Having babies wasn't even on my radar when I had my first glimpse into the competitive nature of childbirth. My friend's older sister had just given birth to her first child — a gorgeous baby boy — but was really disappointed because she had to have a caesarean. "But why?" I asked, genuinely baffled as to why anyone would feel short changed by being gifted what I naively considered at the time to be the easy way out. "She wanted to do it properly," my friend told me.
But by the time I found myself expecting my first child a few years down the track, I understood all too well the pressure to give birth the "right" way. Whether it was friends, medical professionals or even celebrities (remember when Gisele Bündchen bragged that childbirth "didn't hurt in the slightest"?), the expectation that childbirth should be a natural, drug-free affair was clear.
"Trust your body, it knows what to do," midwives told me, while some friends took my pregnancy as an opportunity to tell me about their own natural birth — "I didn't have any pain relief, not even a Panadol!" — subtly throwing down the gauntlet in the process. I quickly began to realise that although there might be a plethora of different drugs available to help you through labour (thank you, advancements in medicine!), you're not — and this is the crucial bit — actually supposed to accept them. Instead, you might as well bite down on a piece of bark and have your midwife mop your brow with a cool hanky because how we birth has somehow become a way to measure our worth as women.
For me, the only thing more ludicrous than the barbaric notion that requiring (or, heaven forbid, requesting) drugs or medical intervention somehow makes you less of a woman was the fact that I actually bought into it. While I carefully batted away any suggestion that I was gunning for a natural birth, inside I was prepping like an elite athlete. I meditated. I visualised. I wanted to emerge from childbirth a glistening champion.
Of course, like so many other women, welcoming my child into the world didn't exactly go to plan; I was induced at 38 weeks, resulting in a very fast and medical labour. The contractions seemed to roll into one and it quickly became apparent that the baby was in distress. There were no scented candles or relaxing massages and we all had to listen to my desperate pleas for more drugs in lieu of a carefully curated playlist. I was glistening, but only because I thought that squirting a bottle of Gatorade over my face for dramatic effect would be a good idea (would not recommend, very sticky).
Despite the fact that medical intervention likely saved his life, I felt my failure to have a natural birth keenly in the days that followed my son's arrival. Perhaps fuelled by sleep deprivation and the raft of new hormones that flooded my body, I felt as though I had let my partner, son and myself down. I'm certainly not alone; up to an estimated one third of women in Australia, which boasts some of the highest rates of medical and surgical intervention in the world, describe their birth as traumatic.
But the pressure to have a natural birth isn't an Australia-centric issue. In the UK, it emerged in August that the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) had quietly decided to drop their campaign for "normal birth", during which women were encouraged to resist epidurals, inductions and caesareans. Cathy Warwick, the chief executive of the RCM, conceded that the campaign contributed to a sense of failure among women when they didn't have a natural birth.
Yet while medical professionals in some corners of the globe recognise how damaging the dialogue surrounding the way we talk about childbirth can be, perhaps we could all follow suit and not undermine each others' experiences. Bringing a child into the world should be celebrated, regardless of the exit the baby takes. A friend recently told me how, after undergoing an emergency caesarean, a certain family member told her how disappointed they were that she hadn't experienced "real" childbirth. She had just undergone major abdominal surgery, wasn't able to lift anything heavier than her newborn and had to clutch her abdomen every time she sneezed — that sh*t sounds pretty real to me.
Ultimately, if you are able and you actually want to, you should absolutely go for a natural birth — but you should never feel under any pressure to do so. After all, there are so many variables and risk factors at play (the position of the baby, for starters) that might mean that a natural birth could be more difficult for you. And if you feel like you need pain relief (90% of women tear during childbirth, why wouldn't you?), for goodness sake, take it — these options are there to benefit you, you shouldn't feel like a failure for accepting them.
"How could anyone feel like a failure after creating life?" blogger Constance Hall wrote in a 2016 Facebook post that helped me shrug off my birth-guilt once and for all. "There are no winners, no losers no hero's [sic] and certainly no failures . . . competitive birthing can f*ck right off." I couldn't agree more.