It’s hard to find new ways to critique childbirth, but it seems that, courtesy of our treatment of Jamie Oliver and co, we’ve done it. Slow hand-clap, says Taylor Glenn.
Jamie and Jools have just welcomed child number five into the Oliver clan. And five minutes after the cord was cut, a slew of headlines appeared. “Jamie Oliver’s decision to allow daughter’s watch their brother’s delivery is branded bizarre,” declared the always reliable (and questionable apostrophe-using) Daily Mail. Kathryn Blundell expressed her sense that the ‘brutality’ of birth isn’t something a child should witness and that she could never picture doing it herself.
Putting aside the word ‘brutality’ for a moment, herein lies the problem with most criticism which gets lobbed at women when it comes to birth choices: what you can picture for yourself is, well, just that.
Gordon Ramsay has famously spoken of his refusal to be present at the birth of his four children, saying he feared it would ruin their sex life. Pretty squeamish for a man who can happily rip the innards out of a chicken in a matter of moments, I’d say, but if it worked for him and his other half, so be it. (Incidentally, why are the male chefs of the UK leading our discussions about childbirth lately? Imagine what Heston Blumenthal must have done at his kids’ – it possibly involved treacle and explosives.)
The topic of birth partners, birth process and birth spaces has always intrigued me, from the ancient notion of the midwife and a ‘woman’s space’ towards male-centred, hospital-based medical birth, to the modern trends which can still travel to either extreme or reflect a mix of both. And female doctors now, and male midwives, whaaaa? What is this, Ghostbusters?
I remember learning that the midwife went from an ancient figure to be revered, a sort of spiritual guide and community leader, to a distrusted and demonised one during the witch hunting days in Europe. “Wait, these women who catch babies have power! Better see if they drown.”
In the US, during colonialisation, midwives were often ‘foreign’ (yes, bad foreign, not good foreign) and uneducated, relying on knowledge passed down the line rather than formal university knowledge, so were branded ‘dangerous’ and ‘unclean’. And for certain, some of the practices of yore weren’t all that great for mother or baby (water + flour = early formula for infants. Yum yum glue!) but neither were some of the barbaric ‘medical’ practices of 1940s and 50s America – for example, twilight birth, which was basically akin to giving a woman Rohypnol so that she would ‘forget the trauma of labour’ while being tied down to a bed.
The presence of a father during a birth is a relatively modern practice in itself – although Albert was rumoured to have been in the room when Victoria did her thing, it wasn’t the norm at the time (holding back on a V&A birth joke, what reserve!) and throughout the 1950s, with childbirth starting to become more established as a hospital-based, medical procedure led by male doctors, fathers were often absent. Or more specifically, many awaited the phone call from down the pub.
“I’ve been present at two live births and to me, it’s both the most primitive yet spiritual experience I’ve ever had, and entirely different being at the business end versus my own birth experience.”
Into the 1960s and 1970s there was increasing ‘pressure’ on fathers to be present throughout the birth process – although using the word ‘pressure’ seems a bit rich given that labour pains are often farcically labelled as such. Lamaze-type classes grew in popularity and soon, having a father opt out of a birth was more unusual than him being present. At the same time, a throwback sisterhood culture of midwifery and doulas and more natural labour, the idea of the birth plan and a woman having choices and control, was advocated for.
But what about the role of children? From what I can find in my slapdash bit of research and recall from sociology classes, children simply weren’t ‘protected’ the way they are in the modern age. Specifically, in the most recent generation. There seems to be a real trend towards fear of traumatising children, which sounds good on paper, sure – but then it depends what we start to regard as trauma.
If you write up a news story that describes birth as a brutal event, with screaming and blood and tearing then bah, save the children! But if you remember that part of growing up is learning about the realities of the human body, its functions and capabilities, the fact we are mammals who go through a process to get here – well then it sounds a bit like an education, doesn’t it?
I’ve been present at two live births (Live! From the Birth Room!) and to me, it’s both the most primitive yet spiritual experience I’ve ever had, and entirely different being at the business end versus my own birth experience. I am certain that even if I had been say, 11, like one of the Oliver daughters present, I would have loved the experience. Call that bizarre if you want to – but I was interested in biology and the human body and babies.
To me there’s also an inherent irony in a society which fears exposing its offspring to the very process that brought them into being, but allows them to binge-watch The Walking Dead. Sure, it’s not going to be every kid’s ‘scene’ to be welcomed into the birth room, nor will it be desirable for every parent.
I would personally not want my child in the room while I gave birth, but I see no reason to criticise a woman for deciding to have whoever the hell she wants in there when it all goes down, if all parties are game. Families often do know what’s best for themselves, despite what the media surrounding modern parenting would have you believe.
So to the Olivers, I say: congratulations and well done making a choice which worked for you and which I bet was unforgettable and amazing for your daughters. Now get back to the kitchen where you belong, Jamie.
Taylor Glenn: A Billion Days of Parenthood is at Just the Tonic at the Caves from 4-28 (not 15) August at 9:20 PM. Book ahead or pay what you want at the venue.18904 Views
Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.