I get the feeling that life on the maternity ward would be so much easier if childbirth classes were to include one whole session of drumming it into expectant mothers that they are not the first person to have a baby, nor will they be the last.
Having babies is probably womankind’s most common shared experience – well, second most common, because the first doesn’t always result in a baby.
Imagine just how much less angst there would be if the breathing trainer, or whatever they’re called, were to say repeatedly: “Remember that trillions of women have had babies throughout history, and that you’re doing nothing special. Even if it feels like you’re the only woman in the world to give birth, you’re not.”
Then they could put it on a banner and hang the banner up at the front of the childbirth class for good measure.
But of course, none of that is going to happen because it would be considered unnecessarily offensive. It’s not too much to expect, however, that pregnant women absorb this salutary fact all on their own. Not so long ago, women who had babies just got on with it. It was just another day at the office. Now that far fewer children are being born and their parents turn them into a project called ‘having the perfect child while being the ideal parent’, pregnancy and birth have become a supremely big deal. And here’s the irony: never have they been less risky. In the days when women died having babies, pregnancy was taken in their stride. Now that women who give birth are surrounded by a medical team and all the equipment necessary to save their life and that of the baby, it’s a carnival of fuss and bother.
I think the story of Marissa Bose and David Ellul – oh, and by the way, it’s relevant to include the fact that he is 42 and she is 19 or 20 – captured the public imagination because we understand at some level that making a huge production out of having a baby is just ridiculous. The Bose-Ellul combo got on our nerves – if the online barrage is anything to go by – precisely because they behaved as though they were somehow special and different, and may God help any doctor or nurse who intimated otherwise.
The aim of anybody who has anything to do with expectant mothers nowadays (except male obstetricians, who tend to be notoriously gruff, as well they might be) appears to be the cultivation of the belief in new mothers that they are doing something quite extraordinary and that their experience is unique simply because it is unique to them. So really, you can’t then expect these women, when their big moment arrives, to accept the fact that they are package no. 20 on the delivery conveyor belt, and that this might be the zillionth wailing infant the midwife has wiped clean. When I had my second baby, I found myself tended to by the same midwife who had delivered my first a year earlier. “Oh good, I’ve got you again,” I said. She looked at me blankly, without the barest flicker of recognition, and then I remembered that she had probably delivered well over a thousand babies since then.
My regular, long-term readers will know my views of the Cult of Childbirth and its breakaway Cult of Breastfeeding, so we won’t go into any of that because I really have no time for a sack-load of letters and e-mails from the Queens of Suckling. Suffice it to say that both are the direct and perhaps inevitable result of the dwindling birth rate and the Cult of the Project Child (‘this will be our only one so everything has got to be perfect’) and even of the Consumer Cult, which has parents researching every aspect of having a child with much the same attitude that they would research the purchase of a new car.
You’d think that this level of fixation would result in a deeper desire to give birth in a hospital, as that is by the far the safest place to do so, but no. Instead, the Cult of Childbirth decrees that women should go back to the days when babies were born at home in the marital (or, as is increasingly the case, the cohabiting or single) bed. “This is how it is meant to be,” the childbirth gurus boss and bother. “Having a baby in a hospital is false and artificial. Why must you have a doctor with you when you should have a doula? It goes against nature and it is wrong.”
The one thing these Cult of Childbirth gurus won’t tell their ‘everything must be perfect’ audience of expectant mothers is just how many women and babies died during or immediately after birth back in those halcyon days when the neighbours milled about downstairs with teapots and towels while the lady of the house screamed, hollered, bawled and strained upstairs. Before hospitals and advanced medical care, pregnancy and childbirth were properly regarded not as joyful experiences but as extremely dangerous and risky, evils made necessary by the need for children (and still they took it in their stride). It is thanks to hospitals and advanced medical care that we have been divorced from the biological fact that childbirth kills. Yes, it kills.
Hospitals and advanced medical care are artificial, yes, if you want to put it that way. But this is precisely why they are so wonderful. Nature, red in tooth and claw, is often hideous and cruel, and childbirth is one of the most obvious examples. Even when all goes according to plan, even when there is no ripping, cutting or slicing, it is gruesome. In their beautiful artificiality, doctors and hospitals have conquered nature, which seems determined to kill off a sizeable percentage of women and babies.
It is because of doctors and hospitals that women in developed societies no longer die in childbirth, and why the infant mortality rate has been driven right down to negligible. We have become so accustomed to this state of affairs that we think it exists in nature, and that it is normal for women to give birth without dying. But it is not.
In the primitive and undeveloped societies which first-world ‘health freaks’ wish to emulate with their squatting and their chanting and their refusal to let a doctor anywhere near them, women give birth as nature intended because they have no choice, and not because they want to. Most of them would probably walk over hot coals to a hospital if there was one anywhere near them. While the health freaks in Europe admire them for their squatting and their corn grinding while in labour, they would think that the health freaks are nuts for refusing medical care and a hospital bed. But there you go.
People like Marissa Bose and David Ellul are the new bigots: so sure that they are right and special, and so intolerant of and condescending to any opinion other than their own. People like this tend not to be religious but have a great deal in common with the religious bigots of yesteryear, would but they understand this.