I don’t often think about giving birth to my son anymore. Now that he's almost two it's hard to even remember what it was like to be pregnant. But I recently came across a blog post from a women’s clinic in London that reminded me of one of the worst parts of pregnancy for me—the constant emphasis on the idea of a "natural birth." The post encourages pregnant women to have a "feminist birth," and claims that "the goal is normal vaginal delivery for all women."
It reminded me of the messaging I was inundated with before I had my son. Strangers on the street, other pregnant women, and even overzealous Instagram influencers would extol the virtues of a "natural birth," by which they meant an unmedicated, home birth.
While all the books I'd read had language that seemed rooted in empowerment (Women are amazing! Women are powerful!) they always felt to me like they were destined to lead to feelings of shame. Whenever I made the mistake of telling people I planned on getting an epidural, I almost always had to endure a lecture on the virtues of unmedicated labour and how incredible a home birth could be. Forget about if it was physically possible for me, if that was something I wanted to experience or not.
In the end, I had to be induced and I had an epidural to manage the excruciating pain. Twelve hours after my first contraction I had a vaginal delivery and went through the exact same thing every person who gives birth does: exhaustion, delirium, and transformation. The process of getting there, how the baby came out, and what amount of pain I was willing to bear had little to do with the end result—I now had a human being to care for.
Yet that fact didn't stop a family friend from asking, just weeks later, if I had, indeed, given birth "the right way"—a vaginal birth with no medication.
When mother of two Berihan Donald had her first child in 2016, she put all her energy into preparing for a home birth, including doing a hypnobirthing course. But when she ended up having an emergency caesarian section, she was devastated.
"I felt I had failed in birth. I thankfully didn't slip into depression but until I had my daughter two years later vaginally I felt I hadn't given birth," she told me.
The number of home births in North America remains small but is growing, with out-of-hospital births in the U.S. increasing 77 percent from 2004 to 2017. Canada has had a similar rise, aided by the growing use of midwives across the country.
But often when celebrities like Mayim Bialik (Amy on The Big Bang Theory) and Instagram influencers advocate for home births or focus on a specific style of attachment parenting, they're inevitably projecting middle-class, white privilege. These experiences are not available to all women, particularly women of colour. This is especially true for Black women who are battling rising rates of maternal mortality.
The idea of gestating for nine months, of ceding your physical autonomy to another person, only for the end result to be deemed "unnatural" feels uniquely cruel. It personifies the ways in which we belittle women's bodies, particularly in medicine. No one should start an experience like motherhood in shame, already feeling inadequate. But focusing so much on the idea of a "natural" or unmedicated or intervention-free birth does exactly that. It sets women up to fail.
Delivering a baby is messy, painful, overwhelming, and raw, no matter how it comes to be. How are we, in 2019, still letting outdated, archaic ways of discussing this subject, guide how we perceive ourselves in the process?
It's time to abolish the use of terms like "natural birth" and replace them with honesty and clarity, centering women at the heart of the experience. As the New York Times recently stated in a piece launching its Parenting section, "we realized that the term 'natural birth' could shame women whose deliveries were deemed not 'natural'—whether they had C-sections, needed to be induced, or simply desired pain relief."
You can't always choose the kind of birth you will have, but you can choose to be informed about the reality of what’s involved. Doctors and midwives should support that honesty by discussing all of the different variables with women early on, what can go right and what can go wrong. The goal should be a healthy mother and a healthy baby, because choosing pain relief, needing medical intervention, or getting a caesarian section doesn't make you any less of a woman or a mother.