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“Natural” Birth, Part 2

The response from the last post was wonderful, and I don’t just mean the support. I received some thoughtful and articulate push back, which has afforded the opportunity to think deeply and critically. I am grateful for this conversation in this online community, and what follows is my attempt to continue it.

First of all, the observation was made that perhaps the term, natural, is used in common parlance as a substitute for “vaginal.” Fair enough! I grew up in the South and am familiar with a culture that is uncomfortable talking about certain body parts that are, ah-hem, down there. My grandmother referred to the vagina as “Miss Tootsy-Too.”

Secondly, several people raised critiques of the current medical culture in our society. This is no laughing matter. It does seem true that we are overly medicated and that our healthcare system bears much of the blame, particularly due to the influence of deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies. One particularly provocative reader commented that we, as a culture, are “addicted to being anesthetized.” Wow! I think this phrase is profoundly true, as evidenced from the high percentage of elementary students on ADHD medication to the popularity of evening sitcoms. In terms of labor and delivery, I can envision how such a deeply embedded attitude could discourage some from using alternative methods and procedures, such as a midwife. I would echo a reader who lamented this because our experience with a midwife was a gift and I will always be grateful.

Finally, the question was raised if all births really are something, as I put it, “to be in awe” about. What about teenage moms? Poor mothers in developing nations with too many children? Mothers who abuse or abandon their children? These examples were offered by a dear friend, who is also concerned with gender justice, and they truly hit home. I admit that I wrote from a specific cultural and social location by which my race, class, marital status, and age impacted my thoughts. Yet my blog can be misread as attempting to make certain universal claims regardless of these constructs. I appreciate this call to accountability!

So thank you, readers: all of these comments suggest a level of complexity that I find very helpful.

But let’s be clear about my specific argument. Even if I overstated, possibly oversimplified my points, I continue to believe that segments of our culture, in particular the court of public opinion, hold mothers to an unfair standard largely because of gender. Yes, there are some very good reasons for the decision to have a vaginal delivery without the use of drugs. But let’s recognize whose decision that is.

To return again to my experience, because the personal is political, there was a moment during labor when my wife turned to me with tears in her eyes and whispered, “I don’t think I can do this.” We had done the research; we had taken the classes. We were fully committed to the idea of using a midwife. She is healthy, works out, eats right, and has a marvelous support system of friends and family.

Yet there is no physical challenge like labor.

That morning, when she spoke to the nurse about an epidural, I saw in my wife’s eyes, mixed with tears of pain, a measure of shame. Where does that come from? Is it fair? More importantly, can’t we do better?

Despite well-reasoned push back, I remain concerned that certain mothers are belittled by the term, natural. Cloaked by various motivations, from an excessively pious yet fairly innocuous avoidance of certain anatomical words to the valid, even prophetic, critique of the one-size-fits-all approach to modern medicine, it is nonetheless true that “natural birth” takes on a pejorative meaning by implying that only one kind birth experience is somehow valid, noble, and pure.

I believe that we can empower women to claim their experience, especially if they made a conscious healthcare decision that resulted in a healthy delivery. While I recognize the complexity of this issue, I am insistent that we consider the import of our language, particularly through the lens of gender. As if often the case, we can do more harm with even the most well-intentioned words.

I would welcome your feedback.

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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