On “Natural Childbirth”

So we’re going for a “natural birth” at home, which essentially means we trust K.’s innate birthing abilities more than a hospital’s routine medical interventions.

Kelly, off to birth in Avalon.

My initial, uninformed, and thus reactionary attitude towards the “natural-birth” movement was to assume it was led by women of whom our doula seems the paragon example: sensitive owl-women who long for a Mists of Avalon past that never existed, who romanticize the druidic times of hard-packed dirt floors, straw beds, poultices, leeches, and, well, the occasional dead mother.

Obviously I get a little carried away in these stereotypes. I actually tend to agree with most neo-pagan or Luddite-like movements. What does bother me about them is the little appreciation many of them afford to the interesting, convoluted, and often filled-with-good-intentions historical path that brought, say, birth from cave to house to hospital and now back to house.

The standard strident natural-birth mama might miss the irony that it was feminists in the first decades of the last century that fought to get these now-shunned pain meds for women in labor. She might not know that they did so for good reason. Before that, everything was humming along under the assumption that, because Yahweh cursed Eve when

Damn it, Eve.

she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and “the eyes of (Adam and Eve) were opened,” (which was bad, of course) that’s just how it was—women were condemned to suffer.  Because God didn’t just curse Eve that “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,” he cursed every woman ever born thereafter.What a dick.

Almost two-and-a-half millennia later, women whose eyes were opened to the paternalistic system justified by the same biblical curse-verse—“in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”—demanded that a new European childbirth sedative—Dammerschlaf, or “twilight sleep”—be made available to them.

These early feminists got some* of what they wished for—the right to vote, serve in the army, use birth control—and, in the case of twilight sleep, got it for the worse. Turned out that twilight sleep, a mixture of morphine and scopolamine, induced such frenzied and thrashing hallucinations that women had to be shackled and padded during birth.  So all in all it was good that epidurals replaced Dammerschlaf

Cady Stanton and Susan B. wondering if those crazy German birth doctors had got it right after all

But now, with either a tip of the hat or a raised middle finger to those righteous women, we’ve decided that there was something to the suffering after all. Something decidedly non-biblical, something transcendent: ORGASMIC BIRTH.

(Sorry, had to throw that in there.)

But I’m serious.  If not orgasmic, at least lucid. Or if not lucid, at least, as the name describes, natural.

Yet another  thing that struck me about all this is that the doctor who developed Dammerschlaf— Dr. Kronig did so because he thought labor was unduly harmful to a woman’s health, especially for “modern” woman. (“Peasant” woman, hardened to life of pain and animal living, were fine.) But the “modern” woman, frail, weak, vulnerable: lash ’em down and dope ’em up! And, besides the fact that modern women are led to expect by both the Church and Hollywood that birth is agony; that a hospital** is the obvious and only place for a woman to fulfill her biological raison d’etre; and that neither epidurals nor caesarians could possibly have any effect on a newborn; ol’ Kronig may have had a valid point—it may exactly be because we first-world citizens are so insulated from the coarser and, yes, often painful realities of life that we assume, accept, and often demand a drug-induced haze of a childbirth.

The Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl needs no epidural.

Regardless, all easy for me to say from my heterogametic (XY) soapbox. Hypocritical, too: I pop aspirin for backaches; I appreciate a slug of whisky after a hard day; I’ve been known to enjoy a good drug-induced haze. And it’s certainly not my intent here to criticize anyone who has had an epidural or caesarian; indeed, my biggest problem with the “natural childbirth” movement is that it strongly hints that, as Samantha Shapiro recently wrote in a fabulous article for the NYTimes Magazine, there is only “one pure route to authentic motherhood.” That’s just as much dogmatic bullshit as Yahweh’s curse.

Really, the main reason I support K.in her path towards a natural childbirth is not because I trust the woman’s animal body to do that which millions of years of evolution has prepared it (which I do); or because I masochistically believe that “modern” women need to be hardened by pain (which I don’t); but simply because the pregnant husband (or lesbian wife, I suppose) need only obey one rule: do everything you can to keep your partner safe, healthy, and happy.***

Let’s be honest: man-pregnancy is easy. No two ways about it. Oh, sure, one’s existential angst is amplified, which could make life unbearable for some, and for others serve as a helpful reminder that life is short and exciting so best start living it to the fullest.   But all you really have to do is support your pregnant partner in any way, if it’s agreeing to a homebirth, changing the cat litter****, or catching the baby as she slips out the womb.

“He shall rule over thee,” my ass.


*Other battles are still being fought, as represented by the recent knuckle-dragging Republican veto of an Equal Pay bill.

**Obviously, hospitals are great places for emergencies, and of course we’ll bring K. and/or bebe to our nearby hospital should the need arise.

***It occurs to me that this could be quite a difficult task, and that I am blessed to have K,, or we’re both blessed to have had the pregnancy we have had, which has been downright placid.

**** It’s not so bad if you pretend that you’re digging for potatoes.


3 thoughts on “On “Natural Childbirth”

    • Do you have a stick to bite, too, Brodie? I hadn’t read your posts at all since Februrary: I had some fatherin to do of my own. I’ve taken some minutes–the few minutes afforded to me by my adorable little monster–to read some of the posts. It occurs to me that the one who will really appreciate these pages, indeed, the one will probably spend the most time going over them (no offense to other readers out there), is your own lovely daughter. These are her little pre-existence (or better, proto-existence?) jewels: her dad as a young, hapless, even clueless, man.

      I’ve been keeping a baby journal since we found out that Abby was pregnant. Now, I have early-onset nostalgia when I read back on the good ole days of last year. Then, I was a young, hapless, even clueless man. And so it goes. Give me another twenty years to reread those pages and I’ll say, “Boy, there was a young, hapless, even clueless man, who was really in for it.”

      But my greatest wish, my big Hope, is that Wynne and her future spouse–let’s call her Sarah–will read those pages when they are pregnant with their first baby, and they won’t think me clueless at all. No, they’ll be just as hapless and just as clueless as I.

      Isn’t that wonderful?

      So, I promise to keep reading as I get the time. You guys should be due any day now by my count. How is Kelly holding up?

  1. No sheets. You need 12 x 12 foor 10 mil plastic sheeting. In my experience, two medical interventions (morphine shot and water-breaking) saved us from a C-section and led to two great births.

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