There is a small window of time, right after a mother gives birth to a newborn, when she just might know the secrets of the universe. The aura of the experience of birth still clings to her like a perfume, heady and mysterious and powerful. She has gravel in her voice and a glassy look in her eye, but she speaks with the exhilaration of someone who just clawed their way to the top of the mountain, and still can’t believe the splendors and perils she saw there.
Speak to her later, and while she can tell you the details of her child’s birth, it isn’t remembered in the same visceral way. It’s akin to the runner who just finished a marathon, the guru who just completed a vision quest: Catch them in those crystalline hours immediately following the body and soul-swelling experience, and you will catch a candid glimpse of the magnitude of their journey. The more time that passes, the less the intensity of their crossing into that netherworld of physical and mental extremes is felt in the deep core of their being; their cells emit those little lightning-bolt aftershocks less and less; and eventually the experience is just a snapshot, a sepia-toned still life.
There are so few times in our lives when we are pushed to our physical and psychic limit. Even athletes hold something back – it’s self-preservation, and it’s written into our being that we must at all times keep at least one hand on the steering wheel. We’ve been taught to avoid pain at all cost, because pain is scary and uncomfortable and wrong. We can’t control it, and we like being in control.
And to give birth is to give up most of what we’ve ever known about control, at least in the conscious sense. And giving birth hurts like a bitch.
But if you speak to a woman who’s just had a baby naturally, without an epidural or other pain erasing intervention, it gives you a new perspective on pain and control. Birth is perhaps the singular experience in which pain is productive; the one time that it gets us somewhere we want to be – namely, cradling a new life in of our arms.
Studies of medical intervention rates for childbirth in the U.S. found that more than 60 percent of women giving birth use epidurals – in some places, the rate is as high as 90 percent. I have no problem with this, if I could be certain that the vast majority of women giving birth in the U.S. actually wanted pain control during their labors. But my inkling is that the majority of laboring women receive epidurals simply because that is the status quo. So many women receive pain-numbing drugs during labor because our contemporary medical structure has ditched other ways to ease a woman’s pain during labor, opting instead for the fast and easy – but not necessarily best – methods to assist women during labor.
Giving birth naturally is not masochistic, nor does a natural birth give a mother more bragging rights.
Epidurals are in nearly all cases a safe and effective means of pain control during labor. But they can also lead to longer labors, which in turn lead to more interventions like vacuum- and forceps-extractions, pitocin to speed up contractions, and ultimately overall higher rates of cesarean section. These are in most cases safe and effective interventions, but why put a mother and her newborn through them if they aren’t necessary?
Due to the medical institutionalization of birth in America, we’ve forgotten that birthing is a natural experience that, in most cases, can be safely undertaken without any medical intervention. Women have been delivering babies naturally since time immemorial: It is what our bodies were designed to do. Unfortunately, our medical system has built a methodology that favors artificial intervention over hands-on spiritual and physical care.
Birth is the singular experience in most women’s lives in which she is truly pushed to her limit. It’s amazing to reach that limit and emerge, glassy eyed and gravelly-voiced, wholly understanding the mysteries and wonders of the female body. Perhaps, if more of us had the opportunity to speak with more women who’ve just given birth naturally, we’d see that reaching that limit is so doable, and so very worth it.