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32 words that tell us what almost every woman expects from birth

If all we are told is that birth = suffering,

how can we do anything other than suffer?

It’s Monday evening, 9th July. It’s raging hot. We are a mix of 12 people. Some are pregnant for the first time, some are expecting a sibling, some fathers, some mothers – and everyone is here to get involved in my free hypnobirthing workshop. The group has an upbeat, friendly vibe, and there’s much chatting over the incredible COOK raspberry roulade and chocolate, honeycomb & salted caramel cheesecake. Everyone is positive, relaxed and feeling pretty good.

After some introductions we head straight into the Workshop and Task#1. Grab a pen and some post-its, and write – BIG and BOLD – some words you associate with labour & birth. There's scribbling. Some more laughs – maybe a bit more edgy this time - and then it’s time to share them with the group. My guess is always that PAIN features pretty heavily and this time is no exception. PAIN features no fewer than 6 times!

We start to group all 32 words together, and here's what we end up with;

Positive x2

Joy x2

Negative x14

Pain x6

Trauma x1




Panic x2

Anxiety x2



Out of control





Neutral x9






Natural x2




Practical x7


Drugs x2


Hospital x2




I’ve done this exercise many, many times, so I do know what’s coming. But it still never disappoints. 14 words describing fear, exhaustion & submission sit in a column alongside another 16 (neutral & practical) words which are not in themselves terribly cheery. 2 people went off-piste and wrote JOY.


This exercise is a simple and very effective way to demonstrate how relentlessly negative our general expectation of birth experiences is. And it raises an excellent question; if the notion of a positive birth is absent (notably even from a group of people actively seeking a positive experience) how can any woman hope to have one?

The completely marvellous Mary Beard describes the problem succinctly, in her book Women & Power. A Manifesto, when she talks about how cultural stereotyping limits women’s academic aspirations;

“If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president, or…a professor, what most of us see is not a woman. And that is just as true if you are a woman professor: the cultural stereotype is so strong that, at the level of those close-your-eyes fantasies, it is still hard for someone like me to imagine me, in my role”[1]

Adapt this for birth, and the effect is obvious; cultural stereotyping means women simply aren’t equipped to conjure up an image of what a positive birth might look like.

Maybe even worse than this, without the confidence to create their own, unique image, it's all to easy to adopt other people's images of Good Birth. In the past this has all too often been niche, narrow invocations for 'all natural', 'no drugs', 'in intervention' and the rest. This is palpable nonsense. If there was a 'right way' to give birth, we'd all be doing it, and we'd all be happy. When a Good Birth is defined in terms of process over experience, it becomes yet another stick to rule women by.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming negative associations with birth trap women in a cycle. Negative stories fuel expectations of sufferin​​g and obliterate the opportunity to experience birth positively. In turn, women are left with only negative stories to tell - and the physical and emotional scars which go with them.

Birth is the transformative moment in most women’s lives. It heralds their new identity as Mother. It shifts the dynamics of their most intimate relationships, as well as the world at large. And yet. Despite #metoo. Despite #timesup. Despite an vibrant discussion on the dynamics of women & power this year, women still led to expect to bear that transformation accommpanied by anxiety & fear. They slip into their labours passively, sitting ducks, voiceless, prepared to accept the worst. And be under no illusion – the worst is indeed what many women suffer.


I’m not naïve about the intense, powerful, unpredictable realities of birth. I know that women are more frequently bullied, damaged and traumatised by birth than is acceptable. But I also know from experience – from speaking to women who report Good Birth experiences, as well as hearing from the weeping, confused, damaged & undermined women who bore trauma as they bore their child – that Good Birth is manifestly not about how the baby exits your body. The issues I hear from both sides, and from anxious mothers in waiting, over and over again, are about knowledge, control & respect. Women have every right to demand these three things. And I defy anyone to tell me otherwise

I'm ranting from my soap box again (for which I don't apologise). So I'll leave you with this. If a bride-to-be could rattle out 14 negative & 16 ambivalent words and only one positive one in anticipation of her wedding day, we would consider it an enormous red flag? So why do we accept it for women and birth?

[1] P 53. Mary Beard, Women & Power. A Manifesto. London: Profile Books, ©Mary Beard Publications Ltd. 2017


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