Are stories of childbirth trauma making us pathologically afraid of giving birth? Maybe. Does that mean we should censor women? Absolutely not.
Mumsnet has come under scrutiny following a lecture by academic Catriona Jones. Though I suspect the nuance of Jones’s thoughts has been lost, she is concerned that a drip feed of birth horror stories online may be prompting some women to develop tocophobia (a profound fear of childbirth) and could be leading them to request a caesarean to avoid vaginal birth.
A barrage of only the very worst experiences might be unhelpful to pregnant women. In my fantasy world it is normal to hear childbirth stories – from the very difficult, to the most positive and especially the boring ones in the middle. This imaginary open, non-judgemental culture would prepare women for the many realities of birth and help them work out what’s right for them. Yet outside of my utopia the reaction to a story about childbirth demonstrates how quick we are to silence and blame individual women rather than look to the systemic problems surrounding their experiences. Stories are sometimes shared despite this punitive culture, but they are quickly appropriated to create an antagonistic debate around the “right way” to give birth that serves no one apart from the clickbait merchants.
Women who have experienced difficult births may need to share their stories as they process them. I suspect more would open up about their experiences were it not for the predictable commentators who will negate their feelings, tell them a healthy baby is all that matters and to stop their whining. Similarly others feel unable to tell their good birth stories for fear of being labelled smug or simply disbelieved.
I want there to be more space for stories but no woman should feel the weight of responsibility for warning, reassuring, inspiring or reality-checking others by scooping out her most personal moments in the service of some agenda or another. It is not your job to make giving birth ok for others – that is the work of clinicians, policy makers and campaigners. A personal story can make an impact on those with the power to improve care, but the burden of work to find stories must sit with those who organise care not those who receive it. Your birth stories are not political cannon fodder and we should all be angry that the reaction to the volume of tales of trauma is to blame women rather than a system that is traumatising them.
Despite the furore over the volume of negative stories being shared, we don’t yet exist in a world that is open to women discussing their reproductive lives. The old-fashioned notion that birth stories are private and unfit for public consumption persists. Women’s business at its most pulsatingly bloody and real is sadly not often yet a comfortable in-person discussion. If a midwife, doctor or health visitor doesn’t ask in a way that suggests they actually want to hear, these stories may stay imprisoned within a woman.
Despite the furore over the volume of negative stories being shared, we don’t yet exist in a world that is open to women discussing their reproductive lives
If the experiences do break out on to the internet they are all too often appropriated by someone with an agenda. No media furore around birth is complete without the additional insult of women being shoehorned into two engineered camps: the idealistic, hippy, pain-is-power gang pitted against the, birth-is-a-shitstorm-of-awfulness, get-an-epidural-before-you-become-pregnant-or-you-aren’t-a-feminist brigade. Each group is wound up to defend their personal truths on a political stage – and that makes them feel defensive, scrutinised and embattled.
Neither of these groups is real. All of this is a construct that stops us improving the culture and practices around birth. Women are not giving birth at two opposite ends of spectrum and, while ecstatic birth and truly awful birth experiences are very real, they are not the every day.
Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools humanity has and the power that comes with voicing our own narratives has not been lost. We need more stories not less, because it is not the sharing of our experiences that is the problem. The problem is how difficult it is to find someone to listen to us and the way we are encouraged to frame and defend our most personal moment as scavengers pick over them.
I have told many other women’s stories in my writing but rarely voiced my own because I worry about the reaction. So when I tell you the stories of when I became a mother please don’t extrapolate them in to lessons about the right and best way to give birth. Please don’t put words in my mouth or tell me what I thought or felt, criticise my choices or use me to make a point. Like others I have put my story in to the world simply because it is my reality and a moment that matters to me.
My waters broke three weeks before my due date causing the young handyman (the only other person in the house) to turn grey with fear and drill about 50 holes in the wall; none in the right place. My labour only took eight hours. It wasn’t painful, though my next birth would be. A mixture of dreamy milkshakes with my husband, walks in the rain, terror and joy. A blur of paramedics’ boots and their loud chat distracting me horribly. Midwife Patricia who said she would tell me what to do, my husband’s voice calling the baby ‘darling’ as her face emerged from inside me. I remember shock, love, fear, calm, effort, vulnerability and strength altogether. I gave birth, red-faced, sweaty and exhausted as the sun rose. It left a tiny stain on one of my cushions and a huge mark across my life.
Make Birth Better has a map of local birth trauma support services.