle for women to fail at by insisting that ‘natural’ is the morally superior way to give birth.