Diving into birth plans and decision making just seems like willingly wading into a deep sea of misdirects, social pressure, and manipulation. And in a society that too often prioritizes the fetus over the mother, it’s hard to know who to trust.
I sighed as my obstetrician tried to explain my newly diagnosed gestational diabetes. It seemed only natural that sugar be the next thing to go on a pregnancy symptom list that included carpal tunnel, trigger finger, fatigue, decreased mobility, indigestion, swollen feet, snoring, a wider nose, aching groin, an annoyingly crooked linea nigra, moodiness, and other completely normal but still absurd byproducts of human reproduction. One of the few things most women look forward to with an ever-expanding belly is, at the very least, enjoying whatever favorite foods they want. So, naturally, to make this process all the more pleasant, my days of grazing sweets would be replaced by loads of broccoli and stabbing myself four times a day to test my blood sugar levels.
As I ruminated, I only caught the last few words of my doctor’s speech about stillborn babies, glucose, weight gain, and nutritionists: “I want you to be able to stick to the birth plan you have in mind.” I looked at her with surprise: “Birth plan?” I said, “My only birth plan is a healthy baby.”
Now she was the one who was surprised.
But was that so weird? Lately, I’ve started to feel like am the odd one out, a strange aberration of my super-educated middle class peers. Like my other bourgie deviations—my dislike of dry wines, the fact that I almost never listen to NPR, and have no favorite podcasts—I’ve been a bit ashamed of how little I’ve gotten onboard with this whole crunchy motherhood thing.
I mean, there were clear signs that I was not going to be the typical suburban mom. There was my teenage vow to never have children, then my explicitly stated preference for a planned c-section for delivery (which my doctor dissuaded me from because she claimed I’d heal better after a vaginal birth). I’ve written an entire piece about how I think breastfeeding is gross. And, of course, there’s my general disdain for traditionally feminine activities like bachelorette parties, wedding planning, and baby showers.
But I thought once I got pregnant, some part of me would kick in and come up with some masterful agenda for getting this uterus tenant to vacate the premises. Not so much. Work and deadlines, an ever increasing need for maternity clothing, and general disinterest in the birthing process has kept me from thinking too much about it. I have not turned into a magical prenatal yogi and have no plans to consume my placenta or anything else my vagina expels. I’m often more annoyed than amazed when a particular bony shoulder or foot pushes against the top of my belly, and my appreciation for what pregnant women go through has increased so much that I literally want to punch the face of anyone who’s ever made fun of Nadya Suleman (the woman folks called “octo-mom”).
Here’s how I figure it: Billions of people have had babies. It is the way every single person on the planet has gotten here. And, as a result, there should be plenty of science that tells us how to do it well. Still, choosing who to believe when it comes to birth and child rearing seems incredibly murky. Everything about women’s bodies and reproduction has been made into a political struggle, from whether she chooses to continue a pregnancy to whether she can feed her kid in public. Diving into birth plans and decision making just seems like willingly wading into a deep sea of misdirects, social pressure, and manipulation. And in a society that too often prioritizes the fetus over the mother, it’s hard to know who to trust.
More than that, I’ve watched friend after friend have children under the influence of “natural” birthing practices and philosophies. In most cases, this doesn’t just mean delivering vaginally—it means they go without any pain medication at all. Admittedly, the majority of what I know about birthing comes from my addiction to the British TV show “Call the Midwives,” but if I’ve learned anything from the period piece it’s this: Women were ECSTATIC when they first received pain medication during birth, grateful that medicine had finally understood the importance of assuaging their suffering. And, from what I understand, midwives, healers, and birth attendants have helped women use herbs and plant analgesics throughout the history of human childbirth (that is, when they weren’t Puritans convincing women that they were supposed to suffer because Eve was the cause of Original Sin).
For me, there’s nothing more feminist than relieving a woman’s pain and suffering. And the social trend to avoid these aids feels like another trick of the patriarchy. Power tends to turn people against their own self-interests. And while I believe in the ability of my friends to make their own best decisions, I can’t help but feel like all this emphasis on natural birth is just a trick. More than that, I guess I’m a bit afraid that I’ll succumb to it if I look into it too much.
Because what I honestly want is a delivery that is as pain-free and comfortable as humanly (and humanely) possible, and one that concludes with a healthy kid. I want to use the best of modern medicine to get this baby out while also attending to my needs, too. And I’m scared that trying to sort through all the birth propaganda, natural or otherwise, will steer me away from prioritizing my own needs and desires, and convince me, like it seems all women are eventually convinced, to put everyone else’s preferences and comforts ahead of my own.
I know for most women that the debate over all these details of birth is connected to women’s desire for more control of a process that’s become heavily routinized, medicalized, and sterile, and it makes sense that people want to avoid influence and interventions from a scientific and medical establishment that doesn’t seem all too invested in women’s bodies. But I also know that some of the natural birthing and parenting rhetoric comes from folks who believe a woman’s place is barefoot, pregnant, attachment parenting, and nursing until her kid is long out of diapers. Sorting through the muck of this discourse to make a plan that seems, inevitably, based on preference and instinct is hard and not all that fruitful, especially for an experience that will last only hours.
For the most part, birth is a process I want to get through, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I have other more long-term plans—like teaching my child consent and feminism, self-esteem and navigating a racist world—that seem more pressing. I like the idea of being close to medical professionals in the case that something goes terribly wrong during delivery, and even though I’m planning on nursing, I still think it’s kind of gross. And I guess I’ll have to be OK with that, even if it means missing out on the approval of Ricki Lake and crunchy mamas everywhere. I know my water-birthing, living room-squatting sisters are trying to do the best they can for themselves and their babies. And I’m going to try to do that, too.
Khadijah White is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is currently writing a book on the rise of the Tea Party brand in news.