Pain relief is about choice and need. It shouldn’t be the basis of competition

Ellen and her son. Happy and healthy

Ellen and her son. Happy and healthy - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s 2.4 Children.

If you had to have a tooth out, would you say “no” to painkillers to prove yourself?

Doubtful. What if you were having a mole removed? Would biting down on a strip of leather make you more of a hero than a shot of local anaesthetic?

I don’t think so.

And if you had to have major surgery to take out your appendix? Would you choose to forgo the blissful ignorance of a general and watch your abdomen get sliced open while managing the pain like a martyr?


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Errr, no.

So why then, when a woman is in the grips of labour, does she feel reticent about asking for drugs? It’s what I like to call competitive birthing, which then leads on to the full-blown competitive mothering minefield.

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Neither of my children were born without the help of painkillers.

With my daughter I persevered (note my choice of word here) for 18 hours until my attempts to deliver her were met with the resounding “tut tut” of the doctors in charge and I was wheeled into theatre for a shot of epidural and a yank of the forceps.

And with my son, because of a host of medical complications, I was advised to have a planned caesarian section, which meant I was drugged up to the eyeballs throughout.

Now, the cult of natural childbirth might argue that the doctors were too hasty on both counts. Or perhaps they would say these were cases where medical intervention was required and feel oh so sorry for me for missing out.

But this is the problem with both those statements: they indicate that I would be somehow better off if I had managed to do the whole thing alone.

That I might be more worthy of motherhood. And that just makes me downright mad. Anyone who has had a child in the last two decades will know that these days you are actively encouraged to write a birth plan.

This is a document which details everything from which background music you want playing right through to who should be present, where you should deliver and, yes, what drugs you find acceptable.

Now, in my birthing classes we have been learning about the various drug options available to us.

But our teacher made subtle suggestions that pain relief was not to be embraced, regularly referring to what she deemed “a spiral of medical intervention”.

We were told that if we requested an epidural to numb the pain, we’d end up flat on our backs, strapped up to an array of monitors and machines.

Not only would this quash any hopes of a beautiful water-birth, the whole thing would take ages and we’d probably struggle to breastfeed too.

The overriding impression I was left with was that birth is something women can control, that doctors aren’t to be trusted, and that if I did end up requesting help I would have failed in some way. Now, I have a problem with this. Many problems, actually.

But one of them is that I can’t grasp why accepting pain relief when you are in agonising pain is so wrong. Surely this is just about delivering your baby safely, and with the least amount of stress possible?

Countless friends have told me they felt guilty or selfish if they asked for any help.

Many others were left scared by trumped-up suggestions from the pro-natural crew that drugs would detrimentally affect their unborn children.

Of course, every birth is different, and women hold passionately to their positions on what is right for them.

And don’t get me wrong – I am not for one minute criticising women who go for hynobirthing, home birth or meditation.

What I am doing is championing the idea of choice. And trying to address the fact that we are forever being bombarded with the idea there is a right and a wrong road to take.

This week we heard from Dr Michel Odent, an expert in childbirth – although I would argue you should probably go through it to claim full comprehension – who said mothers have become too reliant on the drugs used in labour and that they put women’s ability to give birth at risk.

This is the same guy who, in 2008, said he didn’t think fathers should be present at the birth of their child.

He reckons women should be “denied” drugs (as well as the moral support of their partner) for as long as possible, to encourage them to produce oxytocin, a hormone fundamental to birth and bonding.

And this is just one of a number of headline-grabbing statements in recent years that suggest mothers who do it drug-free are somehow better than those who are not.

According to reports, the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to George in 11 hours without so much as a puff of gas and air. Actress Miranda Kerr apparently popped out an eight-pounder and didn’t even moan.

Angelina Jolie was said to be devastated when her daughter was breech and she had to have a C-section.

You see?

The idea that women have free choice about how to give birth is an illusion when one course of action becomes validated as morally correct. I know that for many women giving birth without pain relief is exhilarating and profound.

For others it’s a badge of honour to have gone through something that hurts like a (insert your preferred expletive here).

Others opt out of pain relief to help with immediate breastfeeding or because they know that properly feeling that pushing sensation speeds up the whole process.

But just because other women opt for a little help when the going gets rough does not mean they are any less of a mother.

If you ask me, they have just as much right to feel overwhelming pride and relief when handed their tiny bundle as the next mum.

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