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.