A new meme in natural childbirth

The media is to blame for the pain of childbirth!

That’s the new meme in the world of natural childbirth and it is getting a great deal of play. Childbirth is not inherently painful; its depictions in popular media like TV shows and movies tricks women into believing that childbirth is painful. Hence the otherwise inexplicable preoccupation on NCB blogs with how childbirth is portrayed in specific TV shows and movies.

The meme has received positive attention from all the usual suspects: the Lamaze blogs, Rixa Freeze, Midwifery Today, and even RH Reality Check. Australian midwife Lisa Barrett has been doing an ongoing series called “Absurd Birth Scenes” exploring each TV show or movie in depth.

On the surface, it sounds intriguing, cutting edge and thought provoking. In reality, it is the same dreary sexism masquerading as midwifery theory. You know those silly women! They can’t be trusted to perceive their own pain. It’s all in their heads. They’re all hysterical … and we know that hysteria, a form of emotional reaction based on distorted thinking, starts in the uterus.

That must be it, since no one is exploring how any other form of severe pain is an illusion fostered by the media. I haven’t noticed any documentary movies (direct to DVD or otherwise) that investigate how it doesn’t really hurt to have an anvil dropped on your head and we only think it does because it appears to hurt Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes.

And no one suggests (or would dare suggest) that men’s pain is an illusion fostered by the media. I haven’t seen any theories that men getting kicked in the groin don’t really experience severe pain but only think they do because of the way that America’s Funniest Home Video’s portrays getting hit in the groin by a baseball.

This is just the modern iteration of Grantly Dick-Read’s profoundly racist and sexist claim that primitive (i.e. black) white have painless childbirth. Childbirth pain is an artifact of cultural indocrination. The new version is that primitive women (i.e. those who aren’t exposed to Western media) have painless childbirth. Childbirth pain is (you guessed it) an artifact of media indoctrination.

The concept received its ultimate exegesis in the direct to DVD film Laboring Under an Illusion. The title explicitly claims that childbirth pain is nothing more than an illusion. According to the movie website:

Anthropologist Vicki Elson explores media-generated myths about childbirth. As a childbirth educator for 25 years, she observes daily how our culture affects our birth experiences.

An anthropologist? Not really. Just a childbirth educator who studied “the anthropology of childbirth pain” at the University of Massachusetts.

There is an area of study known as the “anthropology of pain” but the anthropology of childbirth pain differs from it in one major respect. In all other areas of pain anthropology, it is the experience and meaning to the sufferer of pain that is studied. No anthropologist suggests that the pain itself does not exist.

For example, there are studies of the anthropology of the pain of female genital mutilation: how and why women and men in cultures that practice FGM believe that the pain is necessary. And there are studies about the anthropology of the pain associated with extreme sports: how and why women and men are willing to endure the extreme pain of marathon running, for example. However, there are no studies that I could find that argued that female genital mutilation is not inherently painful, or that the pain described by marathon runners does not really exist.

Childbirth pain is real. It’s meaning may be culturally mediated, but the pain itself is no more culturally mediated than the pain of being kicked in the testicles. The primary purpose of this ridiculous claim is to justify the existence and high fees of “childbirth educators” and the self-aggrandizing rhetoric of natural childbirth advocates. Many lie about the pain, lie about what works to ease the pain, and lie about the benefits and risks of pain relief in labor. It is ultimately nothing more than self-serving posturing. More lies = more money; more lies = more admiration (or at least self-admiration).

The original theory of “natural” childbirth espoused by Grantly Dick-Read was a racist and sexist lie. This updated theory of childbirth pain is the same sexist lie with the racism stripped out. Both are premised on the same claims: women’s perceptions of pain cannot be trusted; the pain is all in their heads; if only women were “educated,” they would not have pain in childbirth. It was a disgusting and demeaning theory then; it is a disgusting and demeaning theory now.