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8 Birthing Myths We Need to Forget

Mother lying in hospital bed with newborn baby girl (0-3 months)
Photograph by Getty Images

I like a good myth: a powerful story that, though not literally true, can convey some deeper truth about wisdom, courage and human life. But not all myths are created equally. Sometimes their messages can be misleading or downright false. And when a myth strays from the truth—when it communicates a falsehood—we need to erase it from our collective consciousness.

As such, I think it's time to eliminate the following misleading myths about childbirth and replace them with more empowering—and more truthful—messages.

Myth 1: Cesareans are the easy way out.

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Sure, you can schedule a cesarean. And sometimes you don't need to experience labor before having a cesarean. But make no mistake: c-sections are not an "easy way out" of anything.

There is nothing easy about undergoing major abdominal surgery. In fact, there is something especially challenging about undergoing major abdominal surgery and then caring for a newborn (or newborns) during recovery. So while cesareans might have some advantages for some people—and they have quite serious advantages when they are medically indicated—they are by no means "easy." More importantly, they don't make a woman any lesser than a person who has given birth vaginally, but that's exactly what the phrase "easy way out" suggests.

Myth 2: People who don't use pain medication during labor are just being martyrs.

How many times have we heard, "You don't get a medal for giving birth without an epidural"?

Blech. Ugh. Ick. Stop it. This statement completely misses the many reasons—besides earning a mythical medal—that a person would want to forego an epidural or other type of pain medication during labor. They might have had a prior bad experience with an epidural. They might have a medical condition that precludes them from getting an epidural or using narcotic pain medication. They might want to be active, upright and mobile during labor. They might panic at the mere thought of numbness or semi-paralysis. They might want to try to avoid any of the relatively small risks associated with pain medication during childbirth.

Blech. Ugh. Ick. Stop it. This statement completely misses the many reasons—besides earning a mythical medal—that a person would want to forgo an epidural or other type of pain medication during labor.

Sure, they might be striving for a sense of accomplishment. They are entitled to feel as much of that pride as they want, too. But that pride and that sense of accomplishment are their own. Their feelings make them no better or worse than any other person who gave birth in any other way.

Because, truly, any person who gives birth deserves a medal, no matter how they do it.

Myth 3: Women used to just squat in a field, give birth and then continue with their work day. Birth was a lot better when women felt this empowered to give birth.

It makes sense to be amazed by the women of centuries past who did, indeed, squat in a field, give birth and then continue working throughout the day. But if we idealize their situation, we risk obscuring the fact that many of these women gave birth under extremely harsh and dangerous conditions. They might have been slaves or indentured servants. They may have had no choice but to give birth under a blazing hot sun, surrounded by cotton or tobacco or wheat and dozens of other workers. They might have preferred to give birth somewhere other than the field where they worked.

They were amazing. Astonishing, even. But they are far from a romantic ideal for childbirth.

Myth 4: All doctors are cesarean-happy jerks who only care about avoiding a lawsuit.

Some doctors have super-high cesarean rates. Many doctors report that a fear of litigation influences their medical decisions. And some doctors are indeed jerks.

Nonetheless, it doesn't make sense to universalize any of these individual characteristics and apply them to all doctors. Some doctors have relatively low cesarean rates. Some doctors balance their medical expertise and advice with the needs, values and preferences of their patients. Some doctors—many doctors, even—are compassionate care providers who respect pregnant and birthing people's autonomy.

More importantly, some doctors are a great fit for some childbearing women. And when it comes to childbirth, this "great fit" (plus good skills) is far more important than a care provider's specific title or degree.

Myth 5: All midwives are a perfect fit for every birthing person.

It's true that evidence tends to support the idea that midwifery-led care is an excellent model of care for the vast majority of healthy pregnant people.

But this evidence doesn't mean that every midwife is the right care provider for every woman. It doesn't mean that all home-birth midwives are created equally. It doesn't mean that all certified nurse midwives are created equally. It doesn't guarantee that a woman choosing to give birth with a midwife will have a vaginal birth, an intervention-free birth or even a safe birth. It doesn't even guarantee that every person who is a midwife practices in a way that is typically described as the "midwifery model of care."

Like each individual woman and each individual labor, each individual midwife is radically unique. To suggest that all midwives are any one uniform things runs the risk that women will choose a care provider who, because of their skill levels or practice styles or any other characteristics, might not be a great fit for them after all.

Myth 6: Labor is always a terrible, exceedingly painful process that leaves birthing people feeling traumatized.

Big shocker: Labor often hurts. Rare is the person who experiences absolutely no pain while giving birth. But the near-guarantee of this pain doesn't mean that the pain itself is inherently traumatic. Nor does it mean that any person should be forced to suffer through the pain of childbirth.

In fact, with a good support team (which can include a spouse or partner, other loved ones, a care provider, nursing staff, a doula, etc.) and a good set of available tools (which can include a birth tub, a birth ball, massage, verbal encouragement, breathing exercises, movement or an epidural) a birthing person can manage their pain instead of suffering through it. And when a person can cope with their pain, the pain itself becomes less traumatic. Sometimes, the birth experience itself can even be empowering.

Myth 7: Every person who gives birth is able to have an empowering and "orgasmic" experience.

For some people, birth truly is a blissful, empowering or orgasmic—yes, sometimes literally orgasmic—experience. But the specific circumstances of each person's birth might make these sorts of experiences possible.

Sometimes emergencies happen. Sometimes they happen rather unexpectedly. Sometimes joy mixes with anguish during childbirth. Sometimes the intensity of birth far exceeds a person's expectations. Sometimes birth doesn't match up with a person's ideal image of it. Sometimes birth is quite traumatic.

Sometimes birth does not result in a healthy mom and baby.

Accordingly, bliss shouldn't be the ideal for which we are striving. Few people can actually reach any sort of bliss during childbirth—even the people who don't experience any trauma at all. So instead of bliss, perhaps we should consider a different set of ideal conditions for childbirth.

But this research—and other people's opinions—don't give a complete picture of "the right way to give birth."

Perhaps we should ask:

Did the birthing person's care providers and support people treat her with respect? Was she able to have a say in her treatment and care? Was she able to make choices that aligned with her values and preferences? Was she healthy? Was her baby (or babies) healthy? If not, were they able to access compassionate care and counseling?

A blissful and orgasmic birth? Let's aim for a safe, healthy, supported, respectful and autonomous birth instead.

Myth 8: There is one right way to give birth.

At home or in the hospital? With a midwife or a doctor? Certified professional midwife or certified nurse midwife? Vaginal birth or cesarean section? VBAC or repeat cesarean? Epidural or no drugs? Water birth or not? Doula or no doula? Birth in the bed or birth out of the bed? Induction or spontaneous labor?

Research demonstrates that some of these options are relatively safer or healthier than others. And some people are quick to point out that their preferred method of giving birth is vastly superior to any other method.

But this research—and other people's opinions—don't give a complete picture of "the right way to give birth." And that's because for every single birthing person, their specific values, preferences, circumstances, health histories, care provider accessibility, birth location standards, fears, personal histories, past traumas, social situations and goals will inform and situate every one of their birth decisions.

So there isn't one right way to give birth.

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But there is one right way to treat a birthing person and their birth decisions—with respect.

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