I started reading this book with a sinking heart. Ah, Sheila Kitzinger, I thought, the woman that says giving birth should be an orgasmic experience. What nonsense, especially for those of us who didn’t have the greatest experience. But I know she has loads of fans, and I was curious, so I ploughed on.
By the end of it I was in tears (in a good way). What a woman. I don’t agree with everything she says, but it’s still a brilliant read and she’s done amazing work for just about anyone giving birth in the UK (and a few other countries too) – from confident birth goddesses to the rest of us.
Sheila won me over fairly early by saying that no woman should ever be made to feel bad about their birth experience and by discussing the massive variety of experiences that women have
She says that, just like sex, giving birth can be a rubbish experience, or even a traumatising one, or it can be brilliant. Most of all, if you want a positive experience then it’s probably best done in a private and comfortable space with those you trust.
I loved her stories: the 5,000 London women who successfully demonstrated in the 1980s against being told to give birth on their backs (“like being told you have to have sex in the missionary position”); the birth room with a rope attached to the ceiling so women can hold onto it whle in labour; the one about belly dancing moves helping women in labour. Then there’s the couple (who’d not had children) who thought that a centrifugal machine could be used to harness the power of G-force in giving birth.
I don’t agree with all Sheila’s conclusions. She says that for many women going into hospital is like entering a “hostile environment”. My main feeling was relief, at least to start with “Great, that’s my bit done, now the medics can take over”. Ha, if only. I’ll spare you the details but it wasn’t like having a tooth out, I had to get involved. As Gisele said it’s called “labour” not “holiday” for a reason - though I must admit the epidural did give me a nice rest in the middle of things. It was when the epidural was taken away because I "needed to wake up" that things got a bit tougher - manageable, but tougher.
Sheila Kitzinger says it is wise not to have a fixed idea of how things will turn out. She helped to introduce birth plans, but now has reservations about the “shopping list” approach. Instead she suggests that we adopt a more instinctive approach, trust ourselves to get through it. A bit of preparation does no harm but the reality for most of us is that we won’t know how we’ll want to give birth, or who we’ll want to have with us, until we’re there. And of course some of us will end up having planned, or unplanned, caesarians - which is fine, this isn't some macho competition, it's about trying to to make sure that everything goes as well as possible for women and their babies.
Sheila's most shocking statement is not about orgasmic labour. It is when she states that episiotomy is the “western equivalent of female genital mutilation”. Some episiotomies might be unnecessary, but I can tell you I was very glad to be cut after 2 hours in the second stage of labour, and the stitches healed up fine (2-3 showers a day and a hairdryer on a cool setting..OK, I lied about sparing you the details). They also probably helped save me from the horrors of mesh - and, joy of joys, mean I get to use a Mooncup rather than faffing about with tampons and pads. Stitches also provide some excellent comedy opportunities (Romola Garai at the BAFTAs). The same can’t be said for FGM.
Still, Sex and Birth is a funny, angry and compelling read that also includes some top tips for giving birth and reassurance for anyone who has given birth - we're encouraged to put it all behind us but really it's not always that easy. Stories are important.