Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Trap of Idealizing the Intervention-free Birth

Sometimes we get caught in a trap of holding up a spontaneous, drug-free vaginal birth as an ideal, because, well, most women should be able to give birth without interventions, right? Then, we end up comparing an individual birth to this standard. I doubt anyone would actually say this out loud, but I think something like the following happens in some women's minds, though it is probably not this specific.
  • Completely intervention-free vaginal birth? A+! Great job!
  • Vaginal birth with IV and artificial rupture of membranes? B. Good effort!
  • Induction and epidural? C. Mediocre.
  • Epidural, episiotomy and vacuum extractor? D. It could have been worse.
  • Cesarean? F. Better luck next time.
But this is not how it works. Your childbirth educator isn't going to give you a grade, because your baby's birth is not an exam! You are not "most women" and every birth is different. It is not your responsibility to prove that birth with minimal interventions is best. As a wise woman once said, "that's a pretty freakin' huge burden to put on one vagina." Interventions are sometimes needed. You can't know in advance that you won't need medical help, so it doesn't do any good to believe that getting it is a negative reflection on you.

After my first birth, I did feel like a C student. I felt like I hadn't done a good enough job at practicing tools for reducing or coping with pain. I thought that if I had prepared better, I possibly could have avoided the epidural. But how in the world can a woman expect to know how to prepare for something she has never done, having no real way of really knowing what it is going to be like for her? Can someone who has never given birth before really prepare for a long, slow, sleep-depriving early labor? An intense, lightening-fast, precipitous labor? Constant pain in her lower back that gives her no break? An emergency cesarean? How can we expect a first time mother to predict what techniques might be helpful for her so that she can practice them? How is she to know how much time she needs to put into practicing so as not to forget everything she practiced immediately when her birthing starts? And how is she supposed to devote any time at all to it when society tells her to "just enjoy the pregnancy" and "don't worry about the birth" until it is less than three months away?

I wish we could irradiate the word "failure" from our vocabulary in conversations about childbirth. I do not call doing something differently from what you wrote on your birth plan failure, I call that a change of plans. Changes of plans can be in response to medical necessity (because intervention sometimes does save lives and improve outcomes), or they can be for psychological reasons. If a woman who wanted a natural childbirth has crossed over from "coping" to "suffering," and nothing is working to bring her back, the decision to use pain medication is not failure. In that kind of situation, medication is probably the best choice to avoid trauma and allow the birth to be a good experience for the mom. As many have pointed out, a traumatized mom is not a "healthy mom."

If a woman had interventions in her birth she wouldn't have chosen with more information or if her options had been presented in a different way, it is not her fault. I hear a lot that a woman has a responsibility to inform herself, but the problem with not knowing is that we don't know what we don't know. Can we really expect a woman to be responsible for understanding all of the situations that may come up in her pregnancy and birth and all of the benefits and risks of available medical procedures? In an ideal world, her care provider (whose job it is to know these things) would present the facts about her choices as objectively as possible, and leave the decision to the woman. In most cases, reality is pretty far from this ideal, but I don't believe in blaming women for not finding out for themselves what their doctors should have told them. (Though getting angry about what doctors should do doesn't do us any good--Felice recently posted about this here.)

As always, the language we use is important. We have to pay attention to the implications of what we say--what a woman may read between the lines of our words. The phrase"sucessful VBAC," implies that a planned-VBAC-turned-repeat-cesarean is a "failed VBAC." Criticizing high rates of medical intervention by saying things like "I find it hard to believe that X percent of women's bodies are broken" implies that the body of a woman who has an honest medical need for that intervention is broken, and "Your body is broken" is not an empowering message. Besides, we don't consider it failure for our bodies to not function optimally all the time in life--I don't usually think my immune system failed me if I get a cold or stomach virus--I usually attribute that to bad luck. I think sometimes birth is the same way. Preparation plays a role in whether or not you get the birth you planned for, but so does chance.

Maybe those of us who have had that idealized birth shouldn't get cocky and maybe need to recognize that it didn't happen all because of what we did, and hopefully those of us who had a birth other than that one can recognize that it didn't happen all because of what we did either. At the same time, I do not wish to invalidate other women's feelings. If "failure" is the word you choose to describe how you feel, then that is your reality. If reading my thoughts on this does not bring you any healing, I wish you healing wherever you find it.

Stay tuned for the next post in the series!


  1. I am so grateful that I had 3 very different births, because it helps me to know in my core there is no way to fail at birth. Birth is part of your journey towards mothering this child. It can take many different paths. Since I had varied experiences, it helps keep me humble about birth.

    There is no way for a woman to fail at birthing a baby. It is just a miracle each and every time.

    I think that it is possible for the system to fail the mother. But that is a whole different topic.

  2. excellent post! I think you are doing a great job writing to your audience.

  3. Brittany - I would love to repost this and link back to you. I couldn't find a way to email you - feel free to email me Would also love to have you on a conference call I'm doing next week. Have a great day.