I wanted to share a few thoughts on this topic - in other words, why would any sane woman in the 21st century choose natural childbirth when there are so many chemical methods for pain relief?
(This is separate from an upcoming entry, "Why Homebirth?" which is related but separate. One can have natural birth at home or in hospital (although it's much tougher in hospital), but the benefits of homebirth aren't transferable to a hospital - so I'll write on those later.)
What is natural birth? Most obviously it is birth that is untainted by artificial chemicals, either in the form of induction/augmentation agents (pitocin, misoprostol, etc.), or chemical pain relief (epidural, spinal, narcotics, etc.). Actually, I should correct myself... There are different definitions, depending on who you ask. In the mainstream birth world, "natural birth" generally just means birth without chemical pain relief, regardless of whether or not the mother was artificially induced or had an artificially augmented labor. "Pure birth," which I experienced and which I highly recommend, is the technical term for birth which is completely free from any chemical interference (and generally other externals such as an IV or continuous fetal monitoring).
There are deeper facets to natural childbirth, which would include things like natural birth positions (squatting, standing, etc.), immediate skin-to-skin contact with baby, delayed cord clamping, continuous labor support, no directed pushing, etc.). However, for the purpose of this entry I am going to focus on the "chemical" parts - I will define natural birth as birth in which the mother receives no pain medication, and ideally no labor induction or labor augmentation drugs. (With a national cesarean rate of about 32% and a national induction rate of around 40%, you can bet that any of the above is pretty stinking rare.)
First, let's get the obvious out of the way. Natural birth is way better for baby and mother. This is not hard to understand or to prove. Fewer cesareans (a first-time mother with an epidural is roughly four times as likely to end up with a cesarean as is an unmedicated mother), fewer long-term health effects on mom and baby, better bonding, you name it. The health benefits of natural birth for mother and baby are endless. This point isn't even up for debate, it's been so well-proven. Period. End of story.
But there's a bigger story.
Let me tell you my own experience, briefly.
I hated childbirth. Every minute of it. It started out uncomfortable, and worked up to excruciating - and stayed there. I basically screamed for the last six hours of it. It was hell on earth. In fact, as soon as it was over, I turned to my husband and told him that childbirth should be a Christian missionary's best friend, because there is no closer analogy to hell on earth. I didn't even experience the classical "birth ecstasy" of the unmedicated mother - the "my baby, my baby!" moment. I just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I felt awful, birthing the placenta was also excruciating, and I immediately had afterpains so badly that I couldn't stand to nurse (and they hung around for over six weeks, dang it!!). If you look at my birth pictures, I am not even smiling because I was exhausted and in pain.
I'm not saying this to be discouraging - I just want the reader to know that I DO know how bad childbirth hurts. It hurts big-time. For me it was eighteen hours of torture. If I had been in the hospital I would have requested an epidural about ten hours before our son was born (another reason I'm glad I wasn't in the hospital!). Many women say that they experience childbirth as spiritual, that that they find "their rhythm," etc. I didn't. It was horrible start-to-finish.
Then, the intelligent reader asks, why are you now a proponent of natural childbirth/homebirth with a blog devoted exclusively to the subject? Are you stark, raving mad?
Let me continue with my story.
It is hard to explain this, but in the days after my birth I experienced the most amazing spiritual transformation. Next to Christian salvation, it has been the most amazing life-change - one that I could not have anticipated, and one that I cannot even fully describe. I will say this, though - Who I was before natural childbirth was not who I was after experiencing natural childbirth. It was a complete transformation, one which still awes and amazes me and which is completely beyond my understanding.
For one thing, I am now much more self-confident. I know that I am competent and able to do whatever I need, because I have done the most difficult thing that any human being can do. My body is amazing, and frankly, so am I! I withstood that tremendous pain and got through it - and I can do ANYTHING now. I have lost all amazement for athletic feats. Someone climbed Mt. Everest? Ran a 3-minute mile? GIVE ME A BREAK!!! I came through natural childbirth!!!!!
For another thing, natural childbirth also greatly healed my self-image. I, like the other 99.99% of American women who have been brainwashed into only seeing beauty in quasi-anorexia, definitely had issues with seeing my body as anything but flawed. But natural childbirth showed me the brilliant complexity and functionality of my body in ways that I could never have imagined. My body is "wonderfully and marvelously made," and I gained immense respect for it and for myself. Now, post-pregnancy, my body has way more issues than it did before - stretch marks galore, ten extra pounds and proportions so radically different I probably wouldn't recognize myself from before. But my self-image is much more positive and affirming, and I have learned to be grateful for the amazing things that my body can do - regardless of whether or not I look like a supermodel.
For another thing, I feel that in many ways that natural childbirth was truly my "coming of age." This was truly that transformation point for me. It wasn't puberty, high school graduation, sweet 16 (or 18 or 21), first date, first kiss, marriage, sex, pregnancy - no way. Not even close. It was natural childbirth. It was truly the coming of age for me. I can't say how or why, and I certainly didn't expect it. It just was. Some part of me just matured and ripened over that 24-hour period and emerged as a woman. I believe that there is some part of woman's soul that is tied to the experience of childbirth. If you ask almost any woman who has experienced natural birth, she will generally agree with this without even thinking about it (and will often go into detail about it!).
I need to add something here: It's hard writing the above, because there are some women who can't give birth, due to singleness or infertility. One of my close friends is dealing with longterm infertility right now, and it is a heart-wrenching process (another proof that birth is important to women!). I believe that that things are different spiritually for women who cannot physically give birth - that God provides other methods of maturation and self-discovery and spiritual growth. God is a God of individuals - no one is left out of spiritual growth opportunities in the economy of God. But speaking for myself, I know that there was a depth to my soul that could only be reached with unmedicated birth. And that's something I never would have guessed before my birth experience.
Some might say, "All of the above was just from childbirth - not natural childbirth." Nope, not at all. The pain of labor and birth was inextricably wrapped up in transformative effects of both. For me, childbirth was a "baptism of pain." It taught me to reach out to other women, my midwives and doula, and to see how much true love and friendship there can be among female friends, and how comforting women can be to one another during birth. It taught me compassion for other birthing women and for people who must endure pain. It taught me the great kinship that I experience with women throughout the ages of history who have endured the same thing to bring the human race into existence. It taught me to value my baby greatly, because he was birthed through my pain - and is unutterably precious.
From a Christian perspective, experiencing natural childbirth gave me a deeper understanding into the meaning of the Bible passage, "But women will be saved through childbearing" (I Tim 2:15) This is not referring to salvation from eternal death, but to something quite different. There are many different interpretations and lines of thought on this passage. But to me it has become clear that God has used the "curse" of the Fall (for man, hard and unproductive labor in their lifework, for women, pain in childbirth) to also be our greatest blessings. Who would deny that men find some of their greatest blessings and self-identity through hard work and discovery/industry/building/etc.? And I know now that women can find some of their deepest grounding, meaning, and self-identity in the pain of childbirth. Our curse has become our blessing.
But frankly, there is just so much to this transformation that I just can't describe it. If anyone would like to write a comment and give me a hint as to what I ought to be writing, I would appreciate it and will add it in! I can only say that natural, drug-free childbirth was an earth-shattering, life-changing transformation that will be with me for the rest of my life. I am even eager to go through it again, just because of that. And I have the deepest sorrow for all the women who do not get to experience this transformation because they have been cut open or drugged. I want every woman to experience this tremendous blessing and transformation - and that's one of the main reasons this blog is here.
Having a baby is more than a messy, unpleasant process that one must endure to get a baby. When people hear a horrible birth story and say, "Well, at least you have a healthy baby! That's what matters!" they completely miss the point. A woman's birth stories are part of her identity and will affect her profoundly for the rest of her life. Many women spend years and subsequent births trying to heal from cruel and demeaning treatment during previous births, or births that were in one way or another traumatic. Yes, the baby is the most important thing, but a mother's birth experience is a close second. There is nothing like it in the world, and I hope to spend the rest of my life promoting natural birth for this reason.
Email me with comments and questions!