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Question: Why is childbirth so painful?

Answer: Human beings try so hard to be civilized, to maintain appearances, and yet when it comes time for birthin' babies we suddenly become nearly as primitive as bugs.

Even with painkillers and epidurals and electronic monitoring it's still rather amazingly biological, a process as down and dirty as the fissioning of paramecia.

Theory: Puff, puff, PHEW.

Reality: EEAAARRRRGGHH (head spins 360 degrees).

So as we wait to evolve out of this mess let's figure out why women have to bear so much pain. The generally accepted answer is one we've alluded to before in this column: The pelvic structure that makes bipedalism possible also requires a narrow birth canal. There's not much clearance.

But still, you'd think that the forces of evolution would create some mechanism whereby childbirth wouldn't hurt so much. So now we raise another thought: Maybe pain is good. Wenda Travathan, author of "Human Birth: An Evolutionary Perspective," speculates that the pain of childbirth inspires women to hang on to a male partner. "The pain of childbirth leads women to seek companionship," she says. Natural selection "to a point probably favored a certain amount of pain."

We will confess that this theory doesn't quite work for us. It suggests that men are so useless, so devoid of worth, that the only reason a woman would want one around the house is if she were on the verge of exploding.

But now let's go on to the next theory of painful childbirth: We can't handle the pain, psychologically, because we are culturally obsessed with denying our own natures. We see childbirth as a natural process and we don't want to be natural. So we intervene with drugs and technology, turn birth into surgery, turn the mother into a temporarily disabled person.

This is the general message of Robbie Davis-Floyd, an anthropologist at the University of Texas who is a vocal opponent of technologically manipulated childbirth. "How you perceive pain is culturally mediated. Cultures that perceive childbirth as a natural process, as a natural part of life, tend to experience less pain in childbirth," she says.

She has written that hospital delivery is a "ritual enactment of the technocratic model of reality upon which our society is based."

Davis-Floyd told us her own labors with two kids were "extraordinarily painful, and I wouldn't have changed it."

We don't want to be snide here - not us, not ever - but we wonder if the proponents of natural childbirth also decline Novocain when having a cavity filled or a tooth pulled. Since time immemorial, women have been coming up with ways to dull the pain of childbirth. And it is largely thanks to technology and modern medicine that women don't commonly die in childbirth anymore.

The holistic approach may work for some people, but if the Why staff ever goes into labor, we're going to ask for the stuff that makes you wake up when the kid can do yardwork.

The Mailbag:

As fans of undersea cables, we were delighted when Elaine M., of Puyallup, Wash., wrote, "What is the current function of the Atlantic cable? I'm particularly interested in knowing if the gutta-percha covering is still holding up."

Dear Elaine: The gutta-percha is probably doing just fine, says Jim Barrett, vice president of engineering and marine operations for AT&T Submarine Systems. The gutta-percha, a resinous, rubber-like substance, was used on telegraph cables laid in the 1800s. They're still down there, buried in mud and silt, but are unused. Now we use telephone cables, which have been laid since the 1950s, about 10 of which cross the Atlantic.

The real question is, how do they repair these things? The Atlantic has an average depth of about 2.2 miles. What if something happens down there? Is the whole cable ruined? Not at all. First, they have to find the location of the failure. Because of the distance across the ocean, devices called "repeaters" are used to boost the fiber optic signal, and these repeaters send out alarms if there's a break in the line. This guides the repair ship to the general spot where the problem is.

Then they drag the ocean floor, slowly and carefully, with a grappling device that's capable of hooking the cable. They can also use a remote-control vehicle. Once hooked, the cable is snipped in two, again by remote control. It has to be cut because there's not enough slack to haul it to the surface (it would be too heavy to pull up intact). The cut ends of the cable are then separately raised, and spliced together after the failed portion has been removed.

Now then, you might think that satellites would have replaced these undersea cables, but it's not so. Communications satellites are 22,300 miles in space, in geosynchronous orbit - definitely our personal favorite brand of orbit - and that's so far away that it creates a pause in a phone conversation or data transmission while the microwaves are doing their space travel. The speed of light is fast, but not that fast. So many elite, fussy organizations actually request dedicated cable lines for their overseas communications.

We intend to be that way from now on. We'll tell the operator, "Excuse me, but can you please make sure this one goes under the ocean?" It's a sign of sophistication, like having the salad dressing on the side.