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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution