"Natural Birth" and why it's become such a dirty word

Birth is natural. But guess what else is natural? Tornados. Lions eating antelope alive. Nature is nasty, it’s visceral, and it’s sometimes DESTRUCTIVE, even disastrous.

This idea of nature as destructive is interesting to explore in terms of motherhood. I think it’s beautiful to look back at a traumatic birth and see it as somehow having destroyed the old you in order to start the process of creating a new you. I think in a way that happens to all mothers - we all open, or tear in one way or another, emotionally, spiritually, in our homes and in our bodies.

But If you see the world ‘natural’ and the way it’s commonly used it in relation to birth, it is SO over the mark and disconnected from its literal meaning. Using it in its literal meaning, it would have to refer to all kinds of matrescence - cesareans, adoptions, surrogacies, and abortions alike. When someone says ‘natural birth,’ I think the connotations to that actually have nothing to do with nature at all (and all the primal destruction and recreation that comes with that word in its literal sense), but they are actually referring to something else.

Instead, “Natural birth” in the birth world means a whole lot more than wild or organic, to the point of meaninglessness, like ‘all natural’ on a food label. Lately, ‘natural’ has come to mean more than literal nature, but a reference to a specific kind of birth. The kind of birth we would call ‘easy’ or ‘gentle. And even worse, that kind of birth looks different to each person who uses that word. Sometimes when people say it they are referring to vaginal birth, and they just don’t want to use the word VAGINA. Sometimes it means not having an epidural. Sometimes it means giving birth at home with a midwife. Or it might just mean avoiding interventions in the hospital. Usually it refers to the small group of women who advocate for the kind of birth experience they experienced themselves: ‘orgasmic, euphoric, painless, easy, or gentle.’

This is a major problem, not just because it’s a terrible communication tool, or because it describes such a small amount of actual births in real life today, but because it does mental damage and causes offence to so many women. Any woman who feels she wasn’t able to live up to some objective ‘standard of natural birth’ will automatically feel left out, marginalized, and like a failure. All you need to do is combine this vague term that refers to a vague but somehow universal standard with our American ideals that say, ‘if you just work hard enough you can get what you want,’ realities will rarely meet expectations.

So we need a different word. I have heard ‘undisturbed birth’ and I’ve heard ‘normal birth,’ both of which are horrible. No birth is undisturbed because the very presence of other people in the birth room is an intervention of a kind, and avoiding interventions doesn’t necessarily guarantee safety or even a good result. ‘Normal’ birth is even worse, because it makes anyone who doesn’t meet this goal feel like a freak of nature. But I like this doula’s suggestion to use the phrase ‘physiologic birth,’ because it specifically refers to the normal hormonal and bodily processes that happen in birth when it is supported. It’s based on biological evidence that the mind-body connection automatically conducts a birth through a medium of hormones to help a birth go smoothly, MOST of the time. And it allows for the possibility that the way you experience physiologic birth may not necessarily result in feelings of euphoria, ecstasy, or gentility.

hormones in labor.png

 But, I think we need more than just a word. I think we need to rethink the way our culture treats women by telling them, ‘just work hard enough/find the right practitioner/avoid the right interventions/read the right books/do your perineal massage/do Spinning Babies exercises/stand on your head everyday for 3 weeks/whatever, and you will achieve the birth of your dreams.’ THIS is the real problem that is, in part, causing women to report feelings of ‘trauma’ in 30% of all births.

Because the problem is, birth is NATURAL, or to use another common word that is closer to its real meaning, it is WILD, uncontrollable, unknowable (at least not completely). Like a caged tiger, it is impossible to control completely, there is never a guarantee of safety, and when you let it loose, it’s likely going to do what it’s meant to do; but occasionally, it might not, and there is no way to predict for sure what will happen.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing everything you can to manage risk, and prepare. After all, that is all we can do, is prepare for the possibilities. But it’s important to remind ourselves often that birth and our bodies are still natural and wild, and even when we allow our bodies to birth as they will, and support its physiological processes, there are no guarantees. The only thing we can do is our best, and that is beautiful and strong. That is why every woman deserves to be celebrated not just for creating life, but for standing up to the unknowable, and knowing it as best s*he can.