“How did you deliver?” he asks.
“I didn’t ‘deliver,’ I gave birth,” I correct. Using the word “deliver” to mean “birth” is a pet peeve of mine. I never let it go. I’m also attempting to assert myself a little.
When he asks the question, you see, I’m flat on my back in a paper hospital gown, legs spread wide in stirrups, bottom at the edge of the exam table. The questioner is a male doctor with gloves on at the business end. We’re making small talk to help us pretend that this – politely called the “pelvic exam” – isn’t incredibly awkward.
“Natural – no drugs,” I clarify.
That prompts no comment, so I go bold. “It was amazing, actually.”
“You women,” he says with an eye roll. “Deliver. ‘Give birth.’ Drugs. ‘Natural’ [I can hear his air quotes.] So what?”
So what, indeed.
Putting aside his arrogance while I was in such a vulnerable position, what is so special about natural birth? Why is it held up as an ideal by so many women, while it is, at the same time, treated with an eye roll by others, particularly obstetricians and labor and delivery nurses – people who ought to know?
This isn’t an abstract question. It’s personal. Why did I find myself utterly transformed by natural birth, seeing the world with new eyes, while others see birth as a medical transaction with no inherent meaning, let alone an accomplishment to be celebrated when achieved – as my doctor put it, a so what?
For that condescending doctor and the naysayers in your life, here’s my answer.
Come on. Of course it’s a big deal. When someone has run a marathon do we call that a ‘so what’? When someone climbs a mountain, do we call that a ‘so what’? No! We cheer them! Why would we be so blasé about a similarly huge physical, mental, emotional and spiritual achievement that is more than taking on an endurance challenge; it is giving birth to new life through your body?
Thou dost protest too much, methinks. The ‘so what’ attitude is a pretense. Why do we pretend?
‘So what’ is a hedge. To try to protect the feelings of mothers didn’t have the natural birth they dreamed of, for whatever reason, we pretend birth is not a big deal at all. “What matters is that you have your baby” is the battle cry of the hedge.
Pretending something isn’t a big deal, however, does not actually make it not a big deal anymore. Telling someone they shouldn’t feel their feelings is not consoling, it’s crazy-making. Acknowledging a loss is what helps people to move on. It’s more helpful to say to women who wanted a natural birth but did not have one, “That stinks. I’m sorry. What do you want to tell me?” and then listening to them tell their story.
‘So what’ represents the medical perspective, which is limited. The word obstetric literally defines its perspective. It’s formed from the Latin:
ob (opposite) + stare (to stand) = to stand opposite to.
Thus obstetrics represents the perspective of the watcher of birth, not the perspective of the one giving birth. (For the record, midwife comes from middle English: mid (with) + wife (woman) = the perspective of one going through it by your side).
The thing about watching labor, though, is that it usually doesn’t look like much. The surges are happening, and – this may not be true for you, though it was true for me and for many of the women I’ve worked with over the years – the birthing mother finds that the best way to work with them is to breathe and relax very deeply. The drama is not visible.
Unless you’re on TV. Or your helpers are ignoring you. Then you have to represent.
For example, when I arrived at the hospital to give birth to my daughter, the obstetric care providers did not believe I was in labor. I convinced them to examine me anyway, and they found that I was 10 cm opened! These trained observers could not recognize an advanced labor.
So, observation can tell you something about birth but far from all there is to know.
‘So what’ serves the medical perspective. If a doctor tells you that it doesn’t matter how you give birth, it’s easier for them to do things to you. I don’t believe that doctors have malign intentions, but they are socialized to do something – to anticipate pathology, to intervene the second it shows up, to rescue the patient(s) from it.
When you’re really in trouble, such expertise is heroic. When you’re healthy, though, as most birthing mothers are, interventions are counterproductive. I have a theory that doctors have (unconsciously) gotten around healthy labors by making pain a kind of pathology. Medical pain relief, however, often causes healthy labors to become dysfunctional and babies to go into distress, which gives doctors something legitimate to do.
I hate the disingenuousness of this, though. So many women who’ve had dysfunctional, painful labors and distressed babies believe dysfunction, pain and distress are simply the nature of birth. It’s more true to say that medical interventions and the hospital environment create dysfunction, pain and distress more often than they cure it – a cruel phenomenon I’ve written about here.
It would be like swearing off of love because you had a really bad boyfriend once.
Doctors and hospitals don’t see this, though, because they so steeped in their own belief system. . . the same, I suppose, could be said about me! I do have strong beliefs. But mine are steeped in first-hand experience. I’m not an observer of birth. I’m a giver of birth. I’ve experienced birth that was undisturbed by medicine. It worked perfectly, it didn’t hurt and my babies stayed strong throughout.
The ‘so what’ perspective, then, doesn’t hold up. It’s a pretense that represents only the perspective of non-birthing people.
Birth is important. But does it follow that natural birth is important, too? Does it have inherent, objective worth?
I could wax poetic – and I do – about how much my birth experiences have meant to me. But the fact that I think about them every day turned me on to what is special about natural birth:
Birth teaches you everything you need to know about becoming a mother. I would have missed out on those lessons had I not experienced natural birth.
Of course – of course – if you did not have a natural birth, that doesn’t mean you don’t know how to be a mother! There is no contradiction in honoring the birth experience of every mother and in honoring the unique, not exclusive, value of natural birth.
What lessons did natural birth teach me? Breathe. Relax. Trust. Phases pass and make you stronger. You can do hard things. During the challenges of motherhood, I have thought back to my births and asked myself, What did I do then to get through the hard parts? What did I know? These are some of the answers.
(I wrote an entire prenatal coaching course on this subject. If you’d like to read more about it, please go here).
Natural birth is a rite of passage, then – marking an important transitional period in a woman’s life and involving activities and teachings designed to strip her of her original role and prepare her for her new role.
Birth has been that for me in spades. Fundamentally, until I experienced natural birth, I had no idea how strong I was. I had no idea how many inner resources I had, or how trustworthy my body was. Now I do know, and I can never forget. That awareness is priceless.
There you have it, Dr. Whatsyourname! Natural birth is not a ‘so what.’ It is precious preparation for becoming a mother. I don’t expect to change your opinion, but I do hope your wife is reading this and getting ideas!