My Natural Birth: Saved by Modern Medicine
Somehow, an entire year has passed since my baby entered the world, and – on top of the million things that has me reflecting on – I can't get childbirth off my mind.
When thinking about my labor and delivery, I often find myself wondering: If we had lived 100 years ago, would my baby and I have made it? Maybe that sounds dramatic, but something in my gut whispers that we were saved by modern medicine. Saying that makes it seem like her birth was something out of a Grey's Anatomy episode, which it absolutely, positively was not. Sure, things didn't go as smoothly as possible, but, as far as I can tell, it was simply another day and another delivery (albeit maybe a bit more trying than average).
There are lots of things I could say about the experience, but one of the things that was most shocking about it was that so many people expected me to be upset/disappointed/depressed about how my delivery went.1 My own unhappiness was insisted to me over and over again, even when I expressed otherwise.
People couldn't believe that I was content with my labor and delivery because I came in with all of the trappings of a natural Birth Preference Sheet (my own term for "Birth Plan"), and those preferences steadily went out the window, one by one (with my knowledge and consent). And here's where the rubber meets the road: Yes, I wanted the Magical Natural Childbirth, but I also knew that whether or not that happened wasn't entirely up to me. We'd done it all – carefully chosen our providers and our birth location, read the books, taken the classes, done the Three Sisters exercises, practiced hypnobirthing meditation... you name it – and now, how that baby decided to be born was out of my hands.
To be clear, I'm not writing this because I have any issue with wanting a drug- and intervention-free labor and delivery; I'm fully on board with natural childbirth, and if I have another baby, I would try again for "the natural way." I live in daily awe of the female body and the miracle of birth, and would love to experience it in its un-edited glory. Rather, the reason I'm writing this is because there's this myth that's spread like wildfire in the wellness community that if only you want it badly enough, you can have a Magical Nautral Childbirth. Everyone can do it. Not only this, but the message includes that it's imperative that we have a natural birth for the health and wellness of our babies. Talk about pressure.
While I agree that expanded education around birth is important, the message as it's currently structured needs to be seriously amended because it's damaging women. I know too many women, and have read too many stories by women, who feel that they've somehow failed, were abandoned by the universe, or let down by doctors (there are cases of legitimate negative experiences with healthcare providers – I'm not talking about that) because they didn't have the natural birth they'd planned.
I understand where this wish-it-and-it-will-be message has come from. We live in a culture where everything about childbirth is women screaming in agony, and girls are raised to fear everything about it. The "natural birth" message has also evolved in response to the 20th century's "over-medicalization" of labor and delivery that can come with grave consequences. I believe in educating women that pregnancy, labor, and delivery are completely natural phenomena that our bodies are built to do, and about our choices and rights around giving birth, but I am not okay with telling women that they can do these things drug- and intervention-free if only they try hard enough. That's unfair, because you know what else has been happening since the dawn of wo-man in addition to childbirth? Women and babies dying in childbirth. Even today, pregnancy and childbirth is the sixth leading cause of death in women ages 20-34. Childbirth is natural, beautiful, and absolutely amazing, but it's also dangerous.
By misleading women with this myth, we've given them the wrong framing for when things don't go according to the Natural Birth Plan during labor and delivery. If we're told that our bodies are meant to do this, and there's no reason to need medical interventions (which I read and was told by multiple natural birth advocates), and that we're damaging our babies by not having a natural birth, then it's reasonable that we feel like failures, or like we were cheated or wronged, by having those interventions. What this message completely misses is the gratitude that we have the opportunity to feel that shit hit the fan and we were lucky enough to be born in the right time and place for modern medicine to keep our babies and us safe. Of course, it's also possible to have dissapointment and relief all wrapped up into one.
What I'm trying to say, what I want to say, is that your baby needs to be born however it needs to be born, and having a medical intervention that's necessary to keep your baby safe isn't something to rue, it's something to be thankful for. Having a complication during pregnancy, labor, delivery, or in post-partum is a disappointment. Getting the care you and your baby need to address that complication is not. It's gift.
So please, let's stop telling women that a Magical Natural Childbirth is possible for everyone-no-matter-what, and instead help women to understand how to be informed about childbirth (all hail Penny Simkin and The Birth Partner), how to choose providers who will listen to you and answer your questions, and – perhaps most importantly – how to be your own advocate, especially in a hospital setting, which many of us are lucky not to be used to at this stage in our lives. Even if you're planning to deliver at a birth center or at home, you have a chance of being transfered to a hospital in the case of an emerency, and being familiar with hospital procedures is important.
Do I wish that I'd been able to have the Magical Natural Birth I dreamed of? Of course. As I suggested before, I have disappointment and relief all wrapped up into one. But more than that, I'm grateful for the team of midwives, nurses, and doctors who acted compassionately and with great skill at every step to deliver my baby safely into this world, and who kept me alive while doing it.
Finally, no musing about our daughter's birth would be complete without the deepest, heartfelt thank you to my husband and to our doula, Ann, both of whom were there for Baby and me through it all.
1Aside: Postpartum depression and anxiety are real and important, and thank you to all the healthcare professionals who screen for them.