Meditations on Natural Birth and The Quest for Strength

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When I was in high school, I remember listening to an older girl I really looked up to talk about her mother. "My mother is a superwoman. I want to have kids the way she did. She never took any medicine for any of us during labor. She's such a strong person." 

Fast forward to my prenatal yoga class before my first child. I loved going to this class, which had a wonderful instructor and a guided 10-minute meditation at the end, perfect for soothing pregnancy stress. At the beginning of most sessions, she would tell us stories of the women in class who had finally given birth. One of the first women I remember hearing about had a natural birth, and the instructor happened to be her doula. She said, "She was in labor for 40 hours. She didn't sleep much, but she got into a rhythm with her contractions. She was such a warrior and I'm so proud of her". I thought of my own future labor and birth plan... "Nurit, we're so proud of you. You took that epidural shot like a warrior".

Whenever I hear the phrase "natural birth", many powerful words follow. Words like, "empowering", "strong", "mindful", "choice", and "spiritual". When I hear the word epidural, I often hear these kinds of things - "numb", "painless", "drugged", "harmful", "last resort", and "you can be on your computer". I know that in many circles, epidurals are extremely common and that natural birthing is often looked down upon. But the culture behind and the practice of natural birth has impressively, and fascinatingly, been able to unify a wide range of women - from glamorous supermodels, to socially-conscious feminists, to deeply spiritual, religious women. It somehow has come to signify the pinnacle of womanhood, and that really raises the bar for many potential mothers. 

As a Women's Studies major back in college, I know that there are disturbing realities in the American healthcare system and that many women have been unfairly pressured to birth in a certain way or to finish up labor with medication as quickly as possible to encourage patient "turn over" in business-minded hospitals. This information has rightly empowered many women to take labor into their own hands and seek out options that embrace their unique needs and vision - from planning home births, to selecting caring midwifes who have their best interests at heart, to getting their partners involved and educated. But I'm also troubled by how often natural birth feels like a test of strength for many women, in which an "unsuccessful" labor feels like a personal failure. It's often portrayed as the choice of a woman who truly knows and loves her body, who doesn't fear labor and wants the best for her baby, and who not only handles extreme pain, but turns it into a profoundly spiritual experience. 

We all know that mothers face many moments where their self-worth, commitment, and strength come under fire - is labor and delivery just the start?