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“So wait a second, you didn’t get an epidural?” a fellow mom probed, as I shared the details of my first birth. “No drugs at all?”
“Why on earth not?” she continued, as we walked our babies through a neighbourhood park. “That’s what drugs are there for. Were you trying to be a hero or something?”
My defences were up, and I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t know this mom well—we had met through a mutual friend—and I wasn’t sure how to respond. As far as I was concerned, I gave labour a shot, drug-free, and simply made it through. There was nothing to prove—no belief system behind me or fear that pain-relief medication would hurt my baby. It was just a decision I made.
But in front of this mom, I felt judged, as if I had to explain myself and defend a decision that didn’t cause any harm to me or my baby. Her tone made me feel ashamed. “No, it’s just how it went for me, I guess,” I replied sheepishly.
It was the first and only time we met up. But it wasn’t the only time that I would feel a need to justify my decision to birth my two sons without pain medication and under the care of midwives—my first child at a hospital, after being induced, and my second child at a birth centre.
My “alternative” birth stories—if we can call them that—aren’t unique. Many women have their babies at home, with midwives and doulas, free of drugs and hospitals. The pre and postnatal care we receive, the places we give birth and the drugs we avoid are personal choices. Yet, along with those choices comes the pressure to defend, adjust or keep mum on (no pun intended) how we delivered our children based on the reactions we receive from our families, friends, doctors and other moms. These range from overt questioning over whether we put our baby’s—and even our own—life at risk to more nuanced comments with critical undertones. And I’m not alone in feeling hesitant to share my drug-free birth stories.
Skepticism about “natural” birth
Lynn Michaels*, a mother of two, had her second baby at home after what she describes as a “traumatic labour” in hospital with her first child. Sharing the two polarized experiences brings about different reactions, with her home birth facing considerable scrutiny and even disbelief.
When Michaels once shared with her child’s pregnant teacher that she had given birth at home, her story was met with concern and questions about fear and pain. She recalls feeling as if the woman felt sorry for her instead of celebrating the success of a home delivery.
“She treated it like I did an impossible thing,” says Michaels. “It was so foreign to her that a woman could give birth at home. It showed me that most people are uninformed about the possibilities of a home birth and the safety and ability for one to do so.”
On another occasion, after sharing an article about the success of home births on Facebook, Michaels’ friend posted a comment about the “huge risk” taken by women who choose home births, despite the article’s contradictory findings. “It was, as it often is, a backhanded compliment rather than a direct insult,” says Michaels. “She basically insinuated that I put my child’s life at risk by having a home birth.”
But Michaels knows she wasn’t putting her baby at risk. Studies around the world—including Canada, the United States and England—have shown that planned home births are as safe as hospital births for low-risk pregnancies. She quickly replied to her Facebook friend, advising the fellow mom to actually read the article she posted.
Even Michaels’ family was quiet over her decision. “They didn’t want to know a lot about it,” she says. “They didn’t want to question it or get involved at all, and they quietly prayed that it would all work out.”
Amber Mills also gave birth at home, twice, with midwives. She recalls feeling judged about her choice when she took her first baby to the doctor to be assessed for a cleft lip on the same day he was born. When the doctor on call heard where Mills had given birth, questions ensued. “Her main concern seemed to be that my baby wasn't breastfeeding with ease yet, and she was very uncomfortable that I didn’t have the support of a hospital birth,” says Mills. The doctor told Mills that she should be admitted to hospital, despite the fact that midwives work very closely with their clients to facilitate breastfeeding success.
“She was freaked out by the entire situation and didn’t quite understand how I had a baby at home,” explains Mills, who called her midwife to support her and speak to the doctor. “I really had to advocate for myself. I didn’t want to be hospitalized because of something that wasn’t really an issue.” In the end, Mills managed to breastfeed her baby successfully without hospital intervention.
I, too, have felt similar skepticism from my doctor. Newly pregnant with my second child, I told her that I would choose, once again, to be under the care of a midwife.“OK, but you will be having the baby at a hospital, right?” she questioned. “Of course,” I replied, knowing that, if all went well with this pregnancy, I’d consider another location to give birth. But my doctor didn’t want to hear this, and I didn’t want to have to defend other possibilities. She nodded at my response approvingly and off I went. It’s this attitude from healthcare professionals that reinforces the belief that a hospital is the only place where babies should be delivered when there are clearly other options.
These days, Mills keeps quiet in certain company about how her babies entered the world. “I’ve shared how my births went,” she says, “and then felt like I wasn’t supposed to—almost like they went too well, which is weird.”
I also downplay my birth stories, mainly because I don’t feel like they fit in with the common rhetoric. I share a few details or join the chorus that focuses on the pain, anguish and even embarrassment of it all. I omit anything that makes my birth story “mine,” including feeling supported by midwives and empowered by my mind and my body’s ability to manage pain.
Birth experience rooted in fear
So why are some women’s birthing choices thrown into question? Why can some women share and be fully acknowledged and embraced, while others feel dismissed and isolated? Why are some stories considered too good to be true?
Instead of having a network of support and camaraderie, women who choose “alternative births” can feel relegated to a corner where they’re perceived as clueless to the real hardships of labour, irresponsible for not taking the potential risks of birth seriously and even bragging about the impossible “positive” birthing experience.
According to Sasha Padron, a doula who runs the Centre for Growing Families in Toronto—a collective that offers pregnancy, birthing and family programming services—this mine-versus-yours approach to birth stories comes out of the expectations and pressures that all mothers face when bearing and caring for their children.
“The culture has perpetuated this idea that birthing is this terrible, horrible, dangerous thing most of the time,” she says. “Whatever side you’re on, you just can’t win because it’s grounded in a place of fear.”
In the past, there were no birth stories to share. For many of our mothers, the labour room doors were shut tight—not even our fathers were allowed in—and what happened in that room stayed there. Maybe that’s where this one-size-fits-all approach to birth became rooted. But those doors have since opened. Perhaps now we can stop shutting down and fully embrace birthing alternatives and the power of choice. There is no “right” way to do it—no need for judgment or comparison. There is, however, what feels right for that mom-to-be.
Not so long ago, I was a part of a mother’s group where we came together for two hours each Thursday, guards down, and it was like no other experience I’ve had with a group of women. We shared our varied birth stories. We shared our experiences as first-time moms. We shared the highs and lows, fears and conquests, tears and laughter of a journey just begun—all without judgment, ridicule and authority. It was a safe place, an open place and a place worth striving for.
*Name has been changed