I was feeding my baby in bed earlier this week, idly scrolling through Instagram, when my thumb came to pause. Rachel Brathen, aka @yoga_girl had published a picture – her baby girl, safely arrived! Goosebumps prickled on my skin. I double-tapped the screen before settling in to read its accompanying caption.
For those unfamiliar, Brathen is a Swedish yoga teacher come international Insta-star. She has amassed a global social media following by women captivated by her embracing approach to love, life and yoga.
Having followed her much-documented pregnancy over the last 42-weeks, I, along with her other two million-strong fan base, had been quietly awaiting news of her baby’s arrival. So it was with much anticipation that I peered through the fuzz of my own little bundle’s head to take in her announcement:
“After working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, we ended up delivering at the hospital, thankfully still a natural birth without pain medication.”
My heart stuttered, reading, then rereading the text:
“Without pain medication”
My eyes snagged on the sentence like silk on a nail.
The lioness in me wanted to yell, “Rachel you’re an effing hero!”, but also closely followed by a “but it’s OK however you do it!” towards her adoring fan base.
You see, I’m all too familiar with this narrative – throughout my pregnancy I was beguiled by a series of birth stories, much like Brathen’s, positioning a natural, medication-free birth as the “ultimate”. It’s all very well until things don’t go to plan and you’re left to wonder that if one way of birthing is held up as “sacred”, then all others by default must be considered second rate. And that’s exactly what happened to me.
I gave birth via emergency C-section last April. Having spent 10 months voraciously reading every birth story I could get my hands on, I’d both visualised and planned a medication-free water birth. But after 38 hours of labour, my baby’s heartbeat began to yoyo and before I could so much as say “pass the lavender oil darling!” we were being wheeled into theatre. Oh.
I’d recounted passages from over-thumbed midwifery tomes – whole paragraphs telling me intervention was unnecessary if just let your body do its job. I’d lamely tried to shift my now numb legs into rigorously rehearsed delivery positions. And then I lay on the operating table having an out-of-body experience and thought of the playlist we’d painstakingly compiled. Of the sad battery-powered candles sitting unused in my bag.
The birth stories that had inspired me did not go like this. Where was their rhetoric now I needed it most? The very stories that had emboldened to believe I could bring my baby out safely abandoned me at the theatre door. Given that 26% of UK hospital-born babies come delivered by C-section, why had all my preparation failed to cover that in the event of open tummy surgery I had no need to fear, that it would be OK.
We need to release each other from the pressure to perform some sort of “perfect delivery” and focus on throwing down cartwheels for one another in solidarity of whatever path and birth decisions we take
Post surgery, with baby delivered safely, I anxiously awaited “the golden hours” I'd read about: the shimmering glow of new life that promised to radiate between the labour ward's nylon curtains.
They didn't come.
Instead, I felt lost – swimming somewhere between the mad high of new love, diamorphine and abject sadness. Not even the navy blue eyes of our perfect little guy could distract me from a feeling that overwhelmed all others – failure.
I was convinced my inability to have a “natural” birth, meant I'd somehow messed up.
It took weeks, (OK, full disclosure, I’m still working on it), for the feelings of failure to lift. On nights when I can’t sleep I still replay the birth in my head like a bad dream, desperately trying to figure out where it all “went wrong”. The discourse that had sold me the “ideal” birth scenario left me feeling unworthy of feeling the two things every woman should after giving birth – proud, and “thankful”.
I realise now of course that labour looks different for each and every person – myriad experiences falling anywhere between horror story and orgasmic. Birth reveals itself in so many shapes, sounds and feelings – but if we only give volume to the “best” or “worst” bits, we're surely doing a disservice to all women whose labour story is a variation on those two themes.
Somewhere over the course of time, perhaps with the advent of modern medicine, our birth stories have unnecessarily become something to quietly rank each other against. A sliding scale if you like – with medication free and natural at one end and epidural at the other: the former awarding women a badge of honour, the latter a well done for trying, with caesarean sitting in a different league altogether – (out the sunroof / too posh to push / the easy way out) – some sort of shameful consolation prize.
In a time where we take to the streets in droves to march for each other’s rights – the right to our own choices, for autonomy over our own bodies and for each other’s voices to be heard, it doesn’t sit comfortably that this view and dialogue for birth remains so, well, judge-y and simplistic.
So we should absolutely celebrate Brathen’s birth story. But, we should approach it with caution too. Placing any type of birth on a pedestal creates room for competition – a space in which there are winners and losers, a space in which anything less than natural and vaginal is somehow second rate. We need to release each other from the pressure to perform some sort of “perfect delivery” and focus on throwing down cartwheels for one another in solidarity of whatever path and birth decisions we take.