In the same week that Natasha Pearlman shared her excruciating account of modern-day childbirth torture at the hands of the NHS, the retiring chief of the Royal College of Midwives conceded that the ‘normal birth’ campaign, in today’s consumer-oriented culture, had given the wrong idea that there is a right (natural childbirth) or a wrong way to give birth.
The Sunday Telegraph, deploring the over-zealous politically correct orthodoxy on natural childbirth which had in certain cases led to babies dying, saw Cathy Warwick’s admission as great progress.
Would that it were. Any hope of more mothers having the ‘best birth possible’ in conditions that are comfortable and safe, given an NHS midwifery service as understaffed and stretched as it is, is pipe dream.
The country suffers from a chronic and acute shortage of midwives against a rising birth rate, full stop. We need 3,500 more to keep pace, let alone building an experienced cadre.
The concept of choice is the myth. Who would choose to make an agonising journey in search of a labour ward? Who would choose not to have a baby at the weekend? Is there a home midwifery service to choose, one person seeing you through your entire labour? Don’t ask. It does not exist.
Yet it’s always ‘natural childbirth’, not the lack of choice, that takes the hit, arouses feminist female ire and that feminist fury is directed at.
I’ll never forget the stony stares that greeted my story at a National Childbirth Trust class ‘post birth’ reunion 30 years ago, when it was setting out on its ambitious fightback against the rising tide of ‘pain-free’ drug-induced, forceps-delivered births and elective C-sections.
What had our experiences been, the group leader had asked encouragingly. In the silence that followed I chirped up.
I remember describing how, without any painkilling drugs or any other medical intervention, I’d given birth naturally and without difficulty; how, supported in a standing position, I had looked down into my baby’s upturned face, to see his dark blue eyes staring back at me, as he made his exit from my body – a memory which still makes me smile with joy.
It bombed. Other new mothers determined to ‘do it’ naturally like me had ended up going through hell in hospital. Scared and traumatised, they felt they had failed. And there was I, rubbing salt into the wound.
That’s why, since then, I’ve tended to shut up about my two good natural birth experiences. I am not alone. Who wants to be hated?
So today it’s only the horror stories you hear, which have become a virtual competition in pain and suffering – in an almost organised antipathy to the natural process. Never has so much negativity surrounded childbirth.
Yet women like me, fortunate enough to have had straightforward births despite the NHS’s limited services, are still not the lucky few.
I know mums whose labour pains began at 8am, set off for hospital at 10, had given birth by 11 and were home again by 5pm feeding their newborn on the sofa, cup of tea at hand.
I was lucky to have my babies at home, the most likely place to ‘succeed’ with a natural birth, and had total confidence in the doctor (first baby) and midwife (second) who’d between them delivered thousands safely. That was key, as was not being moved (avoiding the fight, flight and freeze response to stress) and keeping warm and undisturbed. In case of need, a hospital was ten minutes away.
I remember after my first labour pains in the early hours sleeping fitfully between contractions till mid-morning, when thinking it was all a false alarm, I got up. I was already in transition and baby was on its way out. Supported from behind with gravity helping me, feeling as if I was pushing out a big stone, I gave birth to my 7Ib 12oz son.
Fear was not an issue; the exhilaration eclipsed any subsequent memory of the pain as the body’s natural endorphins weighed in.
I know that such optimal conditions for a natural childbirth are rarely provided by the NHS.
That’s why previous campaigns for natural childbirth – endless lectures on how to give birth without drugs or medical intervention – are irresponsible. Neither the NHS nor RCM seem to understand the most basic requirements: that reliability, and continuity of care and the confidence of the mother-to-be, are critical to natural birth.
The current inadequate system and conditions could not be better designed to raise levels of anxiety and fear.
At the same time, mums-to-be have never had so little reproduction experience and knowledge to fall back on. There is no antidote to this narrative. The birth rate is declining. Western women are having their babies ever later. They no longer inhabit a domestic sphere in which they can share and pass on their birth lore. Rather, they inhabit a world of work which, influenced by feminist orthodoxy, encourages them to relegate maternity and turn their backs on all things maternal. You could say they have been severed from nature and all but indoctrinated out of their reproductive role, responsibilities and knowledge.
It is as though Western society has forgotten how to give birth.
I fear in this modern ‘anti-nature’ cultural context, the Facebook, Googling ‘snowflake’ generation of young women have never been less equipped to handle what is a normal, and should be, a natural process. Clever and entitled they may be, but confronted with the unknown of childbirth I suspect many are terrified.
Afterwards, hurt physically and emotionally, they blame their ‘female failure’ (yes, they still want and need to be women) on the very concept of a natural birth. It is a deceit they say. Of course it is not.
It is ironic that 70 years on from Beveridge, in this oh-so-progressive world, ignorance and fear more than ever stand in the way of normal – happy and healthy – births that do give the best start in life.