Make Birth Better Campaign | Theme 1
'A Force Bigger Than Me'
The first theme describes the physicality of birth. When this was positive, women were awed by the power of their bodies. When this was difficult, women were shocked by the arduous nature of birth, found pain difficult to manage and at times were left with physical injuries due to their experience.
While intervention and even very difficult births did not always result in symptoms of trauma, many women described violations during birth which stayed with them long afterwards. And, frequently, fears for the safety of the baby arose. These four sub themes are detailed below.
1. THE POWER I FELT
When birth was positive - whether it was a natural delivery or a C section, it was ‘life changing’, ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’, ‘extraordinarily intense and beautiful’, ‘special’. There was awe about the ability of the body ‘The power I felt that day is indescribable’, ‘My body scares me a bit now - it did this amazing thing’, and a huge sense of pride at what had been achieved ‘I felt like superwoman’, ‘The strength of being a woman is truly awesome’.
2. THE PHYSICAL IMPACT
“I was so drained” Many of the stories described how exhausting birth was, and how difficult it felt to rest. Pain was often surprising, and described as ‘unbearable’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘intense’. Women experienced medical emergencies, such as post part haemorrhage and pelvic fracture, or problems with infection, blood pressure and difficulty healing. Some described long term health difficulties, leading to hysterectomy, bladder and bowel damage or a need for further surgery. A theme running throughout the stories, even when birth was relatively straightforward, was a sense that mum and baby were lucky to come out alive.
3. BEING VIOLATED
‘They were so rough with me my husband had to tell them to stop’
Women described feeling physically transgressed, by the actions done to them ‘I feel like she violated me’, ‘being stitched up was a violence’, ‘felt brutal’, ‘everything during my labour felt like a war’, ‘it was comparable to a rape’. There were a number of occasions when actions were taken without consent ‘the midwife…began cutting me down there without telling me (or getting consent), ‘I have no recollection of signing a consent form’, ‘[there should be] less intervention without consent’.
4. THE SAFETY OF THE BABY
There was fear throughout the stories of whether the baby would be ok, sometimes due to emergency situations but not always. Forceps deliveries were ‘brutal’, ‘no baby can survive this’, ‘baby was literally pulled out of me’. Women talked about hearing about foetal distress and being told that their babies were at risk ‘I remember being told to push properly or my baby wouldn’t make it’, ‘She told me I would harm myself and the baby’. On some occasions women were certain their babies had not survived - ‘I remember thinking that if they were going to have to fight for life but end up dying it would be kinder for them to die sooner rather than later’, ‘I was scared of birthing a stillborn baby’. Some babies were born unwell and taken to NICU, and mothers described being left not knowing whether their babies were ok ‘I had no idea whether he had been born, whether he was alive’, ‘The doctors worked on her for 30 minutes before whisking her downstairs to the NICU’.
There was an experience of a baby who did not survive. It is important to note, however, that in this case the mother felt able to reach acceptance due to therapeutic support and her own coping strategies.
Reflections - There is a level of transgression here that is hard to read about. Acknowledged is the very real fear for many women that they or their baby will die during childbirth - partly due to the way we talk about birth, stories we hear about the worst possible outcomes, but also the lack of control over our bodies that might be experienced. When supported, and treated with reassurance and, it seems possible that even this worst possible fear can be resolved. Why are women and their babies in modern society still being left damaged by birth?