Are we too invested in birthing performance?


Photo: Steve Baccon

Pregnancy and childbirth used to be so dangerous in centuries past that most women wrote their wills once they knew they were pregnant. Now we write birth plans, specifying the type of music we want playing while we’re in labour.

Progress is a wonderful thing, but have we become so invested in the process and performance of childbirth that it’s now a measure of our success as a woman?

The health and survival of the mother and child are now so taken for granted — at least if you happen to be white, wealthy and/or westernised — that concern has now shifted away from the small matter of whether you and your baby are healthy to whether or not you gave birth the right way.

And, yes, apparently there is a right way. And only one right way.


A drug-free vaginal birth is held up as the gold standard of female empowerment. Anything different fills women with shame and a sense of failure.

One of my friends is two weeks overdue and is refusing to be induced because ‘it’s not natural’. Her doctor cautioned her that she could be putting her own health and that of her baby’s at risk, but still my friend will not budge.

This is an extreme case, but it illustrates how ‘natural’ has come to be so fetishized that it is assumed to be good and superior.

But that’s a problem. Arsenic is ‘natural’. So is uranium.

And, to be clear, before you go mad in the comments section and say that I’m likening natural childbirth to poison or radioactive substances, I’m not.

My point is that just because something’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for you.

By today’s standard’s, I’m crap at giving birth. There were three critical points of failure during the birth of my daughter. Firstly, I was induced. Secondly, I had an epidural and, thirdly, I had an emergency C-section.

See, completely rubbish.

If I had had a 'natural' birth, it's almost certain that my daughter would have died — and I probably wouldn't have been too peachy either. But rather than considering the birth a success and a medical miracle, people commiserated with me because I was unable to do it naturally.

One midwife, who I happened to bump into in a café, was kind enough to tell me about a study where sheep who had epidurals didn’t bond with their lambs. What a study on livestock had to do with my daughter and me — other than to reinforce my ‘failure’ at childbirth — I don’t know.

One of the reasons the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians lists in its recommendation for vaginal births is that women find it more fulfilling. But surely it’s only more fulfilling because if you dare to birth any other way you are considered weak or become an object of pity.

Not all the medical profession is in agreement as to the superiority of natural births anyway. Urogynaecologist Peter Dietz recently said at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists conference that, ‘The rising C-section rate … [has] had no negative impact and might well have had a positive impact on the really important outcomes, which are maternal mortality and perinatal mortality.’

Aside from heaping unnecessary pressure on pregnant women, our obsession with ‘naturally’ rather then healthy, can put both mother and child at risk.

We need only look as far as our own backyard to see how lucky we are for ‘unnatural’ interventions in childbirth.

Although there isn’t robust monitoring, an article in the journal Pregnancy and Childbirth earlier this year reported that the rates of maternal mortality among Indigenous Australians are 5.3 times higher than non-indigenous.

According to the World Health Organization, at least one woman dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth every minute. That’s 287 000 women a year.

While some of these deaths are due to other factors than the birth itself, such as pre-existing health conditions, better (i.e. ‘unnatural’) medical care could have meant a different outcome.

If people want to use childbirth as a path to self-actualisation then good for them. But let’s stop creating another hurdle for women to fail at by insisting that ‘natural’ is the morally superior way to give birth.

Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something and The Clock is Ticking: What Happens When You Can No Longer Ignore The Baby Question.


  • Right on Kasey! You make a great point about how we cherry pick medical intervention and draw arbitrary lines around what's 'natural' and what's not.

    Date and time
    October 16, 2013, 6:48AM
    • An epidural took my labour from agonising and terrifying to calm, relaxed and filled with laughter. My advice to all mums-to-be - take the drugs if you need them!

      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 11:49AM
    • Couldn't agree more. What is "natural" anyway? Are clothes natural? Are cars natural? Is cancer natural? Is a headache natural? I had three elective c-sections. I researched the potential positives and negatives of the birthing options, and opted for what appeared to be most likely to result in me having a live baby. I've read that this is apparently "selfish", but no one's ever articulated who the victim of this selfishness is (isn't that a prerequisite of selfishness?). Presumably it's ME, given the main downside is a slightly higher risk of post birth infection. If I had to do it all again, I'd do it all EXACTLY the same way.

      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 1:46PM
    • Totally agree! Why is it anyone else's right to have a say in your birth anyway? If some prefer a drug-free low intervention birth great, if others would prefer a c-section, also a great option. At the end of the day, it's the mother's body and she needs to do what is best for her and what is best for the baby's wellbeing.

      But I have to say, by the same token as you don't want to be judged for using drugs or having a c-section, you also should not cast dispersions on another woman who might be refusing to be induced, even if she is 2 weeks past her "due date" (which are actually sometimes a little bit off anyway). She has her reasons, I'm sure, and it's her decision. You should be supportive, not judgmental.

      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 2:53PM
    • Too right! I'd like to ask these people if they would be happy to forego anaesthesia during dental surgery... or perhaps forego the surgery altogether, since dying of impacted teeth is the most natural thing in the world. Check out data on exhumations of medieval cemeteries if you don't believe me.

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 4:12PM
    • Our 'natural' birth at a leading hospital went horribly wrong and the actions of our supposedly first rate obstetrician resulted in us burying our baby three days later. You have more control over a C-section and I would recommend it over the lottery of a natural birth.

      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 10:52PM
  • My wife gave birth naturally, without any assistance other than the calming voice of a midwife the first time, and my frantic running around at home on the bathroom floor the second time.

    Empowering? yeah - if your aces line up and you find yourself in the ideal situation, otherwise - I commend any woman who goes through childbirth any way they can.

    I do however, find it odd that sitting in the hospital shortly after our unanticipated home birth that a man and woman attended the hospital service desk asking for an epidural...and when asked how close her contractions were, she replied she hadn't had any yet.

    Date and time
    October 16, 2013, 8:55AM
    • haha, my hospital would have told us to go home and not come back until the contractions were 5 minutes apart.

      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 2:12PM
  • Couldn't have said it better myself. When the time comes for me to have my own children I will be doing it in whatever way is deemed safest and healthiest for myself and the baby.

    Date and time
    October 16, 2013, 8:58AM
    • One thing I've noticed (again with my partner having another baby on the way) is that pregnant women are constantly nudged and prodded by 'friends' or really anyone boasting about their own drug free births. It appears to be a competitive peer thing. Or, yet another "look at me. I'm doing better at stuff than you" thing. And in this case it's probably one of, if not the most important events in a woman's life. The emotional investment for a woman is profound which makes this nastly little game all the more sadistic.

      Reverse Concave Spoon
      Date and time
      October 16, 2013, 2:55PM

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