Women at baby showers bristle or exchange knowing looks when the guest of honor starts down a path describing her natural birth plan. What would otherwise be close friends or family members become “frenemies.” As soon as they can excuse themselves, those who have already had children, and who chose epidural or other anesthesia to assist their labors, gather around the punch bowl to exchange glances or to make predictive comments. “We’ll see how she feels about natural childbirth when she’s had seventeen hours of labor,” an aunt says to the mother’s best friend, who smiles and nods in agreement, both with eyebrows raised.
Why do women continue to attack one another for choices about how each chooses to conduct her pregnancy and how she gives birth? The most recent victim of this backlash is Miranda Kerr. The lambasting is particularly vengeful when a model or actress, who has inevitably recovered her pre-baby body, with seeming ease, claims the benefits of long-term breastfeeding or advocates for natural childbirth. Women bloggers take umbrage and claim they want the offending fellow mother to keep it to herself.
This article will be published on my son’s birthday. My son was born at home and I had the care of a midwife. Throughout my pregnancies (my son is my second child), coworkers, friends and relatives chided us about our choice to have midwifery care and home births. “What if something goes wrong?” was the inevitable question. No one could name that “something” so that we might be able to reply intelligently about each possible instance and what the midwives would do to handle it. It was always a mysterious “something” that was ominous yet unnameable.
I understand that women who plan on epidurals before even seeing the plus sign on the pee stick or getting the call from the lab are sometimes attacked, as well. They’re cornered by people they consider “birth Nazis” who pepper them with statistics about complications from epidurals, about the need for antibiotics for epidural fevers and about their increased chances of Cesarean section when epidurals are used. These women feel as equally attacked and under pressure as I did, just from another angle.
What I advocate for is for choice for women. I specifically desire informed choice, yet defining the word “informed” is a daunting task. Not everyone wants to be informed about everything. Especially where medicine and medical care are concerned, many people just want someone to “fix it” and want to leave judgments about what is o.k. and what is not o.k. to their doctors. When the doctor makes a decision or allows a woman to make a choice and she later determines she was not as informed as she might have been, lawsuits occur. There are presently lawsuits against doctors who did not perform Cesarean sections, and there are dead babies and disabled babies lined up in pictures in courtrooms. There are also women who sue for unnecessary Cesareans. They claim the doctor acted too soon, that his or her prediction of a large baby was inaccurate and/or that they had complications from the surgery of which they do not feel they were informed adequately. What are doctors and mothers to do?
Like novels that re-imagine history with alternate outcomes, we can never know what would have happened had any of us chosen different care providers, places of birth or even what we ate for breakfast (or didn’t) the day we began labor. Each woman can tell only her story of her birthing experience. For me, I believe (believe, not know) that had I been seeing an obstetrician, my first child would have been a C-section. She was large and I dilated and effaced before her due date. The doctor who had been my ob/gyn at the time would have offered to induce me, at the very least. Instead, I had midwifery care, and a planned home birth, wherein I labored at eight centimeters for six hours. I then labored at nine centimeters for two and a half more. I then pushed three times to birth my nine pounds, twelve ounces daughter. Other women, friends of mine, believe they would have died had they been at home for their births. They believe that their epidurals and C-sections saved them and their babies from certain death, grave illness or injury. They cite extended labors and intense pain, which they believe would have made them transport to a hospital for relief. Then, when labor stalled (possibly because of the epidural and possibly not because of anything done medically), and their baby’s heartbeat crashed upon the addition of pitocin to augment the stalled labor, they believe the subsequent C-section was medically necessary and also a lifesaver for all.
Who is to say who is right and who is wrong? None of us can turn back the experience to attempt it through the alternative. As such, we need to stop judging one another and our choices. We can validate the birth experience of a woman who felt relieved by epidural or other anesthesia and also the woman who chose an elective C-section so that her mother who lives across the country could plan to be there for the birth and early weeks. We can support the woman who chose a home birth and no intervention, and not chastise her for the supposed risks she took or call her “lucky” as a way of explaining away her “good fortune” of a birth as she desired it.
While I am firmly rooted in childbirth as a natural process, I am more deeply rooted in individual experiences of women as valid and worthy of respect. I’d like nothing more than to have every woman educated about all of the risks and benefits of each and every choice in pregnancy and birth. I’d also love it if that once that education was in place, and each woman felt as informed as she wished to be, that we could honor one another even as we make different choices for our children and ourselves. We need to stop attempting to silence women, as I know plenty of people who feel hesitant to speak of their planned C-section at a La Leche League meeting as I know of people hesitant to let on about their planned home birth to colleagues or relatives. Why silence any experience? Why not add to the discourse without judgment and validate each individual woman?
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.