Natural childbirth doesn’t “normalize” birth; it idealizes it.

Mother and Daughter with flower decor on head

Last week I wrote about a Buzzfeed article on homebirth that included pictures of a footling breech birth at home.

Not surprisingly, many natural childbirth advocates greeted the photos rhapsodically, with midwives, doulas and childbirth educators crowing that the photo spread “normalizes” birth. The truth is rather different.

Like much of what comes from the natural childbirth movement, the photo spread doesn’t normalize birth; it idealizes it … and thereby sets women up for disappointment when their own births fail to measure up.

Natural childbirth advocates love to photograph themselves and post pictures and YouTube videos for all the world to see. What many observers do not notice is that these photos and videos are often carefully edited. For example, many homebirth photos depicting the baby’s first moments are converted from color to black and white to better hide the fact that the baby is an ugly purple color indicative of oxygen deprivation at the end of labor.

A photo spread of “normal” birth should show dead babies, dead mothers, and devastated fathers and young children. Those photos should show hours upon hours of intense maternal suffering during labor with some women begging for death. They should show a woman with her eyes rolled back in her head having an eclamptic seizure, and a waxy-white dead mother with liters of her blood on the floor. They should show little white coffins and cemeteries with row upon row of tiny tombstones for the babies who died during labor.

Why? Because that’s what normal birth really looks like.

I’m not the only one who has noticed that natural childbirth advocates have idealized childbirth.

Selling the Ideal Birth: Rationalization and Re-enchantment in the Marketing of Maternity Care by Markella Rutherford and Selina Gallo-Cruz details the process. The authors explain:

In many ways, the contemporary scene of childbirth services can be characterized as one of cyclical rationalization, re-enchantment, and rationalization. In the first half of the 20th century, childbirth was subject to intense rationalization and birth was culturally transformed from a potentially risky even to a pathogen-like state to be medically managed and controlled.

In other words, the technocratic model of birth gained ascendancy. Neonatal and maternal mortality dropped dramatically as a result. But:

As is often the case, rationalization came with dehumanizing consequences … The birth experience was stripped of many of its subjective qualities… Scientific rationalization … meant that the birth experience was “disenchanted.”

That’s certainly the way that natural childbirth and homebirth advocates see it.

However, the natural birth movement attempts to re-enchant birth by allowing nature — unpredictable and uncontrollable — to have free reign and by recapturing the subjective experience of birth with its sensuality and mystery. This is most clearly seen in the emphasis by homebirth advocates on the spiritual and/or symbolic meaning of birth.

This is what natural childbirth advocates mean by “normalizing” birth BUT with a critical caveat. Natural childbirth advocates present as “normal” ONLY the subset of births without complications and with good outcomes, and deliberately exclude the wide swath of births that have complications, as well as the significant subset of births that “normally” end with the death of the baby or mother or both.

Natural childbirth advocates “normalize” birth in the same way that the fashion industry “normalizes” underweight women with a specific body type: large breasts, thin waists, and moderate hips. The natural childbirth view of “normal” birth bears as much resemblance to the broad range of actual births as fashion industry’s view of the “normal” female body bears to the broad range of actual female body types. In others words, it bears no relationship at all.

Both industries sell the fantasy that “ideal” and “normal” are the same when they very, very far apart.

It is hardly surprising then that some women are disappointed by their birth experiences.

The solution to this disappointment is NOT to sacrifice safety and sanity to by attempting to recapitulate an idealized tableau of birth that women can proudly post on Facebook and YouTube. The solution is to attack the idealization of birth in the same way that many are attacking the idealization of female bodies … as unrepresentative of, and unfair to, real women.

Natural childbirth advocates don’t “normalize” birth, they idealize it and normal women who have normal, non-ideal birth experiences suffer as a result.