From tropes to truths; moving on from Mum-Tribes and getting real about birth
Encouraged by friends and colleagues I’ve ditched my antagonistic attitude to Twitter and taken digital flight. Within days of being active, and unfettered by considerations of etiquette, I waded into a to-do about birth. A new medium for me but the same conversation I’m quite used to hearing about birth. Positive birth practitioners on one side, medics on another, and completing the triad, advocates for caesarean birth, all attempting to define what does and does not constitute ‘normal’.
So far so usual, and a perfect example of what’s so problematic with the way we discuss birth. Whether it’s Harry Kane a getting a kicking for his post-birth tweet, or discussion on the delicacies of the post-natal period as the Duchess of Cambridge presented her newborn to the world (media), women are consistently pitted against each other, and comfortably pigeon-holed into Mum-Tribes. Hypno-home birthers, yoga-breathing birthers, Rock-up- and-book-the-epidural-birthers, planned-caesarean-birthers and the rest…. all tearing each other down as they advocate theirway is the best, or the sensible, or the safestway to do it. All furiously ignoring the self-evident truth that if there was a ‘Right’ way to do it, we’d all be doing it and we’d all be happy.
So why is birth so searingly personal and hotly divided? It’s the same reason #metoo and Pregnant Then Screwed exist. It’s a truism that women habitually take the blame for poor or unfairly treatment, and it’s the same with birth. New mothers often assume that their body, or their resilience, or strength or capability is the cause of the course of their birth. The ‘How’ becomes personal, and then political and then completely overrides the questions we should be asking. The problem with arguing about what’s‘normal’ and what’s ‘best’ is that it diverts us from the biggest issue of all; women’s rights in birth.
I speak to too many women who’ve had traumatic birth experiences. When they speak, though, they rarely cite pain as the traumatizing factor. Induction isn’t the issue. Monitoring, epidurals, IV antibiotics, intervention, none of these are the things that damaged these women. The things that really traumatized these women are much more insidious than that. Being patronized. Being bullied. Being coerced. Being touched & treated without consent. Being told that they couldn’t, shouldn’t mustn’t, can’t, aren’t allowed to. Women’s wishes are belittled and derided. Women’s bodies are monitored and measured against a ‘normality’ we do not tolerate about our weight or intellect.
This fetishized ding-dong of half truths, disempowerment and fear does just what has always been done; it shoves women into neat little boxes. This time it’s Mum-tribes, so judged and derided, that many women can’t see a space that resonates with them in the 37-odd short weeks between the blue line and the birth. And that matters, because it affects how confidently women can prepare. Antenatal education, in my area at least, is woefully sparse in both content & availability, polarised between medical management and blissed-out optimism.
Which is all well and good if that’s what you’re gunning for, but what if it’s more complicated than that? What if you can’t quite visualise an orgasmic birth, or you don’t want one, or you’re just not that type of Gal? What about young women? Career women? Poor women? Black and minority ethnic women? Women who don’t want a birth on anyone’s terms other than their own? Why aren’t ALL women demanding antenatal education that EMPOWERS with practical tools, rather than limits with judgement and guilt? Good, informed, consistent programmes that encourage awareness of subtleties like shared decision making, meaningfully informed choice, the balance between risk and value, the effect of institutions, and the hierarchy within them (particularly when those institutions remain overwhelmingly driven by white, middle class men. I’m not virtue signaling; one of the most shocking things I took from Pregnant Then Screwed live at the weekend is that the maternal mortality rate for black women in the UK is 5 TIMESthat of white women. See Mars Lord and The Doctor Mummy for more on this issue).
Women are easily dissuaded from empowering themselves with actual real knowledge and insight, because they are so easily ridiculed for it. The caricature of the empowered mother, the women with an opinion, who is not afraid of her body or her choices, is so loaded with judgement that for many it’s a less caustic betrayal of self to simply subscribe to the known agonies of the Mainstream Birth Tribe, than to peer beneath the veil and ask what’s really going on and why.
These are Big Things to ask of women, because as my mate Emma said last year ‘I didn’t know I was a feminist until I had children’, and as Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality Party said last week ‘Motherhood radicalizes women’. Motherhood IS a big transformation, and with it come some unpalatable realisations. However, I don’t think it’s at all radical to demand a more honest, insightful level of conversation around birth.
Of course one size doesn’t fit all. Whatever leads us to expect that it should? In every other area of life we see – if not demand – ourselves as individuals. We accept that context is king (or Queen), and that we assemble our lives in varying shades & styles to achieve our own definitions of comfort and success.
So let’s despatch the unhelpful Mum-Tribe stereotypes and direct our ire at an enemy that limits us all. Let’s focus less on who is Wrong, and more on our collective Rights in Birth.
Charlotte Edun is an advocate for women’s choices in birth, who works with women and families who want to start their parenting on the front foot. She is a doula, hypnobirthing practitioner, and Positive Birth Movement facilitator, and offers classes, courses and workshops in West Kent.