“I’d like to think I can do it without any pain relief, but we’ll see.”
“Why?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it would be good to manage without it.”
“But why though?”
“Well… that’s just the way it is, isn’t it.”
My friend was clearly struggling with the idea, so I dropped it. But it bothered me for the rest of the day. It’s obviously still bothering me or I wouldn’t be writing this now.
The conversation was about pain relief in childbirth. She was 10 weeks pregnant with her first, and I had just given birth to my second, so she (completely incorrectly) assumed that I was a deeply knowledgeable source of information with whom to discuss impending motherhood. I’ve since explained that I know absolutely nothing. But her assumption that she should be avoiding pain relief was interesting to me – it was clearly deeply ingrained in her subconscious, but when I questioned it she couldn’t explain why.
And that’s the problem. We’ve been conditioned to think that pain relief is a bad thing. That we should be having as “natural” a childbirth as possible. Yet most people aren’t really sure why – they’re just scared of not living up to expectations. But it’s total BS anyway.
Natural childbirth is a myth.
If you want your pregnancy and birth to be completely natural, then I assume you’re not having any ultrasound scans, not taking any prenatal vitamins, not allowing your midwife to listen to your foetus’ heartbeat at any point and not having any blood tests. Because none of those things are natural.
Oh wait, you’re having all of those things. So it’s not really that you want a “natural” pregnancy and birth, it’s just pain relief you object to. Why is that? Unless you’re a hardcore masochist who really enjoys excruciating pain, it’s probably because you’ve fallen victim to one, or several, of the harmful myths that are fed into women’s subconscious minds.
The myth of the woman in the African village
There was a discussion in one of the eight million mums’ Facebook groups that I’m in about pain relief in childbirth, and one comment that I read made me so angry that I nearly smashed my laptop. One mother had written, “If women in Africa can give birth without any interventions then we can too.” There are so many things wrong with this comment that I hardly know where to start. But, true to form, I’ll give it a good go.
First of all, it’s a classic of the “talking about Africa as if it were a country” genre. The Western-centric, white privileged mind often thinks of Africa as a homogenous lump of land where everything is the same. I think Geldof has a lot to answer for there – my generation, who grew up hearing “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time” with no regard for places like, I don’t know, Kilimanjaro, appear to taken the idea that all of Africa is identical and run with it. But it isn’t. Assuming that everyone in Africa lives in small villages without access to hospitals and drugs is just plain racist, I’m afraid there’s no other word for it.
The experience of someone living in a rural area in Burkina Faso will be very different to that of someone living in central Cape Town. And of course there are people in Africa living in poverty (just like there are in the UK), and there are people across the continent who are incredibly rich (just like the people who are in charge of the UK), and their experiences will also be incredibly different. I’m not an expert, but I would imagine there are a fair few women in central Cape Town hospitals clamouring for epidurals as I type.
What angered me most about this comment, though, was the glamorisation of the poor African woman. The (again very white privileged) romanticising and almost fetishising of women living in highly challenging circumstances. I’ve read stories of women in Zambia and Uganda and Ethiopia walking miles during labour to try to reach the nearest hospital. Many do not make it and have to give birth by the side of the road. As a consequence, many of the babies and mothers die.
Vice magazine quotes a young mother called Hariane who gave birth an hour’s walk from her village: “It was not a good experience … I had to use a blanket to cover myself and the whole time I was worried an animal would come and take my baby.” We do not know how lucky we are to not have to face such problems during childbirth.
Whilst in the West we are relatively well protected during pregnancy and birth, having children is still one of the biggest killers of women globally, and the leading cause of death of girls aged 15 to 19. Every day, approximately 810 women die from preventable causes related to maternity, but 94% of those deaths occur in low or lower-middle income countries. So while us pampered Westerners look down are noses at medical interventions because we’ve been so insulated from the dangers of childbirth, women who happen to live in countries without the resources we take for granted are dying for lack of those same interventions.
We have absolutely no right to think we can throw on a headscarf, play some drum music and connect with our African sisters by playing at giving birth “naturally” when many women in economically deprived areas would kill for the opportunities we have to protect our health and that of our babies. We must utterly disgust them.
The myth of the perfectly designed body
Another comment I hear over and over is, “a woman’s body is designed to give birth, it doesn’t need any help.” Oh, do one.
See above – a woman dies every two minutes in pregnancy or childbirth. Your body might be designed to give birth, but nature is far from perfect. Even in the UK, it was only in the 1960s that we were still seeing around 233 deaths per year. In the 1950s, 69 women died for every 100,000 live births in England and Wales. The further back in time you go, the slimmer were our chances. Not to mention the chances of our children.
Nature is amazing. I still marvel that I created two whole human beings just from an evening of “cuddling” with my husband. I find it mind-blowing that these people grew inside me! There was an actual person in me. It’s incredible. But we’re not machines. We’re fragile organisms, and elements can break down very quickly and very severely.
Another dangerous narrative is that, because it’s natural, we will just automatically know what to do. Sure, cavewomen figured it out, or at least enough of them did for our species to survive, but a huge number of them didn’t. Telling women they’ll instinctively be able to navigate the whole process by themselves without help is just setting them up for massive feelings of failure when they find that actually giving birth is bloody hard and they can’t just tune into their feminine intuition to make it all magically happen exactly how they want it to. It’s also setting them up for a potentially fatal lack of medical support.
So yeah, your body is great and goddammit you are a total hero for making this human and you should feel empowered and able to trust your instincts, but you also shouldn’t expect to be superhuman or have psychic powers, because you are just a regular person and it’s ok to need help and support. Don’t be tricked into thinking you’re inadequate for not being some magical being that doesn’t feel pain. You’re not. You’re normal.
The myth of the evil chemicals
Aligned with the “it’s a natural process so you’re already totally prepared” philosophy is the idea that you and your baby don’t need anything else in your bodies that Mother Earth hasn’t put there already, so you should refuse all extra substances.
Sure, as long as you never take painkillers when you have a headache, or never eat, you know, cooked food. We put things that aren’t 100% natural into our bodies every day, because we’ve evolved from just eating whatever we could find on bushes and dying from the common cold.
I saw one post on a forum preaching that mothers shouldn’t allow doctors to give their babies vitamin K (which is routinely offered at birth to stop newborns from bleeding to death) because if they really needed it then they would have it in their bodies already. Just to be clear, babies are born with very low levels of vitamin K, and this vitamin is needed for blood to clot properly, and that comment is just idiotic.
Just like Bill Gates isn’t putting microchips into your Covid vaccines to track your whereabouts (he can already do that via your phone if he wanted to, just so you know), there’s nothing in any of the drugs you might be offered during childbirth that is designed to destroy you or your child. Just like you would take paracetamol for a cold or cough syrup when you’re croaky without a second thought, we need to normalise taking appropriate substances to protect maternal and newborn health.
The myth of original sin
This is the big one. This is where the patriarchy has really got its claws into us, and ultimately this is where all the other myths stem from. This is what they want you to believe because this is how they will keep women down.
Women deserve to suffer in childbirth.
When Eve ate the apple, god cast them out of the Garden of Eden. You might know that already. But the bit of the story that isn’t so well known, is that god had a further punishment for Eve (because the man always gets off more lightly while the woman takes the blame). She was told that she and her daughters (that’s us) were now cursed to suffer pain in childbirth. The pain we go through is part of the mark of “original sin” and it’s so engrained in the Western psyche that a huge number of people believe that women deserve this pain without even knowing why they believe it.
The problem is, the patriarchy is really good at getting us to internalise negative feelings about ourselves. So a lot of women, maybe even most women, believe on some level themselves that they deserve to suffer. And they’re refusing to let go of it.
Then, once one woman has suffered in childbirth, she doesn’t want to admit that actually she could have had a much easier time of it – she wants her suffering to mean something and to have been worthy. And she doesn’t want other women having relaxed, even joyful, births when she’s just been through hell. So she joins the chorus of voices saying that pain relief in childbirth is bad. And the cycle continues.
Where are all the people saying you should have a “natural” appendectomy and get that done without anaesthetic? You don’t hear many people saying they want to just have a swig of brandy and bite down on a bullet before an operation, as nature intended. It’s only childbirth – the one procedure that is almost exclusively endured by women – where people become insistent that pain relief should be avoided.
The patriarchy wants women to have a terrible time in childbirth, because then it takes them a long time to recover, both physically and mentally. If they were bouncing back full of energy and positivity, they might want to have jobs and participate in society, and other awful things like that that can’t possibly be allowed. And we’re doing its job for it by telling other women to go along with that line.
I had epidurals with both of my children, and I actually really enjoyed giving birth. It didn’t hurt. It was exciting and moving and magical. I was chatting and joking with my husband and the midwives the whole time. I was tired at the end, sure, because both my children decided to keep me up all night, but I wasn’t the epic levels of exhausted that some of my friends who laboured without pain relief were. I wasn’t feeling drained from hours of agony when they put my babies into my arms, so I was able to feel the joy and love that so many women beat themselves up for not feeling. So many women spiral into serious post-natal depression because their initial reaction to their baby isn’t overwhelmingly joyful – but why would it be when they’ve been in intense pain and suffering for hours, maybe days, and they’re physically, mentally and emotionally shattered?
We don’t deserve to suffer. We deserve to have a positive, pain-free birth that doesn’t end with us feeling exhausted and miserable, if that’s what we choose.
Because at the end of the day it should all be about choice.
If you want to suffer through every moment of giving birth, have at it. I completely support your right to refuse pain relief or interventions of any kind if that’s what you truly want.
But be clear that it is what you really want, and be clear on your reasons why that’s what you want. Don’t just think that’s what you have to do because Sharon on Facebook says so. And don’t pressure other women into giving birth that way.
Your birth is all about you and your baby. And if you want to, damn well take all the drugs you can get your hands on.
There’s no such thing as natural childbirth – let’s stop aiming for “natural” and start shooting for positive.