American Birthing Culture is Toxic to Women
In an era of instagram and the curated experience, the pressure of perfection now extends to childbirth. Can we agree Born is Best?
Birth, as we are so frequently reminded these days, is a natural process. Not the nature of wildlife shows, but the type used to brand trends like the paleo diet, kombucha, vaginal steaming and yoni stones. The Earth mother has gone not only mainstream, but viral. Childbirth has taken on aspirational tones: yet another opportunity to realize our own best selves, and an entire industry has popped up telling women that in order to be their true selves they must give up the epidural and embrace a natural birth.
But idealizing natural birth as a lifestyle is dangerous and toxic to women. It sets them up for disappointment by promising unrealistic expectations (orgasmic birth!), demonizes the use of pain medication, and can put babies and moms at risk. It’s hardly feminist, as one critic points out, to bully women into giving birth a certain way: and that holds true for both natural and cesarean births. The new mommy wars aren’t between working and stay at home moms, but between those who had the “right” kind of birth and those who didn’t.
I know because I recently experienced all of this. My daughter was breech, and delivered via c-section. I was told at the time that if I wanted to attempt a breech delivery there were only two options in Southern California. I politely declined and took the c-section, thankful for the cover the hospital’s policy provided when anyone questioned my choice.
With my second pregnancy, I was surprised that nearly everyone I talked to, after asking the due date and gender, immediately launched into grilling me on whether I planned to v-bac. So common was the consensus that no one ever felt the need to even define the term vaginal birth after cesarean. They just assumed I knew what it was and that I was having one. After the fourth or fifth time of stumbling over the answer, and feeling relief over the fact that my local hospital didn’t permit them, I grew angry that I had to defend my decision to people who I barely knew. These women were bigger zealots than my doctor, who is herself an advocate for reducing unecessary c-section. Yet even she said it would be assault to force a v-bac on a patient — no different than forcing a cesarean on a patient who wanted a natural birth.
The natural birth movement started as a necessary correction to overly medicalized birthing. But just as the zeal for breastfeeding began with good intentions but often went to medically dangerous excesses, the natural birth movement has done likewise. The pressure for a non-medicated vaginal birth contributes to women having “disappointing birth stories,” and feeling like they “failed” or “didn’t really give birth.” An entire birthing industry has arisen dedicated to telling women that if they just want it bad enough, if they just try hard enough, and if they are just pure enough in their desires (and detailed enough in their birth plans) they can somehow control the uncontrollable.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the mantra that “your body was built for this,” implying that if you trust that birth is a natural process everything will be fine. Arsenic, it should be pointed out, is natural. So are kidney stones, and you don’t see a movement dedicated to delivering kidney stones “naturally” without pain medication. I have a hard time believing that if men gave birth there would be as much fixation on whether to accept the epidural.
Childbirth may be natural, but human evolution has also made it incredibly dangerous and painful. The combination of walking upright, and having a large brain capable of advanced reasoning required trade offs: mainly delivering a baby through a birth canal that wasn’t big enough. This burden fell entirely on the females of the species, and evolution doesn’t care about individuals or their pain. Many women simply died, and the rest suffered terribly. There is nothing inherently noble or natural about the peculiarly painful experience of human childbirth, when most other mammals do not suffer the same trauma in reproduction. Especially when you consider that the brains that caused the pain are also what give us the ingenuity to create the magic of epidurals.
The context for fully understanding this celebration of women and their suffering is the broader mistreatment of women in society at large, especially in the United States. The fixation on the nobility of “motherhood as suffering” takes on a different aspect when set against a culture of reproductive rights that punishes women for sex by restricting abortion, at the same time conservatives seek to ban the contraception that prevents it.
Women should have the right to the birth they want: whether that’s at home or in the hospital, naturally or with an epidural, or even by cesarean. Give birth with dolphins for all I care. But birth is a bloody, messy process that while easy and joyful for some is painful, risky and even dangerous for others. None of this is as precious as the birthing industry likes to portray it. So let’s leave women free to choose what is right for them, because at the end of the day born is best. A safe and healthy mom and baby are all that matter, regardless of how they get there.