A woman is lying on her back, legs spread, yelling, face red from pushing. Bright lights. A man in a sterile gown, gloved and face covered, pulls the baby out of the mother and cuts the cord. It’s a scene we’ve watched over and over again in T.V. shows and movies. In our society, this is what is considered by many to be a “normal” birth.
From a biological standpoint, a birth like this is far from normal. It may be normalised, but it is not “normal.” “Normal” birth shouldn’t be leaving a third of mothers worldwide traumatised. “Normal” birth shouldn’t make women feel helpless and terrified for their lives and the lives of their babies.
Many women get pregnant not knowing anything about birth other than this scene that is replicated over and over in our popular media. She goes to the doctor and follows the “normalised” path, unaware that there are other options. She doesn’t understand that by not taking charge of her birth experience she is not only passively accepting a 1 in 3 risk of having a traumatic experience that will affect her for the rest of her life, but she’s missing out on a massive, incredible opportunity for her birth to be powerful and positively transformational.
But it wasn’t always like this.
We know, from statues and artwork depicting pregnant and birthing women found in ancient stone temples throughout Europe, that in pre-biblical times women were revered for their ability to bring forth life. The process of birth was celebrated. It was seen as a sacred right of passage and was surrounded my much ceremony. The birthing mother was tended to by other women who were nurturers and healers, full of wisdom passed down for many generations.
The earliest records describing births made no mention of pain, unless there was some kind of complication. Even early, male pioneers in the medical field like Hippocrates and Aristotle respected birth as a natural, non-medical event and recognised the massive difference that the mental state of the mother made to the ease of the birthing process.
So, what happened? In the first few centuries A.D., as the Christian church gained political power across Europe, worship of nature and of the divine feminine was outlawed. Churches were built on top of the temples dedicated to Goddesses and the feminine was distorted to be associated with darkness and evil. Women themselves, also became thought of as impure. Female healers and midwives were accused of conspiring with the devil and were put to death for being witches.
Because babies were conceived through the carnal act of sex, pregnancy was considered “impure” and pregnant women were shunned and isolated during their births. Doctors and midwives were forbidden to offer help, even in the case of a complication. This meant that many births that could have had positive outcomes with
a little preparation, support and better sanitation ended in the death of mother or baby, or both. Thus, birth became perceived to be scary, shameful and disgusting.
In the mid-1800’s when Queen Victoria was pregnant, her fear of birth prompted her to insist on being anesthetised. Following her lead, upper and middle class women began going to hospital for their births in order to have access to anesthesia. In the 1900’s, based on the fact that natural birth was rare in hospital and anesthetised births often had complications, the viewpoint developed that birth was inherently problematic and needed preventative intervention.
And that’s how we find ourselves today with a huge portion of the population afraid of birth, and still thinking it’s dangerous. Many people, especially men, also think it’s gross and don’t want to see it or learn about it, leaving many women feeling ashamed or ignorant of their bodies’ natural processes and capabilities.
The time has come for this to change. Many people are waking up to the truth about birth – that it is a safe, natural process, and that the experience can be incredibly beautiful and transformational.
It is the birthright of women to have this opportunity to be shown their own power, their own strength, their own resilience. Through birth we are made not only into mothers, but into better versions of ourselves with more clarity, more depth and a greater ability to persevere and weather adversity.
By framing birth as something that must be endured and survived, women are kept from accessing the power of this experience. By giving away control of their labours and births, they are missing out on possibly the single greatest opportunity of self knowledge and personal growth in their lifetimes.
When embraced, birth will decimate you. It will shake you to your core, strip back layers of self that you thought essential, and push you past limits you had thought were fixed and immovable. And at the end of it all, you will discover that not only have you survived, but you are forged anew. You have cracked open to reveal that this fleshy, earthly body is home to a soul that shines brightly enough to light the way for others. You will meet your new baby and your true self simultaneously.
So, get informed. Learn about the incredible wisdom of the body, until you have a trust so deep in the biology of birth that there is no room left for fear. Find photos and videos of birth that show the intimate beauty in the hard work of labour and the transcendent grace in the mess of birth. And when the time comes and it’s your turn to take this journey deeper into yourself, embrace it, surrender to it, and allow it to teach you its innumerable, timeless lessons. It’s time to reclaim the power in birth.
**Originally published as a contribution to Damsel magazine in 2020**