The history of childbirth

The history of childbirth

What I often find when it comes to discussing natural childbirth, I am met with varying opinions. One person might find it beautiful, the other one terrifying and the next one believes it to be unnecessary with modern-day techniques. This got me thinking, because what does it mean: 'natural childbirth'? How does our current society view birth and has it always been like that? Is pain a factor during natural childbirth? And how does our culture influence our thoughts and experiences concerning childbirth? In order to better understand and perhaps even answer these questions, we have to go back in time.

Nature goddesses in ancient history

In ancient history, a birth was considered a holy ritual. The lives of people focussed entirely on nature at that time. They honoured Mother Nature and Mother Earth. Women had the power to create new life and they believed that this was in direct relation to nature. When a woman went into labour, everybody would gather around to support her as to celebrate life and to ask the gods to bless the child with health and strength. The men accompanied the father-to-be who would proudly show his child to the community. What is striking is that their depictions of gods usually display large breasts and big bellies like pregnant women. These goddesses symbolised respect and represented an equal role for women who, thanks to her talent for creating new life, were just as important as the men, who provided protection and food.

Research showed that the great philosophers Hippocrates and Aristotle already wrote about births in which pain was never linked to the subject of childbirth, except when there were complications and even then, women were given herbal mixtures to help them relax, so the complications could be taken care of by female healers.

“Nature is the best doctor and it should be able to function without any ‘disruptive interception’”

Middle Ages - Christianity is rising

With the rising of Christianity, this philosophy was very controversial. Having faith in one, male God did not leave any room for nature goddesses. Temples and imagery were destroyed and the equal role for women was lost due to the 'curse of Eve in paradise'. Around the year 200 BC, Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman” and the Bible says: “To the woman he said, 'I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you'.” [Genesis 3:16]

The freedom and respect for women suddenly was a thing of the past. Medicine was monopolised by monks and priests, who claimed that they had received 'healing powers' from God. The female healers were no longer allowed to do their work and were forced to help people under the cover of night. That is how the so-called witch hunting started. In addition, a new law was written that women were to be considered 'unpure' and had to be separated and isolated during pregnancy and labour. Doctors also required permission from the clergy before taking care of those who were sick, but deserved medical attention. Pregnant women did not qualify as 'deserving' and were thus unable to get any help and were only allowed to accept help from cattlemen. This resulted in women often paying for the original sin with their lives or the life of their child.

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children...”

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children...”

Early modern time - salvation is at hand

With the rise of medical science in the 17th century, medicine took some great leaps forward, but the position of women and labour, unfortunately, did not. The writings of the old philosophers Hippocrates and Aristotle were rediscovered and some doctors took on existing laws by guiding pregnant women through their labours. Only mid 18th century were doctors officially allowed to assist women during labour. Some women who delivered at home, died due to complications, but women would more often die in hospitals or maternity clinics due to puerperal (childbed) fever as result of the doctor's lack of expertise about proper hygiene. In that time, the fear of dying was still strongly associated with having a baby.

For many years, this situation was status quo until the beginning of the 20th century, when hygiene measures were introduced in medicine and better ways of anaesthetics were discovered. In addition, the doctors developed various interventions for treating complications during birth, such as a caesarean. This gave women and children a better chance of surviving childbirth.

“Fear of dying is a thing of the past, but fear of pain is not”

Modern time - a woman's choice

Nowadays, medical science has progressed in such a way that women do not experience the same level of fear regarding death during pregnancy and labour. However, the (unconscious) fear of facing childbirth is now greater than ever. But instead of having a fear of dying, we now encounter the fear of pain.

Considering our history, it is completely understandable that fear has arisen around the process of childbirth. These fears can be consciously present in our culture, or were otherwise unconsciously implemented, which resulted in a 'standard' regarding childbirth that is accepted by society and thus is be labelled as 'normal'. And yet, there was a time once in which women did not fear childbirth or experienced pain during childbirth. Were they very special women? Did their bodies work differently than those of modern-day women? Did they have any special gifts?

Perhaps they did, perhaps they did not. What is clear though is that women from ancient history felt completely supported by the women around them and respected the physical and emotional processes that occurred in their bodies. Perhaps even without any fear.

Nowadays we have a better understanding of the influence our thoughts can have on what we physically feel and experience. And fear is often a very dominant and also paralysing emotion that activates the body's fight-or-flight response. A response that can have the opposite effect during the natural process of childbirth. The natural process of childbirth is a collaboration between the woman's body, uterus, hormones and baby. Nature has chosen hormones that are linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, in other words 'the relax mode', which is activated when a woman feels safe and supported. I would be happy to teach all about this system, how it works and what you can do to activate it!

“A woman's body is perfectly designed to give birth”

“A woman's body is perfectly designed to give birth”

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