That seemed to be the message on twitter recently, from a senior midwife to women who’ve had difficult experiences of childbirth. She wanted more women to share their positive stories so that midwives could learn from them. But warned against sharing anything negative with our daughters or pregnant friends.
I’m not going to go further into names or details because this opinion is hardly unique. It’s one I heard a lot when I was a first time pregnant mum myself, now more than seven years ago. I had however hoped it was dying out because it’s flat out wrong for a number of reasons.
Firstly – who gets to decide who can share their story?
We live in an age when everyone can choose to share as much or as little of their life as they like. The right to free speach is brandished like a sacred weapon, even when what is said brings offense or incites violence. In that context are the everyday stories of women’s lives so very shocking that they must be silenced? Why should a mother who lost her baby be less entitled to a voice than those of us who took our newborns home safely?
To tell your story, be it positive or negative, isn’t a judgement on others. It isn’t a lesson in how to (or not to) give birth. But all too often that is exactly how these things are interpreted. Tell a “horror story” and you are clearly looking for sympathy, being dramatic and trying to scare other women. Tell a happy tale and you are smug and judgmental.
Women have been told to keep quiet about our lives for millennia, now that we are finding our voices, let’s try to listen to each other. Just listen. And accept the value of differing experiences and insights. Without assuming they say anything about us. Where there are lessons to be learned (for midwives or anyone else) they need to come from the good stories and the bad. Flying is (supposedly) the safest way to travel, but it didn’t get there by only investigating the planes that landed safely.
Silencing the negative can also cause real, individual harm. I know this from personal experience, and to tell my story involves a confession: I was willfully, arrogantly, naive about childbirth.
I had always known I wanted children and years before I was ever pregnant I knew I wanted to give birth to them as naturally as possible. I wanted to experience that great universal female act. So I sought out information to help me in that aim. I read the books and websites, I did the classes and I embraced their message: You are made to give birth, you just need to have faith in your body.
I was told to ignore the negative stories. Women die in developing countries because they are too small, young and malnourished to give birth. In the western world problems come when women are ill, fat, old or just get scared, wimp out and let the doctors start on their malicious interventions.
I had just turned 30, was six foot tall and in great health. I went into labour calm and confident and utterly unprepared for a 34 hour labour with a 9lb 10 oz back to back baby who’s head size was off the scale.
I’d given no thought to emergency caesareans other than to tell myself it would never happen to me. The thundering clash between expectation and reality left the experience repeating in my head for years afterwards, and woke me sweating and panicked in my bed long after the physical damage had healed. Ironically, avoiding other peoples negative stories only added to the negativity of my own.
I won’t lie to my daughter and say she arrived calmly in a birthing pool just as I’d planned, it is her story as much as mine, she deserves the truth. But I may gloss over some of the details, some of the fear. I’ll tell her, as I tell pregnant friends, that I just got unlucky, we were both ok in the end and she was worth every minute. I want her and her sister to know that childbirth can be wonderful, joyous and empowering. But sometimes things don’t go to plan and when that happens, if you are lucky enough to live in a developed nation, then modern medicine will usually get you through it. That even if the very worst thing happens, the thing you push from your mind as you stroke your growing belly, then you are no less normal, no less deserving of a voice than anyone else.
Which should surely all be obvious? We live in a time where Women are supposed to be treated as intelligent human beings. Where we are supposed to be supported to make informed decisions about our own bodies. So how does this belief that we can not handle the harder truths and should be shielded from them for our own good still persist?
Being told to hide away our stories of difficult births lest they scare other women seems both patronising and, worryingly for a message that comes mostly from other women, patriarchal: mustn’t scare the weaker sex, best pretend it’s all candles and cute babies or they’ll get in such a fluster they won’t be able to give birth properly, or *gasp* they’ll start demanding pain relief or C sections!
Most first time pregnant Mums are grown ups. We know that TV dramas aren’t real life and that newspapers pick the most sensational stories. We know that just because something happened to the woman at the end of the street, that doesn’t mean it will happen to us. We know that life isn’t risk free but we still get up in the morning and get on with it.
You don’t empower women by treating them like scared children, by telling us that life is all rainbows and unicorns and hiding the monsters under the bed so we will behave in the way you think best. That is true whether the “you” in question in a husband, a government, a whole society or a senior Midwife.
We need facts and then we need the support to turn these into realistic expectations, choices and personal opinions. We need to be prepared for the wonderful births and the difficult, complicated ones. Then the stories will be created. They may not all be happy, but each one will be unique and each one will be worthy of telling.