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.

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.

 

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

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear