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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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.