Why I don’t mind that my doctor “delivered” my baby

Folks who are NCB-inclined often object to the semantics of saying that a doctor or midwife “delivers” a birthing woman’s baby, insisting that it is the birthing woman who delivers her own baby. For example, Business of Being Born producer Ricki Lake said in an interview with Parenting magazine (c. 2010-2011):

My first birth was a success with a midwife in a hospital—I felt empowered, I did have my baby skin to skin right away, was able to breastfeed—all of those things that are so important. But there was this moment when my mother was able to see me right after the birth, and I said to her, “Mom, Mom, this is my midwife who delivered my baby!” And my midwife stopped me and said, “No, Ricki, you delivered your baby.” And at that point, I took ownership of what I was able to do.

This is one area where the NCB movement and I part ways. I don’t at all mind my doctor saying that he “delivered” my baby. I tried on the language of “I deliver my own baby” while I was pregnant with Constantine, but it just felt too awkward and wrong to me, and here’s why.

Birth is inherently risky. I know, I know–that’s another topic on which most NCBers and I would disagree, a topic that deserves its own post–but as a historian, I just cannot deny that absent modern-day obstetric interventions, birth would be a lot more perilous than it currently is. Sure, a majority of births would end with a healthy mother and a healthy baby if left alone. Sure, excessive and unnecessary use of obstetric interventions has often caused the very traumas these interventions were meant to prevent. But it does not take any obstetrical skill to manage uncomplicated births. When a birth is truly going well and uncomplicated, then anyone can “catch” the baby, no special training required. The whole point of hiring a doctor or midwife is to have someone on hand who can intervene in the less likely (but still very common) event that either mother or baby is taking a turn for the worst.

We often use the word “deliver” in childbirth to mean “the person who caught the baby.” A father who is allowed to slap on scrubs and gloves and catch his son or daughter will typically say that he “delivered” the child. The word “deliver” comes from the Latin liberare (to set free, cognate with liberate) and the preposition de (away). I do not know for sure, but I suspect that the word “deliver” may have come to be associated with childbirth because, once the baby is free, a parturient woman has been liberated from most of the pain of labor and birth. The person who catches and helps her remove the baby away from her body liberates her in that sense.

But there is a very real sense in which the person who “delivers” the baby is more than just the person who plays catch. Another meaning of the word deliver is rescue. And I think it is in this sense that most doctors and midwives “deliver” babies. They safeguard the labor and delivery with the intention of insuring the most optimal outcomes for the mother-baby dyad. They are the ones who will do most of the course correction if things are not going well.

Did I “deliver” (i. e. catch) my own baby? Certainly not. My medical records say that my doctor’s attending physician delivered Constantine’s head with the aid of the vacuum, and my doctor delivered the shoulders and body. Did I “deliver” my baby in the sense of safeguarding my labor and delivery? For the most part, no. I evaluated my doctor’s suggestions and usually consented to what he wanted to do, and I tried to watch for any problem signs (such as the signs of pre-eclampsia or reduced fetal movement). But most of the work of safeguarding the labor and delivery was performed by my doctor and his attending. I would not have known that interventions were needed without their tests, monitoring, and input. So I do not feel comfortable saying that I delivered the baby, and admitting that does not make me feel left out or overlooked. Delivering was not my role in the birth; laboring and birthing was. For this reason, I find myself unable to speak of “delivering” my own son without feeling sheepish.

As an aside, I do prefer to say “I birthed my son in September” rather than “I gave birth to my son in September.” The active “birthed” does a much better job of connoting my feelings about the experience than the transitive “gave birth to.”

Categories: Hot Doctor, Natural / Medical Birth Debate | Leave a comment

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