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Pain in childbirth - can anyone help me with my thinking around this?

(68 Posts)
SomersetBelle Thu 09-Jun-11 13:50:23

I gave birth 18 months ago and it was the most horrifically painful experience of my life so far.

I think about the birth a lot, and wonder why on earth I was so determined to go without pain relief.

I am also more and more aware of the inequalities and pure horror associated with childbirth around the world. There was a picture of a maternity ward in Manila in the paper today which made me feel so angry.

I am a feminist but not a very well read one. I am learning so much from the posters and threads on here and was hoping someone could help me advance my thinking around childbirth to help me articulate my feelings. Can feminist theory help me?

sunshineandbooks Thu 09-Jun-11 16:00:11

I'm like you in that I not particularly well-read on the side of feminist theory, but the thing that really stands out to me when it comes to pain and childbirth is to stop listening to men dictating what is right or wrong about it.

I think there is a school of thought that criticises the patriarchy for taking control over childbirth, medicalising it and intervening too much.I have quite a lot of sympathy with that view. I did have pain relief during my labour, but this was partly because I was forced to lie on my back on a bed so that they could monitor me. Every time I sat up and over to relieve the pain (which worked), the monitors would stop working so I had to lie back down again. I think if I'd been allowed to walk about and move my own body I would have needed a lot less pain relief. I would also have kept a lot more dignity.

However, I personally don't subscribe to the idea that pain relief is bad. You wouldn't have a broken leg fixed without pain relief so why go through the agony that can be childbirth when you don't have to? The risk to the baby is small and outweighed by the needs of the mother. All of life is a balancing of risks and this one is an easy one IMO.

Childbirth for humans is more painful than for most animals because of the way we evolved. The human head is too big for the birth canal. This is also the reason human babies are so vulnerable when born and why the first 3 months are often referred to as the fourth trimester - because the head is already too big by 9 months, the baby has to be born but it still has to do quite a lot of development that in most animals would happen inside the womb. I get quite irate when I hear arguments that women should be able to cope with childbirth because all the other animal species manage it without pain relief. Most of the proponents I've come across for natural births at all costs are male.

Ultimately, I think it has to be down to each individual woman and for her to know that it's ok to change her mind.

Ormirian Thu 09-Jun-11 16:01:29

"the thing that really stands out to me when it comes to pain and childbirth is to stop listening to men dictating what is right or wrong about it. "


ginmakesitallok Thu 09-Jun-11 16:06:16

the thing that really stands out to me when it comes to pain and childbirth is to stop listening to men dictating what is right or wrong about it. But childbirth has always been led by and seen as a female thing? I think the pressure on women to have "natural births" comes from other women - not from men??

HandDivedScallopsrgreat Thu 09-Jun-11 16:08:03

"when it comes to pain and childbirth is to stop listening to men dictating what is right or wrong about it"

I agree. I have asked for a female consultant with regards my pregnancy. I don't know whether I'll get better advice but I would think that I would have a better shot at it from someone who has either given birth or has the potential too. And tbh I get to listen to men all day long, I'd just prefer to hear a woman's view about a process that only women go through, given the option.

I think from a feminist perspective it is all down to not having your informed choices taken away or overruled as if they don't matter. It is your body and it is happening to you. The negativity regarding pain relief is a very patriarchal construct IMO.

HaughtyChuckle Thu 09-Jun-11 16:11:10

Apparently there is one religion I think it might be Scientology where they are made to give birth in silence, horrific stuff

Did you feel pressured to go without PF? I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience.

sunshineandbooks Thu 09-Jun-11 16:18:46

But childbirth has always been led by and seen as a female thing? I think the pressure on women to have "natural births" comes from other women - not from men??

I disagree. Most midwives are female, yes, but most obstetricians are male.
The term 'natural childbirth' was coined by a man and its most famous supporters are male.

The fact that women have taken up the baton of forcing it down other women's throats simply means to my mind that they have become complicit with male domination in childbirth - the same way some women support the idea that a woman should be subservient to her husband.

That is not to say that any individual woman's choice to go pain free should not be respected.

UntamedShrew Thu 09-Jun-11 16:19:01

I always thought it wasn't that women wanted to avoid the pain, but that they felt the endurance of pain was (or were persuaded that this was) less important than the potential side effects of the pain relief itself.

So for epidurals, not being able to feel when to push, restricted mobility etc. For others (pethedine?) the worry of it making the baby sleepy.

I'm also not sure I agree about men 'dictating' - my consultants, both male and female, have been equally keen that the birth plan is my choice. My DH is pro pain relief and pro sections, because he wants me to be able to avoid any pain he wouldn't himself tolerate.

Sorry, not usually argumentative! Just wanted to offer another point of view.

HaughtyChuckle Thu 09-Jun-11 16:21:09

I was wary of epidurals the idea of feeling nothing was scary

I wanted to experience it aswell as not be in huge amounts of pain that probably sounds mad lol.

UntamedShrew Thu 09-Jun-11 16:21:43

That sounds perfectly sane to me.. is there a way to achieve that though?

HopeForTheBest Thu 09-Jun-11 16:22:20

Most of the proponents I've come across for natural births at all costs are male.

Really? Most men I know think that you would be mad not to have any and every pain relief available when giving birth.

sakura Thu 09-Jun-11 16:25:12

well the labour room was invaded by men after they killed off all the midwives during the witchcrazes... the first men to assist births ended up killing a lot of women because they would come straight from cutting up corpses to "assist" the birthing woman without washing their hands...
Then they invented all manners of unecessary procedures that cause a lot of damage to women.
ONe example I can think of was the trend to take the baby away from the mother straight away after the birth during the twentieth century, failing to realise that when the baby breastfeeds it contract the womb and brings it down to its original size thereby preventing heamorradge . These bloody men didn't have a clue (still don't) and though they were saving women when they were the cause of the problems in the first place!!

Well my point is, I suppose, that given the horrendous context behind men entering the labour rooms it's perfectly natural for a woman to want to reject that and take the pain instead.

Personally I would like to know WTF men are doing there at all when women give birth. WHat sort of kicks are these doctors getting out of having control over birthing women? I think it should be an all-female domain. This is just common sense and given the disgusting way male Ob/gyns have behaved over the years. Anyway... I'm sure a lot of women would take the pain over the patriarchy given the choice.

sakura Thu 09-Jun-11 16:26:28

I agree HopeForthe Best, most men prefer their partners/wives to have epidurals. I remember loling at a man on the net who was horrified that a woman had been "doing natural childbirth" in the bed next to his wife

HaughtyChuckle Thu 09-Jun-11 16:28:13

That sounds perfectly sane to me.. is there a way to achieve that though?

Gas and Air lol,

steamedtreaclesponge Thu 09-Jun-11 16:31:30

We had a really interesting discussion around this subject during our east london feminists meeting recently... one thing that we picked up on was the way that women's reproductive health seems to have a really low priority in medicine generally. While medicine in general is always moving on, things like contraception and pain relief in birth don't really seem to be improving all that fast. For childbirth, for example, your choices are either gas and air or epidural, without anything much inbetween. I don't know whether it's because the medical/research establishment generally put a low value on women's health, or because it's hard to make money out of that sort of thing...

sunshineandbooks Thu 09-Jun-11 16:33:57

I agree that on a grass roots level men seem to be quite pro the idea of pain relief, I was talking about published literature etc.

Interestingly, however, now that women are slowly reclaiming the domain of childbirth, obstetricians are coming out in their droves to claim that unassisted childbirth is dangerous.


KarenHL Thu 09-Jun-11 16:37:10

Some of you seem to have been blessed with nice cons (male and female). Mine (male) wasn't. Would not listen to any of the medical grounds for my having an ELCS, just stubbornly insisted I wasn't having one and told me there was no point being referred to another cons as they would not agree either.

In the event, I was referred to a (fem) consultant who agreed to an ELCS. She wasn't totally happy with it, but realised that I had thought everything through. Although it was on my notes that my previous c/b had been v.traumatic, no-one took any notice. I feel I was treated unsympathetically because I did not give in to the pressure to terminate (baby had med issues). Actually unsympathetic is a total understatement - in many ways I feel I was treated brutally with less compassion/humanity than I ever imagined was possible in such a context. Me, bitter, Nooooooo.........

snowmama Thu 09-Jun-11 16:38:16

StreamedTreacle was just coming on to write the same appears to be a fairly blunt choice between fairly archaic medication which may hinder the birth process or 'hardcore natural'.

Mmmm well neither please, lots of technological advances everywhere could you please sort out some decent pain relief for childbirth...

UntamedShrew Thu 09-Jun-11 16:40:49

Agreed, snowmama!

snowmama Thu 09-Jun-11 16:41:03

I think unassisted childbirth is dangerous, supported at home by a midwife cool though ( though I was still too nervous to contemplate it ...)

TheProvincialLady Thu 09-Jun-11 16:42:06

The whole way that maternity 'care' is set up causes women pain and problems in labour, which then requires men to invent things to relieve and improve this. A few examples:

* Making women travel to a hospital in labour, then move them between various rooms depending on what equipment is where
* Making labouring women lie down on beds so that they can be monitored, despite the fact that this has been proven time and time again to make no improvement whatsoever to the number of healthy babies delivered - but it does slow down progress of labour and often causes a lot more pain
* Filling the room with a succession of people, none of whom the woman knows - causes anxiety and slows down labour
* Making the availability of care and access to drugs dependent on a set of hospital rules, rather than believing what the woman is saying. "Go home, you're not in labour yet" (tough shit that you feel in labour, that you are in labour in fact - you've got to prove it by being dilated enough to be worthy of interest) and the fact that epidurals aren't available for women who want them, sometimes for hours and often by the time they are it is too late
* Maternity and postnatal wards operate at though babies arrive 9-5, Monday to Friday. They don't.
* The prevailing attitiude of HCPs is that labour is something we will let you do on our terms. Not that women are intelligent, capable of making their own informed decisions and taking the consequences when things go wrong.

The whole thing is fundamentally misogynist and it makes me really, really angry.

snowmama Thu 09-Jun-11 16:42:29

Oh Karen that sound like a horrible experience....poor you.

dirgeinvegas Thu 09-Jun-11 16:43:17

I am not great with feminist theory but I am a childbirth educator with feminist leanings. I can only tell you my personal thoughts on this but it might help put your feelings into context.

I teach a lot of women, normal, everyday women who want to experience childbirth. They want to know what a contraction is and to feel the labour. The mums-to-be I see with breech babies often feels devastated at the suggestion of ELCS and not giving birth vaginally. This might sound odd - it's a chance not to experience the pain and physical challenge of labour (not that CS is a breeze) but yet I don't know many women who chose not feel anything.

Yes, some choose gas & air, pethidine, epidurals etc but the idea of feeling nothing at all makes them feel cheated of a right of passage.

My own view is that childbirth has become very medicalised and medicine is male dominated, obstretrics is suspicious and distrustful of womens bodies and what they're capable of and, at the risk of sounding extreme, I believe the medicalisation of pregnancy and birth is just another way to control women.

We know that interferring with birth increases risks to mothers and their babies, research is everywhere. Medicalised birth should be available to those who need it but on the whole, most women would do better with the support of another woman and an environment that was more conducive with good birth than a bright, sterile delivery suite, (usually) a male observer and lack of privacy and control.

Incidentally I also don't believe too strongly in the theory that we have evolved to have worse births than other mammals. I think evolution compensates for that in other ways (human babies born prematurely, we can give birth on all fours changing the shape of the pelvis and our joints are designed to move to allow baby to pass through and babies head moulds to allow the same). I truly think our culture of managing birth, taking away womens control over their own births and how we're surrounded by stories of terrible births has more to do with it.

I also saw the photo gallery on Manila in the Guardian and felt sick at the way those women are treated. No privacy, dignity, birthing on their back. Its just not how women would chose to do it if left to their own devices, I don't believe anyway.

ShowOfHands Thu 09-Jun-11 16:43:50

The Marie Mongan hypnobirthing book is an interesting read. It claims to empower women to harness the power of their minds (bravo thus far).

It has a section on breech babies/malpositioning and explains quite clearly that babies become malpositioned because a woman is unable to let go or is negative about the upcoming birth in some way. Absolutely no acknowledgment of any other factors, certainly nothing medical or outside a woman's control.

Horrific, accusatory nonsense. Behind the veneer of 'support' is this nasty message that a woman can somehow fail birth or deserve a medicalised or complicated delivery due to her own flawed approach to birth.

Just a thought, if you were interested in how we are set up to feel like failures sometimes even from the corners that purport to champion a woman's inherent 'power'...

AllTheYoungDoods Thu 09-Jun-11 16:44:44

I've been re-reading Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions recently along with all my baby books, and just wondering if anyone knows of anything similar/more recent?

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