The Myth of the Ideal Birth
I imagine midwives get asked all kinds of crazy questions, but I can clearly remember my midwife’s face when I asked her if she knew any way to stall and lengthen labor. To be fair, part of my reasoning was that my husband was returning from a seven and a half month deployment within days of my due date, and I really didn’t want him to miss the birth. But the other part was that I was on a quest for the perfect birth. You know the one. The one we watch on our Facebook feeds where the mom laughs with her birth team, beautifully handles each contraction with low moans, and breathes her baby out into the world. That one. That IDEAL birth.
In the natural birth community we talk about this birth a lot. How, when you choose to birth without intervention, you are rewarded with a more positive birth experience. And I do believe that is absolutely true. I just don’t think that a peaceful, “perfect” birth is the only measure of a positive birth experience.
My births were quite the opposite of that ideal, especially my two home births (you can read my birth stories here, here, and here). When I speak of them, I liken them to freight trains. And the more I talk with women about their births, the more I find that I am not alone. And I also find that I’m not alone in mourning the loss of that “perfect” birth. For me it was the sadness over not getting to spend hours conversing with my birth team, as I revel in the joy of a birthing space and love being surrounded by wise women. With my first homebirth (my second child) my midwife was there for 3 hours before my baby was born. My second homebirth, my midwife made it to the house just 30 minutes before he emerged. But for other women it’s not just mourning the loss of what they’d envisioned, but a real feeling of failure. I screamed too loud, I lost control, I didn’t do it right. Sometimes losing sight completely of the amazingly powerful experience that giving birth is.
In a recent conversation, a fellow Birth Boot camp Instructor, Jillian, pointed out that all birth is beautiful, but it’s almost never pretty, and that’s a pretty important distinction. It’s easy to watch those calm birth videos with black and white footage overlaid by soft music. It’s not as easy to watch the ones where mom is screaming or losing control. But I’d argue that it’s just as important to watch the ones that aren’t pretty. Those loud, raw, primal births that are just as beautiful, but in an entirely different way.
In the 10-week Birth Boot Camp class I teach, we watch a wide variety of birth videos, including the more artsy “ideal” type, as well as the filmed-on-an-iPhone more real version. And both are beautiful. And both are important, especially for first time moms. We often show the “perfect” type of birth to combat the typical media glamorized version that always includes lots of screaming and makes birth look like a terrifying event. So it makes sense that this “ideal” birth has been widely accepted as what a natural birth is supposed to look like. That it’s not supposed to look like the scary, screaming Hollywood version. But in doing that I think we have lost sight of what is real in favor of what is pretty. I’d argue we’re just as guilty as Hollywood of glamorizing birth to our own ends, forgetting that polarizing any experience naturally alienates a huge portion of the population.
Photos © Petal & Vine Photography
Because birth is REAL, and raw, and life changing – for the “breathers and moaners” as well as the “yellers and screamers,” and no one should walk away from such a life changing experience feeling like they’ve failed just because their birth wasn’t as they pictured it. Just because it wasn’t like the videos they’d watched online. The truth of the matter is that there is no ideal. You may have had a calm, peaceful labor, and I had a freight train 3-hour labor, and they looked and sounded very, very different, but they were both beautiful.
There’s a recurring theme in motherhood blogs about striving for false perfection, and one of my very favorite quotes about it is “don’t compare your behind the scenes to other people’s highlight reel.” We need to stop gauging our idea of perfection on other people’s experiences. So, while I’m a huge believer in watching birth videos as a way to prepare for birth, I think we need to remember that none of those videos will be our experience, nor should we try to control what is ultimately uncontrollable based on what we think the ideal looks like.
So I’m going to own my freight train, screaming, out of control, beautiful, PERFECT births as my own, and not feel like I did it wrong or failed in any way. My birth videos (if I had them) surely wouldn’t win any cinematography awards, but I walked away with overwhelming joy and a huge sense of accomplishment and empowerment. And three beautiful, perfect babies. And three birth experiences that have shaped who I am today, and which I wouldn’t change a thing about, even if they weren’t what I pictured a “perfect” birth to be beforehand.