What are reports of Kate Middleton’s “perfect, natural” birth really telling us?

Word order can make a huge amount of difference to meaning. I suspect anyone who writes headlines knows this. Having never written headlines myself, I don’t know the precise rules on making a story a bit less true but a lot more interesting. I know, however, that it doesn’t take much to achieve this. Even the subtlest of differences can make a huge impact.

Right now several news outlets are running reports on Kate Middleton’s experience of giving birth. “Kate Middleton told friends: I had a ‘perfect, natural’ labour” reveals the Hollywood Times. “Kate Middleton calls birth ‘natural and perfect’” says the Christian Post. ”Kate Middleton tells friends of her ‘perfect, natural birth’” announces Yahoo. According to the International Business Times not only did Middleton have a “perfect, natural” labour, she even had a “perfect, natural” pregnancy, too (although anyone who knows the slightest thing about hyperemesis gravidarum might dispute the latter).

So, are we all spotting a pattern here? Perfect, natural, natural, perfect. It’s almost — almost — as though these two things go together. The perfect birth is natural (which I’m presuming means vaginal), and the natural birth is perfect. I mean, I know Kate Middleton didn’t actually say that, but then neither does she appear to have said she had the “perfect, natural birth”.

Here’s what Yahoo goes on to report:

“She spoke to some of her best girlfriends after the birth and described the birth as perfect,” a source told Vanity Fair.

“She said it was straightforward and there were no complications. She wanted a natural birth and she was so happy she was able to have one.”

Now call me a total pedant, but to me that sounds completely different to “I had a perfect, natural labour”. It’s a subtle difference, I know — and I realise with headlines there’s a need to be brief — but I’m pretty sure writers know what they’re doing when they put “perfect” and “natural” together. Indeed, that’s really what makes this news at all.

Headlines describing (but actually telling us very little about) Middleton’s experience of labour reinforce the assumption that giving birth vaginally is akin to giving birth perfectly — even though for some women and their babies, to do so would be damaging or even fatal. There’s a nasty judgement about women and their purpose embedded in there. To say that someone had a “perfect, uncomplicated birth” is one thing — it suggests good fortune, which is after all what that is — but a “perfect, natural birth” means something different. It implies other ways of giving birth cannot possibly measure up. That’s why a “perfect, uncomplicated birth” — or a “perfect, vaginal birth” — is no headline at all.  

I was fortunate enough to have two very good, uncomplicated vaginal births. Other women are not so lucky. I think headline writers should tread very carefully when reporting on these things. Then again, I imagine there’s no desire to tread carefully. Kate Middleton’s “perfect, natural” birth helps bolster the overall image of Kate Middleton as better than mere mortals.

I’m glad Kate Middleton had a good birth. I’m glad it went how she wanted it to. I’d want any woman to have a good experience of labour, although not all woman do. Sometimes little can be done to prevent this. One thing none of us needs to face, however, is the subtle implication, through cheap headlines, that “natural” and “perfect” go together. Giving birth is something to be proud of, not something to be ranked.


5 thoughts on “What are reports of Kate Middleton’s “perfect, natural” birth really telling us?

  1. What worries me more is the pairing of “natural” and “women”. Apart from the fact it relegates women to some category of flora and fauna, it means that women’s reproductive issues are woefully understood and under-researched, because what’s “natural” doesn’t need time or effort spent on it. Even when science and medicine finally pay attention, women are supposed to eschew any medical help because it’s “unnatural”. Evidence based treatments for unbearable periods, early menopause, failing libido, and hormones that are clinically out of whack, to name just a few, are few and far between, and often not offered even when available.

    Though I have to admit that what bothers me just as much is how it can be women pressuring other women to be “natural” and then getting all competitive about it.

    1. So much THIS. We’re supposed to be “natural” — that is, eschew pain relief, deny ourselves treatments for horrible menstrual pain, you name it — but yet not *too* natural, since we’re also supposed to wear makeup (apparently women who do so get paid more than those of us who don’t). It’s absolutely disintegrated into a situation in which women are pressuring other women to be more “natural.” Yet that’s only “natural” according to whatever hegemony at which we’re currently looking, and truth is, “natural” isn’t always good. How quickly we’ve forgotten that women used to write their wills before childbirth, or that plenty of natural things aren’t really so great at all.

  2. I had C-sections with both my pregnancies. The first time I wanted a ‘natural’ birth but that just didn’t happen and my son was born by emergency C-section. Then when I was having my twins I opted for a C-section because I believed it was the best and safest decision for them and me. Now I have three happy healthy children and I consider the outcome of their births as perfect. They’re here and they arrived safely.

  3. I had a perfect birth, my baby arrived safely. It was by no means natural. C-section after a long painful back to back labour. My baby was trying to come out face first and to carry onto a vaginal delivery may have resulted in more complications and distress. After my experience when anyone asks me about my labour and I say c-section I always feel the need to qualify it with “she arrived safely that is what is important”. And ultimately any birth by any means which results in the safe delivery of a baby is perfect in my mind.

  4. I agree that they are putting Kate Middleton on a pedestal. When I saw the headline, I thought – but of course. No doubt the angels were singing when the Next King was born. The press really like to build someone up just to tear them down. Anyway I consider myself to have had a perfect birth experience even though I had medical issues which required a c-section. I think any birth which results in a healthy baby and mother is about as perfect as it gets.

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