Orgasmic birth an old midwives' tale
It's exactly 30 years since the publication of Tennessee childbirth guru Ina May Gaskin's Spiritual Midwifery. This hippie heyday instructional manual became the home-birth movement's bible, while stories of the commune where Gaskin lived were the stuff of dreams for anyone "seriously into" natural birth.
How disappointing to discover last week a flyer promoting the private screening of a new short film, Orgasmic Birth - the Best Kept Secret, by none other than this weary, world-renowned midwife.
Curious to see what her contemporary take on modern birthing practices would reveal, I logged on to www.orgasmicbirth.com, only to discover a much greyer Gaskin still expounding... "it is possible to have an ecstatic birth - in fact, it is the best natural high that I know of".
Now I admit that childbirth can come close to a fairly intense if not reverential experience, but having delivered three children vaginally (two at home and one in a labour ward) and having experienced an orgasm, I can confidently report there is nothing remotely similar between them.
If ever there was a reason for women to be suspicious of natural childbirth, it is the "orgasmic" vaginal delivery and "placenta-eating" claptrap that is trotted out every time home birth is put back on the health service agenda.
Yes, that's right, the Rudd Government recently launched a discussion paper on improving maternity services, including the option of home birth. And some men in the 1970s actually ate their partner's afterbirth! (Not that I know any women who would even entertain the idea but it actually makes more physiological sense for the mother to digest this iron-rich piece of offal for the sole purpose of warding off exhaustion and post-natal depression. Why on earth the father would feel thus compelled is beyond me.)
But I digress.
Witness the following testimonials from the current "Orgasmic Birth" website under the banner "Please share your ecstatic birth story with us": "The pushing was so much easier while smiling. As soon as I started to smile, the pain completely changed." Or "I was so relaxed in the warm water that I actually started to miss my chance to push with the contractions - It was so surreal. My husband actually sat in the corner of the room reading a paper - and joked with me, 'Just let me know if you need anything!' " Or "I sang my birth song, a low moan, and he (my husband) sang with me. I was surprised by how much birth sounded like sex!"
Correct me if I'm wrong, but there appears to be a rock and a hard place emerging for labouring women in these supposedly progressive times. Either undergo a caesarean and shut up (your surgeon gets to his golf game while you are sedated) or have an "orgasmic birth" where not only do you shut up but simultaneously smile at your husband!
My, my, we have come a long way.
What a paradox that this "woman-centred" approach to birth, all dressed up to empower labouring mothers, remains unapologetic in its deference to men (particularly convenient for him when labour is compared Gaskin's book was dedicated to her husband, spiritual leader and "head honcho" of the notorious "farm", Stephen, whom she claims taught her everything she knows about midwifery, including "respect for the life force and how to move psychic energy".
A similar misguided adulation surrounded Melbourne's two sagely home-birth doctors (replete with beards and sandals) during the '70s and '80s.
Their entourage of pregnant patients, "birth helpers" and midwives became such blind devotees that they were utterly bereft when one practitioner after the other was de-registered or suspended for malpractice.
Please don't misunderstand me. There is no doubt the percentage of medically managed births and caesareans in this country is absurdly high and that the current review on midwife-led deliveries and home birth is to be applauded.
However, let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.
Having a "natural" labour at home with the help of a midwife does not necessarily mean you eat lentils (or placentas), wear alpaca ponchos or remain serenely submissive when in pain.
This stereotype promoted by Gaskin on the Orgasmic Birth website is exactly what drives women into the arms of their scalpel-wielding obstetricians, not to mention encouraging a good dose of post-natal depression due to profound disappointment with their labour.
Women should have a choice regarding how and where their baby will be born and Melbourne midwife and home-birth advocate Nicola Dutton is right when she says, "If you leave it to nature, it (labour) actually works very well, without intervention, drugs and major abdominal surgery."
But please, let's get real, and stop equating this choice with some hokey idea of "ecstasy" when we all know natural birth is pretty much like trying to push a football through the eye of a needle - imagine that, fellas, whenever you're having an orgasm.
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Avril Moore is a freelance writer.