I’m all for natural childbirth. I think it’s great when women give birth under the influence of measured breathing, hot baths, and long walks, and I’m firmly against scheduled c-sections. I believe in doulas, and Sheila Kitzinger holds an honored spot on my bookshelf.
But lately I wonder if the obsession with crafting the perfect birth — the one in a dimly-lit room with soft music where, free from drugs and episiotomies, we breathe out perfect babies and take them immediately to our breasts — has caused some of us more harm than good.
I myself actively planned for natural childbirth. I took not one, but two weekly prenatal yoga classes. I went every Wednesday to a class that met in a light, airy yoga studio where we pulled each other into squats and stretches. My Saturday class was held in a crowded warren of rooms at an ashram, where we breathed in one nostril and out the other while we meditated on the third eye in the middle of our foreheads.
I took two birth classes as well: the standard version held one night a week at the hospital, plus an entire weekend of breathing in my husband’s arms and bouncing on birthing balls with Saraswathi, the yoga teacher at the ashram.
I read books on natural childbirth and I selected a photograph to use as my focalizing point. I was ready.
Then labor started. Then it stopped. Then it started again. Then it stopped again. It went on this way for four long days.
I had acupuncture. I walked for hours. I ate spicy food. I even tried a margarita. Still, nothing happened. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t dilate. Nine days past my due date and losing my mind, I found myself begging my doctor to induce labor.
I had the pitocin drip inserted into my arm at 7:00 am the next morning. At 11:00 a.m., the doctor broke my water. I had an epidural at 5:00 p.m., and my baby was born by c-section around 10:00 p.m. that night. As I joked later, the only way my birth could have been more medicalized was if they’d given my husband an appendectomy at the same time.
A few months later, I picked up a brochure for a workshop on “Vaginal Birth After Caesarean,” or VBAC. The brochure explained that in order to prepare for an eventual “natural birth,” women like me should work through our grief over our caesareans. Only then could we turn to preparations for VBAC.
The thing was, though, I didn’t have any grief over my caesarean.
A week after I gave birth with surgical assistance, a UNICEF report came out revealing that in Africa, 40,000 women a year die of obstructed labor. As it happens, that’s what I had: obstructed labor. My baby had been stuck at an angle in the birth canal.
After 13 hours of hard labor, she hadn’t descended, and there were no indications that she was going to. If I’d been a poor woman in the African countryside, it’s more than likely we both would have died.
If I’d been an American woman of 200 years ago, things wouldn’t have been much better. It turns out that there never was a time back in the day when midwives oversaw births in which every woman went into a room with her mother and sisters, grunted a few times, and popped out a healthy baby. There was no parturitional utopia, destroyed when male doctors saw there was money to be made in birth and thus took over.
In fact, there were complicated old days, when some women gave birth successfully with little assistance and intervention, and lots of women — and babies — died.
While my birth wasn’t at all what I had hoped for, it was a lot better than the birth of a homeopath I know who insisted on continuing to labor for three days. She achieved the intervention-free vaginal birth she wanted, after which the baby went straight to intensive care. It was also better than the birth of my friend whose husband was even more insistent on natural childbirth than she was. She labored for a day-and-a-half in terrible pain but finally did give birth vaginally — with more than a little help from forceps and vacuum suction. She spent six weeks recovering.
While I concede that our medicalized birthing practices have their shortcomings,the pressure for natural childbirth has its own problems, not the least of which is that it fosters the idea that birth can be planned and controlled.
The fact is that just like raising a child, giving birth to a child is fraught with factors we cannot control. In fact, we can see the unpredictability of labor and birth as a kind of training for child-rearing. We can prepare for both; we can plan; we can do our best to create the right environment, and those things will matter. But perhaps the most important thing parents and parents-to-be have to accept is the unexpected.
If that means an epidural because the pain is making you black out; if it means snuggling a baby tight while giving her a bottle because she refused to nurse; if it means feeding a two-year-old noodles three times a day because that’s all she will eat, so be it.
A good birth is one that ends with a healthy baby and mother. It’s wonderful if carefully-laid plans produce that result, and it can be terrifying and traumatizing when labor doesn’t go as expected. Still, we owe it to ourselves to remember that different paths can lead to the same destination, and childbirth is one of the times in life when there isn’t much question that the destination far more important than the journey.