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What's Wrong With "Natural Childbirth"?

The phrase “natural childbirth” has been around for a long time and has, arguably done some good.  But, according to prenatal and parenting educator, Meredith Fein Lichtenberg, it’s time to retire it.

“Natural” is as useless in this context as it is in food-labeling, she argues, and possibly more harmful to the discourses on birth and motherhood than we might realize:

“I hate the way ‘natural’ can sound like a badge of honor: ‘She went all natural!‘ If ‘natural’ is good, it seems like all the women whose labors don’t fit into the ‘natural’ box are less entitled to bask in the accomplishment of having made it through a pregnancy and, somehow, gotten a baby out. And that’s unfair.

“And I hate the way ‘natural’ is, sometimes, a dis. ‘I don’t feel the need to do it all-natural,’ some folks say, as though ‘natural’ means ‘martyr.’ It’s not being a martyr to rely on non-medical tools for pain. It’s not selfish. It’s not a birth fetish. It’s not crunchy/granola. People have different ways to deal with pain, period.”

I think the words, “natural,” “normal,” and “best” are all seriously problematic and yet they pop up constantly when it comes to pregnancy and parenting. I have been slaughtered in comment-section combat for using the word “normal” in what seemed like a perfectly benign way. To go full-on PC with the pregnancy talk can limit the conversation, of course, but, I think that the way Meredith explains it, dropping this particular phrase might just free us all up a little. After all, what does it really mean to have “natural childbirth?”

“Some people use ‘natural’ to mean ‘no pain medication,’ but that’s tricky, too. The idea is that a woman who relies on her own internal coping tools is closer to ‘nature’ than someone who gets an infusion of chemicals injected into the epidural space. But both women — all women in labor — naturally respond to pain by looking for *some* way to cope with it. A woman who doesn’t use medication isn’t more stoic, she is just using different, non-chemical tools to get through the labor. It is natural to look for pain relief.

And the meds argument is tricky: If you have Pitocin but no epidural, is it natural? Suppose you have no medication at all, but you have IV fluids because you were dehydrated at the beginning of labor? Natural? Suppose you go into labor on your own labor at home in the tub and using massage and stuff, and, after 4 days of labor, are still a few centimeters dilated and request a c-section because you’re too exhausted to carry on? Unnatural? To me, the natural response to exhaustion is to look for something to help you deal.

And, on the other hand: suppose you planned to have an ‘all natural’ birth but your placenta is completely previa and there’s no option besides surgical birth. Do you lose your all-natural status? Points for having wanted it?”

You can read about how Meredith proposes we resolve this situation in her excellent blog post at A Mother Is Born, but in a nutshell, she thinks we could benefit from being specific if/when we talk about our births: I “gave birth” or “had a c-section” or “used an epidural” or did “not have medication.”

In closing, I thought I’d post one of the “anti-rules” Rebecca Odes and I came up with for our pregnancy and birth book, From The Hips, which extends this conversation to the realm of parenting:

Anti-Rule #5. There’s no such thing as a ‘natural’ mother.

People talk about “natural” mothering. “Natural” mothers breast feed. It’s not “natural” to breast-feed your child beyond six months. It’s “natural” for babies to cry. Babies only cry when we resist our “natural” impulse to comfort them. For some women it is “natural” to trust a doctor when it comes to their body and baby. For others, the “natural” way to give birth is at home with midwives and family. But one person’s natural is another one’s weird, or worse. We live in a culture with complex—and sometimes contradictory—rules, expectations and ideals, and what feels natural to you depends on your own subjective point of view.
Thoughts?

More parenting debates you may be interested in: Solid Foods

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