by MIA FREEDMAN
“Did you have a plan for your placenta?” the woman asked me earnestly. She was pregnant. I was confused.
We’d only just met at a BBQ and as she repeated her question, I cocked my head quizically like a Labradoodle trying to understand a complex sentence. I’d never heard the words ‘plan’ and ‘placenta’ together and I was having trouble reconciling them.
“Huh? You mean did I, like, cook it or bury it in the garden?” She shook her head. “No, I mean when you gave birth did you have a plan for how your placenta would be delivered?”
Blink. “Um, out of my vagina? Does that count as a plan?”
More head shaking. The woman was growing impatient because she had a plan and she wanted to tell me about it. Her three page birth plan had “Delivering The Placenta” as its own subhead with half a dozen bullet points underneath.
I know this because she showed it to me on her phone while I tried not to stab myself with a sausage.
My personal view of birth plans is that they’re most useful when you set them on fire and use them to toast marshmallows. But there are some women who live for them: I call them Birthzillas because just like a Bridezilla focusses on the wedding not the marriage, The Birthzilla appears more interested in having a birth experience than a baby.
This term won’t win me any friends among those who believe passionately in a particular type of birth. Homebirth, freebirth, waterbirth, hypnotic birth, active birth, calm birth, silent birth……there’s a first-world menu of options for anyone who wishes to select from it, both inside and outside the hospital system.
Birthzillas usually speak about ‘empowerment’ and ‘control’ and use a lot of personal pronouns. Their own experience is invariably at the centre of their narrative even though they will always claim (and probably believe) that they’re acting selflessly for the good of their baby. This baffles me. It’s a bit like going to Paris and obsessing about the in-flight entertainment instead of, you know, PARIS.
Some women define themselves by the type of birth they had, even though their children are now in primary school. I antagonised this subculture a few years ago when I spoke out about freebirth (the practice of giving birth at home without any medical support not even a midwife) and called it reckless.
Many “birth advocates” came after me with pitchforks and autosignatures like:
“Anne-Marie, mother of Wyllow (happily freebirthed in 2002) and Jaydyn (proudly waterbirthed at home in 2004).”
It’s birth as identity and it’s odd.
The Birthzilla is such a first world creation. For millions of women, their birth plan is simply: “please let my baby and I survive”. However, among privileged women with access to safe and affordable care, I’ve noticed a growing fixation on the birth process.
For many, it’s about control. One of the most confronting things about pregnancy and birth is the unpredictability of it and women often believe they can regain control by planning. Babies, however, like to raise their middle finger at your plans. They come early, they come late, they get stuck, they get suddenly distressed or tired or tangled. I know you’ve made three playlists for the different stages of your labour but your baby doesn’t care.
In her memoir, Bossypants, the brilliant Tina Fey describes the birth of her first child like this: “Vaginal delivery, epidural, didn’t poop on the table”. Those three pertinent facts sum it up, pre-emptively answering the most common questions other women ask.
Men? They couldn’t care less. Never in your life will you hear a man urge a woman, “Please! Tell me more about the way you gave birth!”. Not even if she’s his wife.
While most women need little encouragement to launch into a detailed account of her birth from conception to the first time she has sex afterwards, men generally try to leave the room when the subject comes up. It’s just not that interesting to them. I don’t mean the part where they saw their baby for the first time. That’s mind-blowing. But the bits before that? Utterly insignificant compared to the lifetime of parenting that comes afterwards.
I recently heard a woman on the radio waxing lyrical about how her two homebirths “were the most incredible experiences of my life and I don’t know anyone who had a hospital birth and could say the same thing”. Me. I could. Three hospital births. Loved them all. And this is where I start to get tetchy.
Let me state for the record: I’m a fan of doctors. Love them. Especially obstetricians. If I could give birth in a stadium full of people in white coats with letters after their names I would do a happy jig. What? You’re a doctor of French literature? Mathematics? Oh well, come on down! The more qualifications nearby, the better.
But in the maddening world of competitive mothering, some women see their birth experience as a platform for smugness and superiority. A badge of maternal honour. The game of My Birth Was Better Than Yours is an ugly, destructive one. And hugely risky if it puts anything above the physical welfare of a baby.
So yes, I could bang on and on about my birth experiences. But I’d prefer to tell you about my kids.
UPDATE 6pm Sunday 17 June: Having read most of the comments and watch the debate unfold over the day, I just wanted to clarify four things.
1. Being a feminist does not – to me – mean agreeing with every decision made and every opinion held by everyone who happens to have a vagina. I will always be authentic and honest about my own opinions and this column is an example of that. Some seem to believe it’s my ‘duty’ to support all women regardless of their choices or behaviour. I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. I am one person with one opinion. I don’t claim to speak on behalf of anyone else. There are hundreds of contributors to Mamamia and thousands of comments that reflect a hugely diverse range of opinions which is as it should be.
2. I am not suggesting making a birth plan is reckless or even stupid. I’m not suggesting it’s a good idea to walk into your birth knowing nothing. Many commenters below have spoken about ‘birth preferences’ which I think is sensible. But becoming too fixated on the way you give birth is, in my opinion, a misplaced priority and ultimately often futile. And I’ve seen sooooo many women shocked, bewildered, disappointed and even ashamed that their birth did not go according to their plan. Being aware that it could all go to hell is an important part of preparing for the very unpredictable experience of giving birth.
3. There is a broad spectrum of Birthzilla behaviour. Some of it – making detailed plans for your placenta or compiling endless playlists for your ipod – is harmless enough. Trivial even. You want a water birth in a birth centre? Why not. More insidious are the Birthzillas who derive status and superiority from the way they give birth. They can be almost passive aggressive about it. And who says giving birth at home or without drugs is somehow ‘better’ or ‘more meaningful’ than giving birth via c-section or with an epidural or with forceps?
4. At the extreme end of the Birthzilla spectrum are those women who put their birth experience above the health and wellbeing of their baby. And yes it happens. In fact the South Australian coronor recently found that three babies who died during homebirths would have certainly survived had they been born in hospitals. You can read more about that here. In each case, their mothers knew the pregnancies were high risk and chose to give birth at home without medical support anyway. Their babies died. And for what? That is where Birthzilla behaviour can actually be a matter of life and death.