The Problem With the Language of Birth

When you’re pregnant, people like to ask you questions. Or should I say, people like to tell you your business and their opinions. It just comes with the territory. And yes, “people” does include plenty o’ strangers. I’ve had many a nitty gritty Q&A in the checkout line at the grocery store. Not always by choice, but by lack of an escape route.

The epidural question comes up a lot. I’m happy to share my opinions because, as we’re all aware by now, I have them. But I don’t like to share them only to receive judgment, especially from randoms.

I recently read that pregnant celebrity Amber Rose wants to have a natural birth because she wants “bragging rights!”

I don’t have a problem with wanting to have a baby au naturel, but why is it that bragging rights seem only to be associated with natural childbirth? Carrying a baby, birthing a baby (however you choose to do it), and recovering from a baby are worth bragging rights alone.

With my first, my birth plan was non-existent. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about it or didn’t have ideas about how I wanted it to go, I just didn’t know what exactly would happen. I knew the biological process, but not what my body would do. Did I want an epidural? Maybe. I wanted to see how labor felt first. Did I want an episiotomy? Not really, but if I felt it was my best option, I’d be fine with it. I read books, I heard horror stories and beautiful stories and read and researched some more. I read about the risks of home births, water births, hypno-births, hospital births, and even options that did not interest me.

Mainly, I came away feeling frustrated that the birthing process has become so divisive. The word “interventions” in reference to epidurals, pain relief, epistiomities etc., has become stigmatized. It feels like women are told that the beauty and empowerment of birth is only available to those who do it “naturally.” That mentality divides women. The process of conception and giving birth in and of itself is the essence of nature. My first birthing experience felt profound and empowering despite the use of “interventions.”

Also, the word natural is the binary to “unnatural,” a negatively charged word. When did birth become natural vs. unnatural? Why has it become us vs. them?

It does not make someone more or less of a woman depending on how she chooses to birth. Women are uniquely able to experience carrying and ushering life into this world. Personal birthing choices and circumstances do not negate that fact.

I will never forget the source of shame and embarrassment I felt at having to be induced with our first. My shame caused me to tell no one but our parents when we were having the baby. I felt my body had failed me and therefore, I had failed as a woman. Where did those feelings come from? I think they came from the language of birth that bombards women today. The ability to choose how one births is a magnificent right, but not when those choices are judged and cause women to feel they are unfulfilled, inferior, or irresponsible.

Birth is individual. It is hard for some and easy for others. I wish and hope that birth is ideal for every mother. But really, reality makes me wish more that birth is less competitive, less divisive, and less a source of judgement at grocery store check out lines everywhere.

“To epidural or not” should not matter to anyone else. If an at-home water birth is not for you, fine. It may be for someone else. And that has to be okay. I believe, in the array of birthing choices women make, most women have the health of their child in mind and that is what matters most. Not how one births.

Instead, we all need to quit the bickering. Quit the judging and the comparing. Whether you do it “naturally” or “unnaturally” the language of birth needs to be changed to not alienate the majority of women, or any women.

Image: Paper dolls holding hands via STILLFX/

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  1. by Leah

    On October 22, 2012 at 5:25 am

    When I was pregnant with my first a friend told me that you don’t get a medal after giving birth, you get a baby, regardless of how you do it. I, of course, thought this was ridiculous as I wanted to do things au natural and wanted my medal darn it! When circumstances beyond my control forced me to have an emergency c-section and I not only lost my ability to ever have a natural birth, but more importantly, lost my child, I realized there are worse things in life than epidurals and c-sections.

    I have since been judged pretty severely for having a second c-section. When questioned I always say, “a healthy baby is what’s most important to me. I’d do anything to make that happen.” Even the harshest of judges loses steam after that one! You know a birth is a “natural” one when it results in a healthy, beautiful baby.

  2. by Cheri

    On October 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I agree completely! I had my first in March. My plan was to go as natural as possible. I didn’t plan to have an epidural, but I kept the option open. My daughter was head down, but she was facing the wrong direction. The location of her head caused me to have horrible back labor. I would have been sick without an epidural! I made the decision in the delivery room, and I would do the same in the future. No one should be judged for choosing to have medication or for having a c-section. Also, although my daughter’s health was my first priority, my health and comfort were high on the list too! I don’t think the birth would have gone as smoothly as it did without the medication. All that matters is that my daughter came out healthy!

  3. by chana

    On October 25, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    I think that “natural” is overused. Was it natural 150 years ago, with no medical interventions, but with high maternal and baby mortality rates? I guess it was, but that’s not what we want today, is it?

    I think that a hospital is the safest choice. If you can avoid having any needles inserted or taking any medications – great. If not – not. I did not want an epidural, but when I had been at 3cm for over twelve hours, with contractions coming less than every five minutes, the attending midwife told me that the doctor was thinking of inducing me. I did NOT want to be induced, and I told her so, but she said that the doctor thought it best, and that I would probably prefer an epidural before they did it. Then she went back out, spoke to the doctor again, and said that the doctor had decided to try giving me an epidural without inducing me, and see where that got me.

    In the end, it was 2 hours between when the doctor decided to give me an epidural and when I actually got it, and I didn’t have to be induced. So – not what I planned. Awful? Most certainly not. I tore, but no episiotomoy, which was one of my bigger concerns. And you know what? I heard stories of other people who had it much worse…and two of them had emergency c-sections. Now, that’s “UGH, thank G-d it wasn’t me”. But “natural”? Uh-uh, I’ll pass.

    Leah – You should not have to take flack for having a C-section after that. But, I think VBAC is usually a viable option nowadays, so look into it for next time. As long as you have a healthy baby, nothing else matters.

  4. by Heather

    On October 25, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Wonderful article. As new mom’s to be before giving birth we are already putting so much pressure on ourselves about all sorts of issues, why do things need to be exasperated by other people’s judgement? I feel the same arguement can be made for breastfeeding versus formula. Regardless of what some may feel, I am not a horrible mom because I didn’t breastfeed until my child was one, however at the time, I would be in tears regularly. Why, because of letting other people’s judgement affect me.

  5. by Bekka Besich

    On October 26, 2012 at 12:12 am

    It is so hard sometimes to ignore the judgment of others and I think breastfeeding vs. formula is another place where a lot of unnecessary and harmful judging occurs. I’m glad you brought it up. And I agree, formula feeding your baby does not make you or anyone a bad mom. Thanks for sharing.

  6. by Ashley F

    On November 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I think something a lot of people forget is that everyone woman is different, every pregnancy is different. We all experience pain differently and every labor is going to have different levels of pain. I didn’t have an epidural with my first (fear of needles here) but had a mild sedative/pain killer. I went in to have my second baby planning to do about the same and ended up immediately requesting an epidural after they broke my water. The pain was that much worse. And you know what, it made the whole process that much more pleasant, I wasn’t mean to anyone, I was so much less stressed, and I was actually able to concentrate on pushing my baby out the correct way (yes, there is a WRONG way to push, I found that out the first time). If that’s what you need/want then great!

    Also, never be ashamed or embarrassed because you were induced. It’s horrible that you had to feel that way because other people judge so much! All three of mine were induced for reasons we decided were good and I too avoided telling people, mainly because I didn’t want to hear the judgement!