How I Came to Accept That Natural Childbirth Isn’t Always the Best Option

Fear of judgment prevented one mom from fully embracing a safer birth for her child
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Fear of judgment prevented one mom from fully embracing a safer birth for her child

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but when my obstetrician suggested my labor be induced, my first thought was: “What will my friends think?”

That might seem weird if you’ve never poked around the mommy-focused Internet. But if you have, you probably aren’t surprised because there are competing strong opinions around just about everything having to do with mothering—whether to breast-feed and co-sleep, if and when mothers should return to work, and, yes, how the baby ought to be delivered.

The use of pain-relieving drugs during delivery is a relatively recent development, as are hospital births, as any Call the Midwife devotee knows. Improvements in prenatal care and medical technology have allowed more mothers and children to survive childbirth over the past century or so, but with these advances came a countermovement advocating for “natural childbirth”—a term coined in the 1930s, referring to labor and delivery without intervention.

Although it was never stated explicitly, during my pregnancy I had come to find that some women saw delivery drugs as a weakness—an inability to endure the pain of childbirth. My impression was that induction—letting drugs do the work my body was supposed to be responsible for, such as dilating my cervix and stimulating contractions—would mean giving up. It would mean I couldn’t handle the waiting, couldn’t accept nature taking its own course. It meant I was somehow less of a mother.

My pregnancy had been without complication, and I assumed childbirth would be as well. In my mind, it didn’t seem so bad to ask for pain relief, but when faced with the choice of whether to induce, I felt anxious and a little self-conscious. Even though my doctor (the medical professional I had trusted with both my and my child’s care and who had been practicing for nearly as long as I’d been alive) had given me good reason for his recommendation, I felt pressured to go the natural route. I later learned that about a quarter of contemporary deliveries are assisted by labor-stimulating drugs. Some would argue that they are used more often than necessary, and that’s where I felt stuck—what if these drugs were necessary in my case? What would refusing them prove?

See, I had only just started to make “mommy friends,” and most of them had joyfully delivered their children with little to no medical intervention. But my first child was past his due date, and an ultrasound showed that he was large, especially relative to my petite frame. I asked my doctor for time to think about it and called my mom for advice. When she didn’t tell me what to do, I realized what should have been obvious: I was the mother now. With my husband, I needed to make the right decision for my family. No one else could do it for me. So we made a choice, and we chose induction.

I was happy with our decision until a few weeks later when—after a successful induction and textbook delivery of a healthy baby boy weighing 9 pounds 3 ounces—I found myself in the company of a number of other new mothers. One was detailing the sixteen hours she spent in labor sans medication. There was something like pride in her tone, but I mistook it for silent judgment. It was true, I thought. I had failed as a woman.

A couple of days later, however, a newly pregnant friend of mine put my situation in perspective for me. “A hundred years ago, you and your son might have died,” she said plainly. This particular friend and I aren’t doctors or obstetric historians, but she had a point. Had we waited longer, had we not had access to the drugs that helped my labor progress, who knows what might have happened? Everything might have been fine. But maybe not, and it wasn’t a risk my husband and I wanted to take. In the United States today, maternal death in childbirth is rare (twenty-one deaths per 100,000 live births), in large part because of access to prenatal care and options for care during childbirth—options I thought made me a parental failure.

In the years since, I have delivered two more children, one also via induction. Throughout my pregnancies, other women asked if my previous deliveries had been natural. To some, this meant I didn’t have a C-section. To others, it meant I didn’t receive drugs. I’m not sure what it means to me, and I’m not sure it matters. I was grateful to be able to deliver my little girl without intervention, but I am no less grateful that I received the medical attention that allowed my two little boys to be delivered safely as well.

Now I no longer feel shame but rather joy in hearing other mothers’ birth stories. The stories of families whose children are delivered into their homes through adoption are no less precious than those involving biological mothers. Whether their children are 2 months or 22 years old, I’ve found that mothers remember the details that made it special. Even at 98 years old, my grandmother can recall her experience nearly delivering my aunt in a cornfield, in the back of her doctor’s Cadillac.

As I see more and more families struggling with infertility, I am reminded that giving birth is not a given. And parenting isn’t about proving anything to anyone. Contrary to being about success or failure, parenthood is a gift—the opportunity to spend a lifetime putting someone else before myself out of pure love. Every day I am striving, with my husband, to make decisions that are right for our family. Whether that looks like someone else’s version of what’s best or not, it’s something worth celebrating.