Childbirth is a topic I do not often address in a professional capacity as doing so violates my well-founded resolution against discussing my reproductive organs on the internet, yet now that I am pregnant with my second child, the topic is once again at hand. I underwent a natural, drug-free labor with my first child and now as I prepare once again to do this stupid, terrible thing, I feel it’s my duty to council other young mothers on the hidden benefits of natural birth. (Note that some women find the term “natural” offensive, arguing that all childbirth is “natural” whether accomplished through chemical means or eased by medical interventions, but let’s be clear – after 200,000 years of human development, childbirth is still hideous and unnatural for everyone, epidural or no.)
Midwives, bloggers, and documentary filmmakers are quick to tout the many benefits of unmedicated labor, from faster recovery times to psychotic oxytocin-induced highs. The facts and figures I will leave you to parse on your own, but personally there are no data about the risks of fetal monitoring that will cheer me up when I feel like every bone in my torso is being simultaneously broken from the inside out. Let alone promises of spiritual awakening or a feeling of elemental connectedness with all forms of life.
Why then subject yourself to needless suffering? I offer the four hidden benefits of unmedicated childbirth: Machismo, Spitefulness, Superiority, and Something to Do.
One woman of my acquaintance dismissively suggested that women who refuse to take proffered medical assistance are “just doing it to be macho.” Well, yes. Of course I did it to be macho. Obviously. The last time I got really drunk I challenged my husband (who outweighs me by nearly 100 pounds) to an arm wrestling contest – I am all about macho. And needless, meaningless suffering is the core of machismo. I also happen to have been born with a high pain tolerance and I don’t want to let it go to waste. Bragging about one’s pain tolerance may be immoderate, but it’s really more an inborn physical trait than a finely cultivated element of character. In reality, I’m a coward about every other thing in my life—I have never had the courage to tell off a bully, send back an order, or ask for a raise, but you want to pull out one of my teeth? Bring it.
Of course I didn’t do it entirely out of machismo. I also did it out of spite. In fact I had been somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing until person after person kept telling me I couldn’t do it, that I would crack after an hour and start begging anyone at hand for drugs. Those of you who embark upon the natural childbirth course will soon learn that drug-free labor is one of the few goals in our society that people have no compunctions at all about shooting down instantly and viciously. Conventional politeness would suggest that when someone confesses a personal goal to you, you refrain from immediately scoffing at them: “Medical school? Man, you don’t stand a chance in hell;” “Ask her out? Good luck, buddy.” But tell your best friend, your mother-in-law, or your gynecologist that you’re going to try to have a baby naturally and they’ll laugh right in your face.
Like Marty McFly, there is no better way to get me to do something than to suggest I can’t do it. It’s not mature, it’s not admirable, but spite animates me in a way that courage or compassion could never hope to do. Once my (former) obstetrician had told me that 95% of his patients who claimed they were going to go natural caved, I was hooked – I would have sat right there in the doctor’s office smiling as I tore off my fingernails one by one just to show that smug jerk who was a quitter.
Base machismo and petty spite are joined by the third hidden benefit of unmedicated childbirth, a lifetime of smug superiority. Giving birth naturally means I can now scoff at every other instance of pain in any other person for the rest of my life. My sister has a headache? My coworker has a tooth pulled? Please. My husband could get caught in a bear trap and I’d be there saying, “Pfft! Bear trap? You don’t know pain.”
Of course, I didn’t do this unprepared, and this is the fourth benefit of natural childbirth—it gives you something to do. In my case, that meant a Bradley-style birth class where on eight consecutive Monday evenings we gathered in the desolation-grey conference room of a hospital in downtown Los Angeles and learned how to rock, roll, crawl, and respire our way to calm in the face of crisis. The class was enjoyable largely for the opportunity it afforded me and my husband to make fun of the other couples on the way home, but for those who want to save the $300 allow me to share the secret of the class with you now, for free. The secret is, breathe deeply. No matter what the question, the answer is to breathe. And there is only ever one way to breathe. Deeply. Whether in childbirth or free diving, the answer is never, ever to breathe in shallow, convulsive, hysterical pants.
Even when not in class, I approached pregnancy and labor like I was training for a championship bout. There were stretches, drills, breathing exercises, special teas and tonics to drink. I did Pilates and spinning classes, went running, did squats. I doubt any of these things helped at all, but it gave me a way to combat the gestational blahs and kept me occupied during what is essentially one very long, very slow, very boring opening act. I liked to imagine myself doing all these things as a part of a movie training montage, and when, after months of metaphorically wrapping my knuckles and jumping rope, I walked into the Labor and Delivery room to deliver my first daughter, I had the hard glint in my eye of the down-on-his-luck prizefighter at the end of the last act.
And yes, I nailed it. But rather than rest on my laurels, I went right back out there like a champ and got pregnant again. Now the only question is how to top myself for this next birth. Just skipping the epidural no longer seems like enough. I need to find a way to have it hurt more, last longer – maybe something involving exploratory colon surgery or unnecessary tooth extractions. Whatever it is, though, I can promise you I will spend the rest of my life gloating over it. And that’ll show them.