'Don't trust the 'natural birth' myth. The drugs do work - believe me' - writer says women don't talk about the pain enough
Rosa Silverman shares her own views on the "natural birth myth" and pain relief during neighbour, in a column
I was about 24 hours into labour with my first child when I was told I could, at last, receive the epidural I’d been begging for. By this stage I resembled nothing so much as a mortally wounded animal, howling to be put out of its misery. Yet, the anaesthetist warned me that the magic pain relief bullet he was about to fire up my spine might give me a headache.
"A headache?" I wanted to yell - but couldn’t, because I’d long since lost the power of speech. "I’m in so much pain my body’s about to give out, and my mind gave up hours ago when I started moaning 'I – can’t – cope'."
A sore head is one of the few potential side effects of having an epidural anaesthesia, which dulls the pain nerves during labour. It can also, it is said, decelerate the birth itself, as the numbness it induces can make it harder to push the baby out.
Perhaps. But my second baby popped out in three heaves - despite me topping up my epidural medicine as often as the machinery would allow me.
So why, then, do so many women feel like availing themselves of this - or other effective pain relief medication during labour - is tantamount to surrender; even failure?
A 2014 study of women’s experiences of maternity care in England found that only 29 per cent have an epidural for pain relief during labour. Why so few? We're encouraged to have our babies as ‘naturally’ as possible. But, surely, giving birth, by any means, is the most natural thing in the world and cannot be made ‘unnatural’ - no matter what interventions we might require to ease the process along?
Yet, a harmful mythology surrounding the benefits of ‘natural’ birth persists. Goodness knows women aren’t supposed to do anything else naturally, be it ageing, growing body hair or even going make-up free. But when it comes to childbirth, we are encouraged to simply ‘breathe through the pain.’
(Of course, before the advent of modern medicine, far more women died during labour, which was arguably also very natural. We draw the line at allowing this to happen now.)
This cult of natural birth now extends to our birth partners as well. Only this week, Harry Kane tweeted his pride in his fiancee Kate Goodland having had their daughter "with no pain relief at all."
Of course, we cannot know the exact circumstances of the birth, or whether Goodland actually chose to go without pain relief.
Nonetheless, Kane's comments have outraged many people, with social media users accusing him of 'shaming' women who do choose pain relief and adding to the, often unrealistic, pressure that already exists around natural births.
In my pregnancy yoga class, the teacher read us grateful letters from former pupils who had supposedly used just their ‘golden thread breaths’ to get them over the threshold during childbirth. Hypnobirthing, which Kane mentions in his tweet, blithely assures women that ‘in the absence of fear and tension... severe pain does not have to be an accompaniment of labour.’
I hate to break it to any women planning to procreate, but in my limited experience, it does.
We just don’t talk about it very much. As with many other things that happen to women, it is not the done thing to go on about it. Those of us who have been through it perhaps don’t want to put others off. (My own mother promised me childbirth was ‘lovely’. I duly screamed at her after my son was born: ‘It wasn’t!’)
But there also exists a cultural conspiracy to hush things up; to primly draw a curtain around the woman screaming on the labour ward and pretend her pain is less real if we just don’t mention it.
In November 2016, a Royal Society of Medicine meeting was told that women should feel no shame for requesting pain relief during labour and that medication like epidurals have no ill effect.
Doctors said that women have been misled into thinking a painful birth is better for them and the baby. Such demystification was long overdue and an important step towards tackling the unjust stigma that still surrounds the woman who has ‘given in’ and asked for some proper pain relief.
So why are we still lauding those who give birth without pain relief?
After giving birth to my daughter in 2016, the midwife told me: "You didn’t need that epidural. You’d been doing really well."
Dear midwife, I did. And if my daughter is pregnant someday, I will tell her just one thing: the drugs do work.