The Media Has Brainwashed Women To Fear Birth—But We Deserve The Truth

It started in a high school health class. Our teacher announced we would be watching a video of a woman giving birth and every student in the room audibly groaned. I had no interest in watching the video, which I assumed was unpleasant, based on the attitude of our health teacher. So I put my head down and took a nap.

By Amy Williams4 min read
Pexels/Matilda Wormwood

We weren’t asked to watch a childbirth video because they wanted to teach us about the miracle of birth – it was clearly to dissuade us from getting pregnant. As any girl who went to public school during the ‘90s or early 2000s knows, the one thing that was drilled into our heads more than anything else was “Don’t get pregnant.” If you didn’t go to public school but you’ve seen Mean Girls, the scene where Coach Carr teaches “sex education” is about right.

But public school wasn’t the only place where we learned about the perceived horrors of birth. It’s been ingrained in our heads since we were little. Some of us were told stories by our parents or grandparents, and others were influenced by the way birth is portrayed in TV shows and movies. 

Regardless of where these fears originated, fear of birth is common for young women. The fear is so real it has even kept some women from having children at all. The idea that birth is miserable, unnatural, and unnecessary is one of the biggest lies women are told – and they deserve better.

The Stories We’re Told

I dreamed of being a mom from the time I was little, but I never thought much about the childbirth part until I was older. My grandmother was a part of the generation of women who were put into twilight sleep before their babies were yanked out of them. When I asked my own mother what birth was like, she only said, “Imagine the worst period cramps you’ve ever had.” As someone who had pretty severe cramps, this was nearly impossible to imagine.

My own experience with birth growing up is not unique. Many young women are told about the horrors of birth and grow up terrified to have children. An even larger group of women have no idea what birth is like without the routine medical interventions that have become commonplace, even in low-risk births. For the women who weren’t told personal birth stories, many were influenced by the media’s portrayal of childbirth.

As if the horror stories I was told weren’t enough, the birth scenes from some of my favorite shows solidified the idea that birth was clearly something miserable and only a means to an end. When Rachel and Phoebe gave birth on Friends. When Pam gave birth on The Office. And when I was pregnant with my first child, what happened to Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey nearly shook me to my core.

Anytime birth was portrayed on TV, it involved screaming, coached pushing, and women who inevitably hated their husbands after the experience. Even real-life birth stories shared on the news were mostly negative. It’s unsurprising since negative news gets more views, but the media portrayed birth as horrific and dangerous while simultaneously painting women who gave birth outside the hospital as unhinged and radical.

What’s interesting is that, when women started giving birth in hospitals in the 19th century, there was an increase in maternal mortality rates. It was later discovered, thanks to the work of an obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis, that these deaths were caused by doctors not washing their hands (since germ theory wasn’t discovered yet). Home births attended by trained midwives produced lower maternal mortality rates than births in hospitals attended by physicians.

How My Perspective on Birth Changed

In college, one of my professors showed us the documentary The Business of Being Born, and that’s really where my interest in birth began. I started watching videos of home births on YouTube and was shocked at how peaceful these births looked compared to what I saw on TV. I tearfully watched women catch their own babies at home and was amazed at how beautiful and miraculous birth seemed.

I was still filled with a decent amount of fear when I found out I was pregnant with our first child, but I knew I wanted to try and have a positive birth experience, so I learned more about birth to prepare myself. I took Bradley Method classes and prepared for an unmedicated birth in the hospital.

When I told family members I was planning an unmedicated birth, they claimed my experience would be exactly what I saw on TV. Comments like, “You’ll be begging for the epidural,” or “You’ll never want your husband to touch you again,” were casually thrown at me as if they were the only possible outcome.

There are many things I would change if I could go back and redo my first birth, and afterward, I decided I wouldn’t give birth in the hospital again. But overall, the experience was life-changing. When freed from the unnecessary interventions that often hinder the birth process, I was able to stay calm, manage the pain well, and give birth to a beautiful baby girl without medication. Now, I speak out about the beauty of birth in the hope that every woman can have such an experience.

Knowledge Dissipates Fear

Complications during birth are certainly real for some women. For those with serious health issues or high-risk pregnancies, interventions such as C-sections are often life-saving. I’m grateful every day that we live in a time when these women and their babies can survive birth because of advances in medical technology. However, what the media has taught women is that all birth is dangerous and that giving birth in the hospital, connected to monitors and an IV pole, is the only safe way to give birth. 

It is true that, for some women, giving birth in the hospital is the only safe option, but even in the hospital, women have more options than they realize. For example, you have the right to refuse medications like epidurals, procedures like cervical checks and inductions, and even birth positions. For low-risk women, intervening unnecessarily interrupts the birth process and can lead to a higher risk of trauma, C-sections, and other complications. Even interventions like restriction of movement and breaking your water that may seem insignificant can negatively affect the entire labor process.

Regardless of how or where women choose to give birth, they deserve better than repeatedly being told how terrifying and miserable birth is. Unfortunately, this fear of birth leads to a vicious cycle since fear and tension can negatively impact a woman’s birth experience.

If you realize you’ve internalized the fear of birth pushed on women by our culture, find out where your fear comes from. It may come from women in your family telling you stories about the horrors of birth. It may come from something you saw on the news or in a movie. Instead of letting the fear consume you, find out how much truth is in what you heard or saw. Take the time to learn about the birth process and talk to women who had positive birth experiences. If you’re currently pregnant, find a childbirth instructor who shares your values and learn from them. It’s true that some complications can’t be prevented or foreseen, but many can be prevented through proper education and informed decision-making in birth.

Birth is not easy, but it should be a transformative experience for women, a peaceful transition to the beauty and challenges of motherhood. The impacts of a traumatic birth can be lifelong for both moms and babies. Every woman deserves better than that.

Closing Thoughts

After giving birth twice, there are so many words I could use to describe the process: Challenging. Beautiful. Sacrificial. Women shouldn’t have to spend their entire lives thinking that birth is a horrific, terrifying event because it doesn’t have to be that way. Even amid complications or unexpected scenarios, our ability as women to bring new life into the world is a miracle. 

When the media’s portrayal of birth leaves you with nothing but fear, remember that a pregnancy is not a failure and birth is not a medical procedure. It’s part of the beauty of being a woman.

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