I’ve read various articles about whether home birth or hospital birth is the ‘best choice’ recently. Moving on from the fact that the choice of birth location differs from woman to woman and from birth to birth, what has deeply concerned me is that so many articles state , as Jenny McCartney did recently, that “so long as mother and baby are alive and undamaged, it can be counted a great success”.
Obviously a birth that ends up with a healthy mother and baby is a success but how do we define healthy and how do we take into account the impact on the mother of a birth that, whilst it may have ended up with both her and the baby surviving, was upsetting or even traumatising?
An awful lot of the births I hear about are described in fairly negative terms. There is little of the empowerment, fulfillment or even ecstasy that some schools of thought would have us believe is possible.
Frequently I hear of mothers being left to labour without midwife care for hours, having to beg for pain relief or to be believed that their labour was developing rapidly. All too often I hear of mothers being told that they ‘must’ be induced to save their baby and then of a seemingly inevitable cascade of interventions ending in major surgery. Regularly I hear of mothers not ‘permitted’ to labour actively, of being strapped to a monitor on their back and their feeling that they couldn’t be in a position that was comfortable for them.
All too often I hear of women being told what they cannot do and their resentment that they were not able to listen to their bodies and do what felt right.
I also hear of an insistence on internal examinations that are painful or humiliating, of medical procedures, like a stretch and sweep, being done without consent and inaccurate information given to push them into a decision that they may not have made with full knowledge.
But what I don’t hear about is anyone caring what these attitudes and this form of care can do to the mother. How it can make her question whether she wants any further children, how it can leave her in pain for weeks after the delivery, how it can leave her with flashbacks and terrors about being left helpless again.
And what is more, we don’t get to hear the voices of the men that attend these women – today in our overstretched maternity system, fathers enter the hospital and become birth partners, bridging the gap in midwifery cover whether or not they want to be there. Its a brave man that takes on the system and says that he does not want to be present at his child’s birth but several fathers I have met have been traumatised from having to watch the woman they love go through labour – be it an uncomplicated delivery or a full scale medical emergency. Often talking to them they are reluctant to be involved again but feel that they cannot leave their partner alone to go through it.
Are we setting the bar too low for maternity care?
Isn’t what we should be aiming at is a birth experience that makes both parents feel supported and nurtured by their carers, that has a healthy and a happy outcome? Should we aspire to the gentle, loving care given by midwives like Ina May rather than just getting the baby out in one piece? Should we start to push for more doula involvement to give men the option to not have to act as a midwife?
Should we not seek to make birth more than a process to be got through but something that can become a positive rite of passage to becoming a parent?