Why are women so darn mean to each other when it comes to birth?
That’s the question posed and answered in a blogversation between Colleen Oakley at Lemondrop and KJ Dell’Antonia at Slate’s XX Factor. The very abbreviated version is that Oakley is planning a hypnobirth and wonders why the hell people can’t keep their derision to themselves, and Dell’Antonia, a mother of four who has had a variety of birthing experiences, thinks it has something to do with having seen the view from beyond the veil. This conversation was interesting to me on a few levels, but I’ll start with the totally ego-centric.
I never really wanted an unmedicated childbirth. My mother gave birth to me and my siblings without medication, just like her mother gave birth to her, and on and on through the generations, so just I set about preparing to do the same. It never really occurred to me to do it any other way, and until people started asking me about my birth plans, it certainly never occurred to me that anyone would give two hoots. Ha, ha, right?
For some reason, one of my coworkers, about six months ahead of me in gestation, just couldn’t seem to stop asking about my plans. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have answered the persistent questions, but in my naïveté, I shared the new-to-me information about how to increase the chances of an uncomplicated vaginal delivery without a need for pain relief. Once she delivered, a difficult albeit vaginal delivery, they eyerolls started. Why the questions didn’t cease, I’ll never understand, but I just tried to avoid her as much as I could.
When I returned to work after my own birth, she asked me how it went. Short version: nicht so gut. I did everything “right,” but when it started taking too long for their taste, instead of supporting me and changing things up, the hospital cut. The surgery was scary, I was unnecessarily separated from my infant, I was treated like meat by the doctor (not my regular doc) and a handful of other folks. Most human beings, upon hearing something like that, would probably try to say something nice. Instead, her words will ring in my ears and pound in my brain forever: “I knew it!!” She could hardly contain her schadenfreude.
This wasn’t, as Dell’Antonia suggests, the voice of one who has been-there-done-that and knew that I was now “a little wiser.” This was someone who straight up scoped me out, labeled me too big for my britches for having the audacity to attempt an unmedicated birth, and delighted when I was unable to fight the tide. To her, it was a little off-the-cuff statement, but to me—still sorting out what the hell happened to me and what I had done “wrong”—it was deeply, wrenchingly hurtful. And she’ll never know that, because I frankly don’t want anything else to do with her.
Really, though, betting against an unmedicated birth, or even a vaginal birth would have been the smart money. Not because I’m a candy-ass or anything, but because the “advancements in medical technology” that Oakley credits with allowing us to “choose…what kind of birth experience we want to have” are often our undoing. Because too many practitioners have simply never seen a birth without intervention and can’t keep their hands to themselves when things are happening along a variation of normal that they don’t care for. Because people like my coworker want to take other women down a peg for some perceived hubris.
There’s a lot I learned in giving birth and becoming a mother. Like Dell’Antonia, I learned that none of the “three ‘p’s”* are any more important than another, and that the best laid plans can be thwarted by other ‘p’s like pitocin, an unfavorable presentation, inability to get into a good position, or an impatient provider. I learned about the institutional and societal factors that stand between women and healthy births in which they have agency and the respect of the people around them, and that many of us end up with the birth we want in spite of, not because of, the new birth technology. I learned that all those things aren’t a reason to forego preparation, planning, and hope. The 1-in-3 chances of a cesarean surgery doesn’t really apply evenly across the board; there are things women can do to try and nudge themselves into the two who got away. If I could distill the lessons of my birth history into one lesson, it would be this: Birth plans are like international law: mostly aspirational, largely unenforceable, and easily derailed by a party who won’t listen to reason.
Maybe more importantly, I learned not to crap all over women’s hopes for their birth with my commentary. Nature and society and unsupportive providers do enough crapping on women’s birth plans. I don’t feel the need to add to it.
So, to continue the blogversation (like they’re actually going to read this):
My message to Oakley: Colleen, I wish you the very best, and I hope you have a beautiful birth. I don’t think that you’ll change your mind about hypnosis once you get to active labor. But if you do, I hope you won’t be too hard on yourself. I hope you’re treated with respect by the people who attend your birth and the people who hear about it. Illegitimi non carborundum.
My message to Dell’Antonia: KJ, as someone who had a birth derailed by an ‘uncooperative’ baby, I know what you mean about feeling wiser for the (literal) battle scars. I try to tell the people who will listen about my birth story so that hopefully they can avoid the same, and I have no problem taking people out for judging or armchair quarterbacking another woman’s birth. Nevertheless, I deal gently with the chirpy cockeyed optimists, because they represent the hope and possibility of what birth can be. Fate might knock them upside the head, but it also might not. But “poorly hidden snorts” can lead to broken hearts: if folks don’t have anything nice to say, they should freaking stop asking other people about their births.
What would you tell each of them?
* For the uninitiated: the powers (contractions), the path (pelvis and vagina), and the passenger (the baby).