Tuesday, 9 February 2010

On Childbirth

Since reading what I thought was rather a moving post on childbirth over at The Last of the Mojitos (which may quite possibly be the best name for a blog ever) I have felt inspired to write my own post on the same subject. It has been a while in the crafting, and much more difficult to write than I had at first thought it would be.

The author of The Last of the Mojitos wrote a post about her own experience of childbirth after hearing of an interview on Brazilian television in which the supermodel Gisele Bundchen had described giving birth to her new son as having been painless. Perhaps not content with only her perceived aesthetic superiority, Bundchen feels the need to stake her claim on the title of Earth Mother of the Century aswell. Maybe as a post-natal project she might wish to consider penning the sequel to 'How to win friends and influence people'? Just a suggestion.

I have given birth to three children. Their births were the defining moments of my life. They were the most significant, pivotal, raw and meaningful experiences that I have had. I have struggled and I have swam through both the darkest depths of despair, and the giddiest heights of euphoria whilst in labour, and each time the imprint left on my psyche was such that I was never the same again.

I gave birth to my first child in a large teaching hospital. I was 23. It was frightening, alienating, and somehow deeply shaming. The staff lacked compassion, they were officious and impersonal and obsessed with policy. The constant handling and examinations felt degrading, and I experienced a profound sense of powerlessness. I remember feeling as though the pain were drowning me, crushing me with its tidal waves, and suffocating every rational thought that I had. I felt close to death, although technically the birth was straightforward - the only intervention being the breaking of my waters and an eventual epidural.

To this day I cringe when I hear a new mother who has been traumatised by her experience of childbirth being offered the cold comfort of, 'Well you have a healthy baby and that's all that matters'. I find it hard to keep calm when I hear that same line being used as an argument to prop up unnecessary intervention having been used in a babys birth. As if the mothers feelings were immaterial. As if women were merely vessels - middle men whose only purpose it was to deliver an unblemished child. As if the new mothers mental state were not intrinsically linked to her new babies sense of well-being, and a crucial factor in the bonding process.

I began labour with my second child on the morning of the hottest day of 2003. I was in my bed pleasantly dreaming when I felt a small pop, and then a gush. I woke up instantly, apprehensive, excited, alert. My contractions began gently, increasing in intensity along with the searing heat of the day, and at some point we went outside in the garden where it was cooler and lay a blanket under the shade of a tree. A couple of friends arrived, they had bought some elderflower champagne along and we all sat outside together as if at an impromptu picnic. At some point the (NHS) midwives turned up smiling, 'There now isn't this lovely', and joined the small gathering sitting under the Ash tree. I was left alone, able to move and walk, sit and stand as I pleased. I was not examined unless I requested it. But perhaps most crucially, all the focus was not on me. Everyone was just around, chatting pleasantly and allowing me to get on with it; there if I needed them. Occasionally someone would hold my hand or breathe with me during a particularly strong contraction and I felt quietly yet completely supported. It was not frightening, it was not overwhelming. The pain of my labour was coming from a good place. It was elemental and powerful and yet somehow it was under my control. It was like taming a wild horse. All the accepted wisdoms about what a woman can and can't do in active labour were completely upended for me that day. Can't walk or hold a conversation whilst in active labour? Can't eat or drink anything? All rubbish. I sat in transition, eating cherries, drinking elderflower champagne, and laughing with my friends. When I began to feel the urge to push, I stood up. I retreated into myself in order to concentrate, and something happened to me. I am not a sentimental woman, but as I stood there in the open air with a view of green hills and fields all around, I felt as though my feet had somehow sunk deep into the ground, and had sprouted real roots connecting me to all living things. The world took on a whole new dimension as I felt this palpable connection to every other woman on the planet throughout history who had ever given birth. It didn't matter what our circumstances were, or where we came from, or what language we spoke, we had all been here, in this moment. I felt so so sturdy and strong, and utterly euphoric. I could have run to the top of one of those hills and beaten my chest and roared. I have since joked with friends that if I was ever going to have found God, it would have been then, in that moment, as I gave birth. I can remember saying as I first held and marveled at my new baby son that I would never say 'I can't do it' about anything ever again.

The birth of my daughter was less dramatic. It's beauty was in its ordinaryness I suppose. When my waters broke, again early in the morning, I told my partner to go back to sleep. I went downstairs to sit on my own a while. I wanted to labour alone and without distraction so I could focus purely on the contractions - to feel their shape and taste their flavour. I experimented with different positions to make them stronger, welcoming the intensity, diving right into it. My labour progressed quickly. By the time my partner got up I was ready to call the midwife. A friend came round for breakfast and did her knitting and kept me quiet company. When the midwife arrived she suggested I go for a walk, so my partner, friend and I went out round the village, waving the odd hello to neighbours out washing their cars, and walking their dogs. As soon as I stepped back inside my front door, I had an enormous contraction in which I felt myself fully dilate and my baby move down out of my womb ready to be born. It was the most mind blowing sensation I've ever experienced. My little girl was born safely in my living room a half hour or so later.

Now I am no Gisele Bundchen. Far too short and asymmetrical for a start. And I would certainly not describe the births of my middle son and my daughter as having been painless. The second stages of both births hurt very much. But they were positive. They were good. Life transformingly so.

The thing is I don't often talk about my birth experiences these days. Of course at first I was full of it, but over time I have become wiser and more reticent. Mostly because I have found that to say I enjoyed labour tends to attract disbelief, and occasionally hostility. Often I sense that I am being dismissed in the persons mind as a crank, and if I attempt to describe the feeling of being 'high' on contractions - I am simply not taken seriously. And from my point of view, the last thing I want is for other women to feel that I am being somehow competitive or unsisterly. I do not want to trigger for others, those feelings of failure and sadness that I remember so well resulting from my first birth. So for the most part I have shut up about it.

I feel it's important for me to make absolutely clear in this post aswell that I am incredibly grateful to have access to free and expert medical care. Should I have needed a caesarian section or any other intervention to save the life of either myself or my child, I would have received it. I know how lucky that makes me. I am not anti the medical establishment. I am pro science, and I believe in forming opinions on, and backing up arguments with, evidence. I am neither irresponsible nor idealistic. The reason I am pro home birth, and indeed chose it for myself, is because I believe the evidence shows that for women with low to medium risk pregnancies, it is as safe, if not safer than giving birth in a hospital. That doesn't mean I am not thanking the heavens that we have 24 hour access to doctors and hospitals should we need or want them. An operation to remove my left fallopian tube saved my life when one of my pregnancies was diagnosed as being ectopic. Many women in other parts of the world would have simply died. I am also not prescriptive. Just because something works well for me does not mean I think it would or should work well for everyone. If a woman feels safer and happier strapped to a monitor in hospital, with access to every pain relieving drug the NHS has to offer, then I would be the first to fight for her right to choose that. I would be wearing a t-shirt saying 'Go on love, fill yer boots. I hear the morphine's great'.

So to end this rather long post, I am beginning to think that maybe I should risk opening my mouth a bit more to tell about my childrens births. Because I very much want to live in a society where a desire for an empowering birth experience is not regarded as spoilt and selfish. Where women can demand to have their freedom of choice respected, and not be considered to be putting their own needs above those of their unborn child, because it would be taken for granted that the mothers needs were of equal importance, and that supported, empowered mothers were better able to bond with and nurture their babies. Above all I want to live in a society where women can enjoy their bodies in the act of creation, and talk about their enjoyment without being regarded as part of some lunatic fringe, because it is so unusual.


  1. Oh my lovely, I agree with every step of the way. Good on you for the post. A great read.

    May I add that I have a few Brazilian friends who all tell me that EVERYONE in Brazil with an annual income over $100 per year has a c-section. Vaginal birth and horrific pain is for the poor they say!

    Sounds like maybe that model thingy person was saying it was pain-free for the benefit of her posh Brazilian friends who would be horrified if she said it was painful and perhaps mistake her for the housekeeper on her next visit home and ask her to wash their exceedingly small Brazilian smalls. Or maybe I'm just a bitch?

    MD x

  2. Beautifully written and I agree with you wholeheartedly. When you were describing that second birth, outside in your garden and feeling connected to nature and all of womankind, I knew exactly what you meant. Did you actually give birth outside? If I didn't live in a terraced house I think I would've loved to do that! As it was, I had to make do with shouting and singing all throughout the pushing stage, with the windows thrown open. The next day my neighbours asked if I was training to be an opera singer. ;-)

    My only quibble with your post is the tone of disbelief towards Giselle Bundchen for her own birth experience. Some women do indeed experience painless births. Not believing or belittling that is no better than telling a woman who is finding her labour incredibly painful that it's all in her head, in my opinion. We need to support and listen to ALL women's birth experiences, regardless of whether we think they may be 'stretching the truth.'

  3. Thankyou Modern Dilemma and Noble Savage for your comments.

    Yes I did give birth to Middle Son outside and it was the best experience of my life I think. It opened my mind to my own potential, and the increased belief in myself spread to other areas of my life aswell.

    Noble Savage I take your point on board regarding my comments about Gisele Bundchen. I certainly didn't mean to sound as if I was belittling anybody, but to be completely honest I do find the idea of giving birth being entirely painless, hard to believe. Surely it is physically impossible to go through the process of childbirth and not feel something. So if it's not pain then what is it? The argument that contractions are not pains in and of themselves, but are strong sensations that can easily become painful or be interpreted as such if one is tense or frightened, was initially a very attractive one to me, having experienced both sides of the coin as it were. But ultimately I knew that even though I had enjoyed the powerful sensations of labour, I could not say with 100 percent honesty that there had been no element of pain whatsoever. Also that tack is insulting to women who do have painful labours, as the implication is that there is simply something wrong with their attitude.

    I also think that rightly or wrongly, a woman who symbolises societies current ideas about physical perfection gushing in an interview about painless childbirth, is unhelpful and disempowering to ordinary women. It does nothing to help women feel that a positive birth experience is either their right, or achievable for them. And while I acknowledge Bundchens right to tell her truth, I just think that her comments lacked sensitivity.

  4. Beautifully written and so inspiring. It is brilliant to hear such a positive story from someone who has experiences it from both sides so to speak.

  5. I agree with Gappy, I think Bundchens comments did lack sensitivity. I think there is a trend towards focussing upon acheiving a perfect childbirth that leads people to beat themselves up about if they didn't.

    I loved this post, thought it was wonderful - and told in such a way that didn't make me feel a failure for not managing to do similar! x

  6. Great post. I am rather envious of your 'outside in nature' birth experience! I would have loved a home birth, I think, but wasn't quite 'there' in terms of readiness. If we have another child I think it'll be my husband who is not ready for the homebirth thing and to be honest, with how things are in Australia, I doubt I will be having one (the expense and potential issues of legality relating to insurance make it a more difficult option than it should be). As it was, I had an empowering birth experience in a hospital setting and I am hoping I will have that again - in a birth centre, preferably.
    I tend to agree with your assessment of Bundchen's comments in that context. It is one thing for women to say 'birth does not have to be traumatic' or 'I found birth empowering' or 'calm birth/hypnobirth helps take the pain away' or even 'birth can be pleasurable or orgasmic to some people' but to say oh, it didn't hurt a bit sounds disingenuous. Mind you, I doubt she could start talking about orgasmic birth, for eg., without attracting a great deal of flak so there is that too.
    And as I was saying in my recent post, I think it's great for women to tell these stories so your resolve to speak up more is positive, I think!

  7. What a beautifully written and intelligent post. You say a lot of what I'd like to say about birth.

  8. What a fantastic read. You have a great story to tell, and you tell it very well indeed.

    After my first birth, in an NHS hospital - but I got there late enough on that they didn't really have time for much monitoring or intervention - I did feel the most tremendous sense of triumph and achievement. I've done it! THIS is what my body can do! Wow! A smaller version of what you describe.