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Why Do We Call A Vaginal Birth A ‘Normal’ Delivery? Or Shame Moms Who Couldn’t?

Calling a vaginal birth a 'normal' or 'natural' birth was probably appropriate years ago when Caesarian births were rare, in an emergency.

When I recently read a post on Facebook written by a woman who had a vaginal birth casually refer to her delivery as a natural one, it rankled.

For too long, we have internalized calling vaginal deliveries ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ deliveries as if any other way of childbirth is abnormal. What about only a vaginal birth is natural? Conversely, what about a Caesarian Section is not normal?

When we check on the health of the mother and baby post delivery, why do we enquire intrusively, what kind of delivery they had? “Was it a ‘normal’ delivery?” we ask.

As a result, every pregnant woman aspires for a vaginal birth. She is asked to walk, eat right, practice Lamaze exercises, gain weight or keep her weight down, and yet no one knows if in the final hours of labour, she will have a vaginal delivery.

How does a woman who has spent 9 months working towards this aspirational goal feel when she is put under the knife?

My doctor gave me 4 hours to dilate fully and deliver my first born vaginally. At the end of 4 hours, she announced her lack of faith in me and decided to operate. I have spent many hours wondering if, had I been in the hands of a more empathetic and realistic doctor, I might have been able to have a ‘normal’ delivery. I remember feeling disappointment that I had somehow failed as a mother, and that I was a statistic in the failure of vaginal deliveries.

C-sections are a wonder of surgical science that saves lives

Deliveries are complex processes, which is why we have C Sections today that save the lives of both the mother and the baby. Medical advancement has reduced mortality rate in the labour room.

Earlier, C Sections were performed only for medical reasons. Today, a woman can choose to have a Caesarian birth for many reasons.

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C Sections are seen as an easier way out, but let me tell you, it is no walk in the park. You suffer postoperative pain for at least a week, sometimes with many added complications.

I had a splitting headache if I stayed upright, due to leakage of the spinal fluid when I was administered spinal anesthesia. I had to lie down in the backseat of the car when I rode back home after discharge from the hospital and when I had to take my baby for his first checkup. Despite the excruciating pain of the stitches, surgery and the headache, I still had to learn to nurse the baby! Also, like many others who have a Caesarian for medical reasons or an emergency C Section, I bore contractions for 4 hours before, so I experienced the worst of both situations.

Why are women supposed to bear pain without finding an easier way out?

It is almost as if the world derives sadistic satisfaction from the pain of a woman, whether it is her period pain, the labour contractions, or her nursing agony.

If a woman chooses not to go through labour and decides on an option, she believes is better for her and safe for both lives, why is she judged?

Optional C Sections are still frowned upon unless there is a medical reason. I know women who proudly declare they were in labour for 24 hours without an epidural. If a woman chooses either an epidural or a C Section, that should be a phenomenon as ordinary as when the woman chooses to birth without any support. It is about choice, and one is not better than the other.

What was Ok decades ago is no longer Ok today as we make scientific advances

Calling a vaginal birth a ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ birth was probably appropriate years ago when Caesarian births were rare and performed only during an absolute emergency. It was also possibly uncomfortable for people to use the word vagina freely in times that were more conservative.

However as we progress as a society, we know how important it is to use the right words for the right body parts. Children today are taught to use the words penis and vagina in lessons of good touch and bad touch in schools. If we want to build a safe and inclusive society, it is time to stop being squeamish about the right words for body parts.

Using words like ‘normal’ to describe biological phenomena is ableist. By calling a vaginal birth ‘normal’, we instantly alienate and other those who have had C Section deliveries and deem them ‘abnormal’. It is not enough to only make medical advancement, along with that should grow awareness and support of all people regardless of their choices.

The same mindset causes moms to feel guilty if they have trouble breastfeeding

When my son was born, he was a large, bonny baby and a big eater. Like all new mothers, I had trouble with him latching, but soon enough I realized I had bigger challenges.

He demanded his feed every hour even though my body could not keep up with his needs. While he sucked greedily at my breast, I howled in agony from the bleeding nipples. I dreaded meal times and baby and I were both miserable.

The ointment I was prescribed was not given time to work since I had to wash it off every hour to feed. The pediatrician at the hospital had strictly warned us against formula, so we were at our wits’ end.

Until, we went to a doctor who put it all in perspective. He said to me, “Look, your nipples are injured, your milk is insufficient, and your baby is miserable. Alternate your feed with formula, so the cuts heal and your baby is also satiated.” I nearly kissed the doctor’s hand in relief. Once we alternated between my feed and formula, my breasts healed and the baby’s crying stopped. He grew bigger, healthier, and stronger and was in no way lesser than a completely breast-fed baby.

Of course, breast-feeding a newborn is the healthiest choice for the baby. However, should it be done even under extreme circumstances when the mother is suffering? Should we guilt trip the mother who chooses to feed her baby formula? I went through a traumatic few months agonizing if I had made a poor choice towards my baby’s health and if he would suffer in the future, because his mother had not prioritized his health over her wounds.

Mothers have it hard enough with their bodily changes and their life altering irrevocably after birthing a baby. The purpose of medical advancement is to improve quality of life and lower mortality rates. While we go from strength to strength in science, we still have a long way to go in altering our mindset and changing our vocabulary so that we stop calling biological phenomena ‘natural’ or ‘normal.’

Image source: a screenshot from the film ’83

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About the Author

Poornima Kulathu

I am a banker, author, poet and an intersectional feminist. Speaking up on social issues, mentoring and coaching and cooking up a storm for friends and a certain strapping 21 year old boy are what read more...

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