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Want to see a natural birth? Go to a sheep farm

Humans just aren't very good at giving birth - we produce magnificently big-skulled babies and have skinny little pelvises. A natural birth may sounds wonderful in theory, but in practice it's wise to give nature a helping hand.

New Statesman
A pregnant woman with a painted baby on her belly takes part in the Movement for a Humanised Childbirth demonstration in Brazil. Photograph: Getty Images

One of the cool ways that pregnancy prepares you for having an infant of your own is by thoroughly infantilising you. And so it was that I found myself – a grown-up person of 20 years with another person growing inside me – looking another woman in the face and inviting her to praise me for rubbing sweet almond oil onto the skin between my vagina and my arsehole. “I’ve been massaging my perineum,” I said, eagerly. “To stop me from tearing.”

My midwife had patiently talked me through my fears about caffeine consumption and pre-pregnancy test binge drinking, but this was too much. She fixed me with a look of piercing sympathy and said: “I don’t think that will help.” I was, of course, devastated. I believed sincerely that there was a right way and a wrong way to do pregnancy, and having got pregnant in the wrong way (by accident, living in a halls of residence), I wanted to do the rest of it right.

And that meant natural. There would be no C-section and no epidurals; there would be no tearing. I would follow all the advice down to the last drop of sweet almond oil. If the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists had published its guidance on chemical consumption in pregnancy back then, I would have diligently avoided Tupperware and paracetamol too. In exchange for my good behaviour, I expected to be rewarded with a blissful, natural labour that would end with my baby resting contentedly on my suddenly vacant belly, skin to skin.

If I’d been pregnant a few decades earlier, none of this would have been an option for me to consider. Choices weren’t available. Instead, you had doctors holding all the power in one hand and some alarming surgical steel implements in the other. In some hospitals in the 1970s, for example, it was routine for uninformed women to be given drying-up pills with their post-labour breakfast. They didn’t need to be asked, because the idea that anyone would want to breastfeed was so unthinkably gross to the medics in charge.

Such obstetric cruelty is what natural birth campaigners like Caroline Flint, interviewed in the Guardian at the weekend, opposed. It’s thanks in part to people like Flint that I was given a birth plan to fill out, and could hand it over to my midwife in confidence of it being observed. It’s also thanks to people like Flint that I believed there was a profound moral weight to what happened in my labour.

In her book, she writes that babies welcomed with the bright lights and loud voices of a hospital are taught “they may not always be welcome”; have a home birth, on the other hand, and you’re practically guaranteed to deliver a sensitive genius. (She also recommends that women should be “sexually aroused” while giving birth, which rather airily assumes that everyone is capable of getting turned on in a situation where it’s 50-50 whether you’ll shit yourself.)

All this assumes that nature is a kind and generous entity whose only concern is in getting babies from womb to world as safely and efficiently as possible. But nature is a half-arsed craftsman, capable of doing things perfectly when time and circumstances allow, and equally capable of doing things just well enough to shove a handful of DNA into the next generation.

Humans have many fine and distinctive qualities. We are a magnificently brainy animal, creating magnificently big-skulled babies. We’re also impressively upright, with skinny little pelvises to support our vertical frames. We are just terrific at walking and thinking. And as a consequence of those things, we’re not very good at giving birth. The best that can be said for our species’ efforts with labour is that it’s non-lethal often enough that we haven’t been forced to evolve anything better.

Birth is incontrovertibly a biological process, but you could hardly say humans are naturals at it. Want to see a natural labour? Go to a sheep farm during lambing and watch the offspring just slither out of the ewes’ behinds. And even the lambs get it wrong sometimes and try to bust out sideways or backwards. We do so much worse.

After two deliveries that could have finished me off without hospital assistance (one slow suffering, one shockingly swift), I decided that nature and me would only get on with a medical mediator. Safe labour requires listening to women and giving them confidence in their own decisions, but it also requires not telling them fairy tales about how everything will be OK if they just cast the right charms and follow the right rituals. Women are not, after all, the children when it comes to giving birth.