Forget the quaint, old-fashioned notion of a pain-free childbirth. These days natural birth advocates are not just pitching reduction of pain in labor, but a surplus of pleasure. It turns out that, under the right circumstances, women can actually have an orgasm during birth– or multiple orgasms?! Maybe you’ve heard about this? Maybe you’ve laughed. But maybe it’s not that funny?
Writer and mother-of-two, Judith Woods doesn’t think it’s very funny. In her fantastic profile of Sheila Kitzinger, grand dame of natural childbrith and author of, most recently, Birth and Sex, Woods confronts Kitzinger about all this orgasmic hoo ha.
After experiencing two wretchedly medically managed births– including excessive pitocin, a deep tear, poorly administered epidural anesthesia, little-to-no reassurance from doctors, horrible recovery– Woods has a hard time stomaching descriptions of pushing a baby out as, “a multiple orgasm that comes in great rushes with each longing to push” and “the most intensely sexual feeling a woman ever experiences”. (Kitzinger’s words.)
“The truth is that if you didn’t experience ecstatic epiphanies when giving birth it is hard no, make that impossible to read about another woman doing so without feeling resentful and cheated,” she writes.
So Woods goes to Kitzinger’s house in London and tells her all of this this. The outcome of their conversation is maybe not what you’d expect. They get along. They open up the conversation. There are no Mommy War battle scenes. It’s very civilized, funny, candid and respectful. Maybe even a little cathartic? Kitzinger tells Woods:
“Poor, poor you! I hear from women in their sixties and seventies who are still unable to recover emotionally from the terrible births they went through half a century previously… Doctors use threats that undermine women’s confidence in themselves and their bodies. They say, ‘You must think of your baby,’ even in cases that are low-risk, and once a birth is medicalized then the woman becomes a vessel, she is treated like a child and a not terribly bright child at that…. Because women are terribly self-critical, if a mother has a bad birth experience at the hands of an overwhelming technocratic system, she feels in some way responsible and is tormented about whether or not she did the right thing.”
“I don’t think I’m instilling guilt, I’m not intending to add any extra pressure,” she continues, “I’m trying to record what really happens to some women and examine the realm of possibilities so that we can all work together to think how we can enable women to enjoy their bodies and take back control.”
Woods still wonders if perhaps the emphasis on birthing orgasms may be feminism “gone to0 far,” but she sees Kitzinger’s larger point: Birth doesn’t have to be dreadful. And we have to change the conversation so it’s less about individual moms and their attitudes or abilities (to be relaxed or orgasmic) and more about the care they receive and the circumstances surrounding the birth. Hear, hear! More midwives, says Kitzinger. I agree.
“And looking back I realize that sometimes what women truly need in childbirth isn’t drugs, but a voice,” concludes Woods.
I know that for a small percentage of women, an orgasmic, blissful birth is entirely possible. But I also know that natural birth advocates have to be careful not to set ecstasy as a standard. We risk setting up unrealistic expectations or making women feel like failures. The circumstances of my second labor–at home, near a hospital, with a midwife–were extremely lovely, safe and supportive. There was no pain-exacerbating fear anywhere to be found. And yet I howled to the moon during transition– not in the throes of ecstasy but from sheer and undeniable pain. In all, it was fantastic, empowering and remarkably easy on my body– and I can thank people like Sheila Kitzinger for encouraging me to believe in myself, hire a midwife, and get on with it– but dear me, it wasn’t orgasmic. And I don’t feel robbed.
Does the idea of a pleasurable birth inspire you? Or fill you with doubt?
Ceridwen Morris, CCE, is a writer, childbirth educator and the co-author of From The Hips: A Comprehensive, Open-Minded, Uncensored, Totally Honest Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Becoming a Parent. Follow her on Facebook.