I love a good birthing yarn. Sure, most happy labor narratives have the same general shape (they begin with contractions; they end with a baby), but the emotional and physical details are so particular. I want to know how you felt in the third hour of pushing. I want to hear what your partner said to you. I want to find out if you pooped.
So I was excited to crack open my copy of the new anthology Labor Day: Birth Stories for the Twenty-First Century — and disappointed by the overwhelming sameness of the stories within. Whether or not the women involved had natural childbirth (and the majority did), with one or two exceptions they are all still marinating in the same birth culture. It’s a culture that reveres midwife Ina May Gaskin, is populated by doulas with nose rings, and frames the decision to have a natural childbirth as a moral choice. And it’s a didactic, judgmental culture. If the vision of childbirth presented by editors Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon is to be believed, the movement that began as a pushback to ‘50s and ‘60s medical paternalism has become tyrannical in its own way.
Edan Lepucki, a writer who wanted a home birth but ended up needing a C-section, is a good example of the childbirth moralists in Labor Day. She writes that she doesn’t like to talk about her labor because:
I feel the need to explain my whole long story; otherwise, you might think I’m a clueless everywoman who let the doctors do what they did because I didn’t have faith in my own body. Because I was weak, because I’m not in touch with my physical powers.”
Over and over again, the choice to have an epidural is framed as “weak” and “fragile,” even by the women who end up asking for them (the exceptions are Nuar Alsadir and Cristina Henríquez). Here’s how Joanna Smith Rakoff describes it: “I was complying, admitting defeat, succumbing to my body’s inferiority to the miracle of modern medicine.” Cheryl Strayed admonishes women, “Don’t believe you can’t withstand enormous amounts of pain,” and “Don’t believe a pregnant woman is psychologically fragile and should be protected from the realities of labor and birth.”
Amy Herzog goes even further, writing, “In my personal pregnancy mythology, an epidural would be a disgrace, a C-section a tragedy of Greek proportions.” Herzog is being self-deprecating here, especially because the epidural turns out to be a minor issue when her daughter is born with a congenital muscle disease and must spend weeks in the NICU. But her initial feelings about the epidural show how pervasive the natural childbirth pressure is on a certain kind of pregnant woman.
The “strength” of a natural childbirth is equated with agency: You’re telling the medical establishment to piss off every time you reject their dulling drugs! But it’s inadvertently condescending to women who do choose to have pain relief. It’s telling them they’re “clueless everywomen” who just aren’t properly educated about what their bodies can do, when in fact they may just not want to go through the pain if they don’t have to, or they may be facing complications beyond their control (à la Herzog). As a columnist for the New Statesman put it earlier this year, “That which at first seems empowering — it’s all in your hands! — turns out to be a burden.”
The message to such women is that they didn’t experience “real” childbirth if they took pain medication. Here’s Edan Lepucki again, on women who had epidurals near her while she was in labor: “I felt both envious of their comfort, and also sad. If that sounds self-righteous, so be it. Feeling my body work to give birth to my child was unlike everything I’d ever experienced, and in the moment I couldn’t understand why a mother wouldn’t want that.” First off, modern epidurals are not like the twilight sleep of the ‘50s: I can say from experience that you still feel a whole lot going on. And more important — while this seems like it should be obvious — not every mother wants the same things.
The childbirth moralists seem motivated by a desire to be good girls, to do everything perfectly. And in their culture, “good” equals “no drugs, soothing music, birthing tub glugging in the background.” Sarah Jefferis writes that when her cervix doesn’t open properly, “I thought I was doing labor wrong. And I wanted to do it right. Not just right. Perfectly.” Jane Roper writes as if she is going to be graded on her birth plan. “Overachiever that I am, I wanted to get through the birth without drugs if I could.” Again, there is a glimmer of self-deprecating humor here, but it doesn’t discount the fact that Roper is laboring under the same set of expectations as the other writers included.
I want to make clear here that I am not blaming the individual essayists for sharing their personal experiences of childbirth, and I’m not dismissing their reactions to their own births. I’m blaming the editors for not trying harder to find a more diverse set of views and experiences among the essayists. Eighty-three percent of women delivering in America use some kind of pain relief, so it probably would not have been that difficult to find more women writers who not only used medical interventions, but didn’t judge themselves or other mothers for doing so.
There is no way to do labor “right” or “wrong,” and it’s damaging to perpetuate a one-size-fits-all approach to having babies. Taking pain meds doesn’t make you a weak or fearful person. It doesn’t make you a bad mother. Taking pain meds just makes you a person who would like to experience somewhat less pain. That’s all.