Why do so many women feel guilty for getting epidurals?

In her weekly column, Jo Fox rounds up the news and views that might have flown under your radar.

This week, she asks: is there a place for philosophy in the birthing suite? Why do so many women feel guilty for getting epidurals? And will the new breastfeeding emoji unite us all?

When in labour, choose Sartre — not an epidural.

As if it’s not enough pressure for women to get through childbirth relatively intact — mentally and physically — we apparently all have to be fluent philosophers now as well.

As part of a new course being launched by the Royal College of Midwives in the UK, “the consolations of philosophy will soon join the consolations of the epidural as part of the labour room toolkit,” The Times reported this week.

University of Sussex philosopher, Tanja Staehler, was prompted to design the course after her own birth experience, which apparently helped her understand how labour was a psychological as well as medical procedure.

“It’s trying to alert midwives to the significance of communication and to what this situation means to the parents. Midwives are in this situation every day — for parents it is completely extraordinary,” Dr Staehler said, adding: “There is a real significance to being taken seriously as a person, to what Sartre calls the subject’s ‘being’.”


To give birth is to suffer, apparently.

The paper also reported that fewer women were using pain relief such as epidurals or other anesthetics during labour (down from 69 per cent in 2006 to 59 per cent in 2016) due to a government health service drive for women to give birth in midwifery-led care.

It clearly demonstrates Nietzsche’s point, ‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering’.


“The changes to pain relief may reflect the increase in women having access to midwifery services for labour and these include access to water for pain relief,” said Louise Silverton of the Royal College of Midwives.

(One assumes this is for giving birth in, not refreshment.)

However, Felicity Plaat, president-elect of the Obstetric Anaesthetists Association, said women were being made to feel guilty about choosing pain relief such as an epidural because of an overemphasis on natural childbirth.

She plans to relieve this guilt by explaining to medical professionals at the Royal Medical Society’s meeting next month the rather obvious fact that pain during labour increases the amount of work the body has to do, on top of the effort of labour itself, potentially increasing the level of stress hormones.

“We decided it was about time the public were told about pain and pain relief in labour by a group without a ‘natural’ agenda,” Ms Plaat said.

“Too often have I been asked to discuss or provide epidural analgesia to women not just suffering from extreme pain of labour but a feeling that they have failed because they ask for or need epidural analgesia — a feeling sometimes amounting to shame.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 77 per cent of Australian women receive pain relief during labour.

However, there is a proliferation of reports and literature advising pregnant women on acupressure, visualization, relaxation, breathing, massage and yoga techniques; indeed, a recent study found it decreased the epidural rate by 65 per cent and the caesarean rate by 44 per cent.

This is all great news.


Or, we could just encourage women to embrace Schopenhauer’s philosophy — “satisfaction consists in freedom from pain, which is the positive element of life” — take some pain relief, and not feel guilty about it, if that is their choice.

Supermarket formula-shames new mum.

Of course, it’s not just the labour itself that can leave women in a forceps-grip of guilt, but also the pressure to breastfeed.

A media storm erupted this week after Essex woman Laura Leeks was refused her complementary parking voucher from Tesco because she had purchased baby formula.

Taking to the supermarket’s Facebook page, Ms Leeks wrote:

“On further questioning I was advised that Tesco ‘supports breastfeeding’ and cannot ‘endorse’ formula feeding by rewarding customers. They also ‘do not endorse smoking’ [and] therefore do not issue parking vouchers if you buy tobacco.”

In her widely-shared missive, Ms Leeks argued Tesco’s policies encouraged staff to shame women “who for whatever reason are using formula”.

(For background, her son had open-heart surgery at the age of four weeks and could not tolerate the fatty elements of breastmilk — not that it should concern Tesco or anyone else.)

Tesco said that while it sympathised with Mrs Leeks, under the Food Safety Act, “we cannot promote baby formula in any way, including offering a parking voucher”.

Boo, Tesco.

Breastfeeding: you do you.

A recent study by Cambridge University of over 10,000 mothers found women who wanted to breastfeed but were unable to were twice as likely to suffer post-natal depression than mothers who used formula as planned.

Of course, breastfeeding is an excellent thing.


But the reasons women give for doing so veer from the obvious and unimpeachable (such as cost and nutrition) to the realm of debatable statistics (such as that formula increases baby girls’ risk of breast cancer and breastfeeding increases children’s IQ).

Or the completely self-involved marketing push: lose weight quicker.

When it comes to breastfeeding it appears Nietzsche is correct in saying there are no facts, only interpretations. Which is great — until something goes wrong, as it so often does with breastfeeding.

Surely, when it comes to childbirth and breastfeeding, the focus should be on giving women access to information and advice so they can assess what is right for them, and encouraging them to not feel guilty about their choices.

All hail the breastfeeding baby emoji.

Thankfully, the unlikely and mysterious figures at the Unicode Consortium have come to unite us all.

A breastfeeding baby emoji was rubber-stamped as part of the new Unicode 10 software to be released in 2017.

According to Unicode, the baby was among the most-requested characters of 2016 … alongside other emoji such as a nude man or woman in a sauna, merpeople, and a woman wearing a hijab.

Jo Fox is a former ALP political advisor, including on the status of women. She is currently on maternity leave, learning how to fumble a newborn and looking at the gendered world with tired eyes.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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