birthing babies

A Birth Manifesto

I recently heard about a friend of a friend who is pregnant and absolutely convinced that birth will be the most horrifying experience ever. I felt sad for her. First, on a practical level, because fear=tension=pain and her fear could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, on an emotional level, because birth has the potential to be a truly wonderful experience.

Our main cultural belief about birth seems to focus on pain. Last year, when people heard about my plans for a home birth, everyone’s first reaction was, “but what about the pain?!?!?!?” After N was born safely and quietly at home they were still asking, “didn’t it hurt?”

This focus on pain actually amused me. Yes, it hurt. But nobody ever asks a marathon runner, “what about the PAIN?” as if the pain is the whole essence of the exercise. I’ve heard that marathon runners hit a “wall” where suddenly their legs are burning and they just want to lie down and quit. Labouring women hit that wall too – it’s called “transition”, it hurts like a bitch, and it makes you want to call the whole thing off. But like marathon runners, labouring women push past the wall. Yes, it hurts. But that’s besides the point.

During K’s birth, the transition contractions freaked me out. They were relentless, I couldn’t get on top of them, and I was imagining having to cope with them for hours on end. During N’s birth the contractions were no less intense (if anything they were more intense as that labour moved much more quickly), but I was mentally prepared. I took them one second at a time. I focused on relaxing my facial muscles, lowering my shoulders, and continuing to get oxygen into my body. I paced myself. I focused on getting to my finish line, and I made it.

My point is, birth is so much more than just painful. Our cultural focus on pain really does women a disservice. How about telling women about the amazing endorphin rush you get afterwards? How about talking about the clarity and relaxation of moments between the contractions? Why don’t we talk to women (and girls, too) about the mental game that is birth?

And then there’s the excellent point that pain does not equal suffering. There’s a difference, as many athletes could tell you. Yes, there was pain. But that just wasn’t the point.

I’m aware that every women needs to make her own choices, and many women wouldn’t be comfortable with mine. This post is not meant to denigrate anyone who used pain medication during birth or who had a highly medicalized birth for whatever reason. But I hate that we’re sending girls and women the message that labour is painful and awful and unmanageable. It doesn’t have to be, if you’re prepared and have the right support. I just wish more women believed that.

4 thoughts on “A Birth Manifesto

  1. “We’re” sending that message? You and me and our homebirths and home-buried placenta? No way. It’s the OBs who tell women they’re unsafe – in 2011, when all it took 100 years ago was somebody telling the menfolks to WASH THEIR HANDS AFTER EXAMINING CORPSES for women to stop dying of childbed fever.

    And then, when the crunchy crowd gets too vocal, they play up the positives: Schedule your own birth! Take control! Maximize maternity leave! Avoid unsightly “stretching” (and they don’t mean the belly)! And why horrify your husband with your discomfort when you could just sigh and lean back comfortably in his arms with your nice epidural? (I had two – they’re VERY nice!)

    Birth is just a crazy, crazy arena, and I’m afraid that, as with climate change, as much as folks like Al Gore or David Suzuki wants us to take personal responsibility, it’s mostly NOT you and me that are the worst offenders.

    Just as midwives here have mandatory guidelines for transfer to an MD – for a breech or placenta previa, for example – I think the only REAL solution is mandatory transfer to a midwife. Forcing OBs to tell women, “look, your pregnancy is normal, totally low-risk; go home and have your baby.” :-))))

  2. Well said. I simply refused to believe the hype and fear behind something natural. I spent a lot of time at a midwifes site that services women in the poor Mexican border towns. He noted that most were very young. Most were not afraid. most did fine. the ones that didnt do well were afraid. And that is how natural birth, the process, and the very natural pain has been dis-serviced. Fear. The pain of childbirth to me was oddly familiar even though I have never felt it before. The pain of some medical procedures I had to have immediately afterwards, without pain medication, were NOT natural and having the direct comparison I realize what a shame it is that our culture believes in making women so afraid they decide on drugs before they even experience labor. Labor horror stories…the idea that pain is suffering. hogwash.

  3. I had a baby in a place where midwives gave the primary maternity care. It was horrible. I was much happier here in Ontario where everyone thought I was nuts to use a midwife even though I was doing it in the hospital. I would never have a baby at home or without drugs(epidurals are the majic elixir of the gods). I do however think that women should take back the process of birth and own it as something wonderful and natural.

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