Giving birth to a human being—however it happens—is a visceral, memorable and profound life experience. Why do so many people feel entitled to pass judgment on the way that anyone else makes it through?
You know what I mean. You've probably done it, even. Whether or not you've had a kid, you've probably texted about that friend from high school's TMI Facebook birth photos where you can basically see her vagina. You might've told the pregnant lady in the grocery store just how bad the pain is, so don't even think about trying to be a martyr because you should definitely get the meds, honey. This social tendency has practically been ingrained as tradition: passing on advice, mostly unsolicited, is part of almost every conversation about birth.
Which is why it feels so necessary to issue this reminder: You don't actually get to have an opinion about where or how or why anyone else gives birth. Ever.
The culture around birth in the United States is a damaging culture of fear, guilt, and shame. It is a culture that teaches us that once we become pregnant, we are no longer capable of making our own decisions, no longer the stewards of our own bodies. It tells us that our bodies are broken and can't bring a baby into this world without the help of synthetic hormones or a scalpel, while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that childbirth should be a perfect and beautiful experience where we act like amazing warrior goddesses who don't yell or poop or beg for drugs.
Many people have feelings and preferences regarding birth, like when the cord should be cut and if they have an IV and that the lights in the room should be low. Many other people only care about the outcome: a healthy baby, a safe mom. All of these feelings are right. None of these feelings are wrong.
You may want an epidural as soon as you can possibly get one because you're scared of pain and grateful that modern medicine can numb that pain. That's great. You might not care if your baby comes out of your vagina or out of an incision made in your abdomen. That is absolutely your prerogative. You may want to give birth sans medical interventions, including pain relief of any kind. You may want your baby's birthday to be spiritual and calm, with chanting and candles. Rock on, mama. You may want something that doesn't fall on either side of the (false and destructive!) "natural" vs medical spectrum—or you may want nothing at all, because you don't ever want to give birth. IT'S ALL GOOD.
Yet people have this overwhelming compulsion to share their own feelings about you, what you've done, or what you're going to do during childbirth. It's everywhere: at baby showers, at hair salons, basically anywhere you can find more than one cisgendered woman gathered. In what other context—other than pregnancy, birth and parenting—do people get to just jaw out their casual opinions on serious, life-changing stuff like it's no big deal? Why is it totally socially okay to insult another woman because she did something or wanted something you may not have done or wanted? "Oh, you had a hip replacement and didn't read a book about it beforehand? IRRESPONSIBLE." "She bought a used car without antilock brakes. That's just asking to die."
If you want to see this in action, read the comments section of any article involving childbirth (including this one, potentially). It's all "Selfish woman who cares more about her experience than her baby" or it's "Uneducated woman who doesn't realize all doctors are cut-happy insurance company puppets" or "I had XZY and me and my baby are fine, so logically every person should do XYZ and be fine, too!" The "crunchy" women who eat their placentas and wear their babies are often characterized as the judgy set, but that sanctimonious, knee-jerk opinion spouting isn't limited to proponents of unmedicated birth. It's just as common among "mainstream" women who'll snap, "You don't get a medal for natural childbirth." Nope, you don't. You don't actually get a medal for anything in adult life, although I wish respecting other people's choices and decisions warranted at least a shiny gold pin of some sort.
Birth is personal. Really personal. It's your body and your blood and your holy-shit-this-is-really-happening-oh-my-god-my-baby-MY-BABY. Having an experience that heavy means that everything about it is filtered through your own very personal lens. It's natural to hear a childbirth story and immediately think, "What if that was me? What if that was my baby?"
But. Your experience has zero bearing on any one else's experience. It does not affect another adult human's actuality in any way at all. Your traumatic cesarean doesn't mean that your friend can't have a lovely and easy surgical birth. The incredible relief of your epidural doesn't mean that your sister didn't feel woozy and imprisoned by hers. Your body is no one else's body. Your baby is no one else's baby.
Making fun of, or decrying, or trash talking, what another woman wants for when she becomes a mother is a shitty way to be a human being. The backlash against birth plans and birth preferences—the attitude that these things are for silly, high-maintenance women who are setting themselves up to fail—is just another way our society tells women that they do not deserve autonomy over their own bodies. We know what's best for you. Adjust your expectations. This is our culture's deep-seated, silencing sexism: the woman who is voiceless or else she's a shrew, the woman who is compliant or else she's a troublemaker. You don't get to have a healthy baby AND a birth where you feel your wishes are respected! That's too much to ask, selfish vagina-haver. You get a healthy baby and you keep your mouth shut. The same is true for judgements passed on women who have pain medication, inductions, cesarean births or other medical interventions. She wasn't strong enough. She's ignorant. She should have had a doula, she should have done hypnosis, she should have tried harder.
We can't know the myriad of reasons, thoughts, opinions, hopes, fears, research, medical conditions, medical situations, and endless other variables that go into each family's birth. And so, we do not get to have opinions about them. We do not get to judge them. We are complicated beings who carry our whole histories, our traumas and our joys, inside our own bodies. Maybe the woman planning a home birth has trauma from a previous procedure in a hospital. Maybe the woman planning a cesarean was raped and doesn't want people she doesn't know touching her vagina. Maybe your neighbor is going to the crappy hospital because that's the only one her insurance will pay for. Maybe the woman hoping for a vaginal birth after cesarean actually does know the exact statistical chance that her uterus will rupture and doesn't need to hear it from you.
The bizarre, bitter tendency to criticize individual women for their individual choices is part of a greater cultural misogyny, where we're taught to direct our rage at each other, rather than at the limiting messages and systems that control our lives as women. Instead of focusing our energy on the epic shittiness of the maternity care system in the United States, our 32.8% cesarean rate, the abominable maternal mortality rate, or the disturbing fact that black babies are twice as likely to die as white babies, we snark on each other's "naive" birth plans or hand-wring over elective inductions.
Why? Why do we this, why do we aim our pain and our fear and our judgment at each other, rather than at a culture that insists birth has to be everything or nothing, that it is a one-size-fits-all experience that means the same thing to every woman who goes through it?
Let's not forget that it's pretty much only privileged, educated, and more often than not, white women who even get the opportunity to choose which doctor they want or turn up their noses about an unnecessary cesarean—women of color or women who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder often aren't afforded any birthing "choices" at all. If you feel passionately about what's wrong with giving birth in the United States, get involved with Improving Birth or another worthy organization in working toward the comprehensive, systemic change we deserve in this country, and as human beings in general.
But on an individual level, an interpersonal level, let's stop judging each other.
Let's make space for women giving birth to have their experiences and feel their feelings, whatever they may be. Birth is unpredictable; our responses are not. What we, as intelligent people who have good intentions, can do is to be supportive and open-minded and most of all, compassionate. We can be compassionate, no matter our biases or our own experiences.
More often than not, that involves listening. Simply listening. No comments, no judgments, no suggestions. Just the act of hearing what a person has to say about what happened when their life changed forever, when a baby came out of their body and into the world. Because that moment, that experience, that person's life—has nothing to do with you.
Carrie Murphy is a poet, freelance writer, and certified birth doula.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.