Throughout my pregnancy, there was nothing more annoying than unsolicited advice. While I recognised good intentions, and welcomed the odd motherly tip, the journey was mine alone to navigate. However, there was one element that I could not abide by and that was the obsession with “natural” births. Everyone – from the cashier at my Sainsbury’s Local to a Foxtons estate agent – told me to plan a “natural” birth. Setting aside the fact that it’s downright rude to tell a woman what to do with her body, no one considered that I might have a complex medical history, be carrying a high-risk baby or simply not want a painful vaginal birth. Medically, an unassisted vaginal birth is the optimal outcome, but the militant pushing of the “natural” birth smacked of martyrdom, and felt like yet another chance to pit women against one another, belittling those who choose an epidural over the sensation of a chainsaw cutting them in half. When I had a laparoscopy in my twenties, I didn’t swig from a bottle of Bell’s or bite down on a hanky, so why would I eschew pain relief now? And if I didn’t have a normal, natural birth, did that make it abnormal and unnatural?
The move to drop the “normal” – widely welcomed by the media – is indicative of the damaging rhetoric that continues to surround pregnancy and childbirth
Last weekend, the Royal College of Midwives made the lead story of The Times for allegedly abandoning a decade-long campaign for “normal” births. The story was picked up and repeated in the press, but after further investigation it is clear that the Royal College did in fact drop the Normal Birth Campaign three years ago, replacing it with the Better Births Initiative after conceding that it had “created the wrong idea”. The move to drop the “normal” – widely welcomed by the media – is indicative of the damaging rhetoric that continues to surround pregnancy and childbirth, leading many mothers to feel like failures if they use pain relief or require medical intervention during labour.
During my first trimester, a neighbour informed me that giving birth was “what we were built to do as women”, and that my body “will naturally know what to do at birth”. Through gritted teeth, I fought the urge to tell her that this is categorically rubbish – 90 per cent of women tear while delivering, and the World Health Organization estimates that 830 women die every day from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. While some women are lucky enough to enjoy pregnancy, and go on to give birth without pain relief or instrumental intervention, the reality is that human bodies have not evolved to deal with pregnancy or childbirth. If they had, our hips and birth canals would be wider, and every one of us would breeze through those nine months and slip out a baby at home while sipping tea and reading the paper. Instead, women suffer from everything, from morning sickness, gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, to antenatal depression, postnatal depression and pelvic girdle pain – the last of which was so debilitating from 16 weeks onwards that I had to wear a body Tubigrip and could barely walk in my third trimester.
My birth plan was to go to hospital when I had contractions. Being the daughter of a surgeon and a GP, I was fortunate enough to be fully informed that the dreamy ideal of delivery can turn to dust in a flash, and I was under no illusion that intervention was a distinct possibility if I or my baby needed it. But I have no fewer than five friends who were devastated by their forceps deliveries and emergency C-sections – even though the procedures saved the lives of their babies. So, what makes women think this way? Currently, owing to excessive workloads and a lack of funding, midwives don’t always have the time or resources to explain to pregnant women that 60 per cent will need intervention during labour (an epidural, forceps, ventouse or a C-section). Twinned with poor continuity of care, women often see a different midwife at every appointment and fail to establish a conversation around the right birth choice for them. As a result, women arrive on the labour ward with pre-conceived ideas drilled in from the movies, NCT classes, doulas and other non-medically trained friends and relatives pushing a “natural” agenda that inevitably leads to a sense of failure, and often trauma, when they realise that no one can map out a baby’s arrival.
We all have that friend who lit candles, listened to Ed Sheeran and birthed a cherub with nothing but gas and air – well done, you! But after 26 hours of contractions, I needed gas and air just to endure the epidural needle. I was too busy chewing a pillow on all fours to Instagram the Houses of Parliament sunlit outside my window. My midwife had to break my waters after 36 hours as my body wouldn’t do it. And, after three days in labour, I was too distressed by the sound of my baby’s heartbeat plummeting at every contraction to care about how she was delivered: my baby was face up, had the cord around her neck and needed forceps – resulting in an episiotomy and a second-degree tear – but as I lay in theatre with my little girl in my arms, I felt anything but a failure.