Natural childbirth is a form of play acting

Pheidippides giving word of victory after the Battle of Marathon. Artist: Merson, Luc-Olivier (1846-1920)

Whenever I write about the history of natural childbirth, a cultural construct created by men to control women’s bodies, someone (or several someones) inevitably drop in to comment that natural childbirth is nothing more than childbirth in nature. They probably even believe it.

But the truth is that natural childbirth is a form of play acting. It bears as much relationship to childbirth as Civil War reenactments bear to the actual war. Merely dressing up to superficially resemble the soldiers in a battle does not recapitulate the death, destruction and suffering of the battle let alone the long war.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As with contemporary marathons, a decision has been made to substitute something different for the original while continuing to call it by the same name.[/pullquote]

But wait, I hear you say, natural childbirth is much more than dressing up as if you were giving birth in nature. In natural childbirth, you are actually giving birth. True, so Civil War enactments aren’t quite the correct analogy. It seems to me that natural childbirth bears as much relationship to childbirth in nature as a contemporary marathon bears to the original Greek marathon.

Contemporary marathons reference the original run to Marathon that took place in Greece.

In 490 B.C., the Athenian army defeated the invading Persian army in a battle in the plain of Marathon, located roughly 26 miles north of Athens. According to legend, the Athenians then ordered the messenger Pheidippides to run ahead to Athens and announce the victory to the city.

Pheidippides raced back to the city in intense late summer heat. Upon reaching the Athenian agora, he exclaimed “Nike!” (“Victory!”) or “Rejoice! We Conquer” and then collapsed dead from exhaustion.

Contemporary marathoners copy the original in that they do run 26.2 miles just as Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens. But in all other respects, they are strikingly different. How? Let me count the ways.

1. The original marathon was not a competition, it was a military order. Pheidippides was a soldier; he had no choice in the matter. He didn’t decide to run to Athens in order to self-actualize.

2. He didn’t run on smooth roads; he ran on unprepared ground.

3. He probably didn’t wear shoes. His feet were undoubtedly torn apart by the run.

4. The route wasn’t laid out; he had to find it.

5. There were no refreshment stations along the way.

6. There was no medical tent filled with doctors, nurses, IVs and other medical equipment.

7. He dropped dead at the end.

These changes are deliberate in order to make marathons easier and safer than the original. It’s not that Pheidippides’  run from Marathon to Athens couldn’t be copied; it could be. It’s that a decision has been made to substitute something different for the original while continuing to call it by the same name. The only thing the two have in common is that they both involve running the same distance.

Contemporary natural childbirth resembles childbirth in nature as much as contemporary marathons represent the original. The only thing natural childbirth has in common with childbirth in nature is that they both involve women giving birth. The similarity ends there. How are they different? Let me count the ways.

1. Contemporary natural childbirth is at its heart a choice to forgo medical and comfort interventions that are available. You have to have easy access to these interventions in order to give meaning to refusing them. In contrast childbirth in nature does not allow for any choice at all.

2. Natural childbirth includes all sorts of unnatural components. There’s nothing natural about giving birth on a bed or in a plastic kiddie pool, in a home or hospital complete with heating and air conditioning.

3. Natural childbirth requires “educating yourself” by taking classes and reading books, websites and Facebook pages, none of which exist in nature.

4. Natural childbirth almost always involves a support person.

5. Contemporary natural childbirth always involves easy access to medical intervention. It’s always possible for a woman to call an end to her natural birth and ask for an epidural. That changes the dynamic dramatically from knowing that there is no alternative to enduring from beginning to end.

6. Although death of the mother is routine in childbirth in nature; it is neither expected or countenanced in natural childbirth.

So natural childbirth bears only the slightest resemblance to childbirth in nature. Just as in contemporary marathons, everything is made easier and safer and it is entirely a matter of choice, not necessity.

But marathons are closer to the original marathon for the simple reason that running 26.2 miles is still an achievement; very few people can do it no matter how hard they train for it. In contrast, natural childbirth is not an achievement since any woman can do it and most women who have ever existed have already done it. The value attributed to giving birth without pain medication is entirely culturally constructed and has nothing to do with reality.

Natural childbirth is a form of play acting in which adults pretend to themselves and each other that they are recapitulating childbirth in nature. It’s like imagining that dressing up as a soldier at the Battle of Antietam makes you a Civil War hero; it’s nothing more than make believe.