Updated: May 11, 2021
What happened to the peaceful birth you'd planned? You had actually reached a place where you were looking forward to giving birth. Then reality hit. Your fairly-standard-from-an-outsiders-perspective birth was, for you, a shit storm. It was nothing like you'd anticipated. And it left you broken - figuratively and literally broken. Why?
Reason #1: Medicine's skewed view of what constitutes a normal birth
As undeniably natural a body function as it is, medicine and our risk centric society have managed to turn birth into a medical event. Birthing women are 'patients' who must birth in hospital (home of the sick, injured and dying), because despite all the contrary evidence, medical men have convinced us that we need specialist equipment and medical experts at hand to safely birth our babies.
Such a belief system has seen many interventions become routine rather than selectively applied. Women's labours have been forced to fit into a narrow section of the bell curve in almost all regards - lengths of the various stages of labour, cervical dilation, position and descent of baby, mum's age and weight, baby's (roughly estimated) weight, the length of pregnancy... honestly, this list could become a blog post in itself! If mum or baby or their labour sit outside of the narrowly defined set of 'norms' the woman is encouraged or coerced or bullied, sometimes even forced, to undergo interventions (leaving the woman clueless as to the multitude of risks associated with intervening, including the snowballing need for further interventions that frequently ensues). The problem that wasn't a problem, once tampered with, suddenly becomes an actual problem - I'd laugh at the irony if it wasn't such a concerning matter.
But the woman isn't told this. This information doesn't typically form part of her antenatal learnings or her postnatal birth breakdown (if there is one). As far as the maternity practitioners involved in her birth are concerned the intervention-saturated experience that the woman and her baby underwent was typical. She had a fairly normal birth. So, 'normal' in the eyes of doctors and midwives often doesn't equate to what the woman believed a good birth would entail. Too many maternity practitioners a good birth is one that results in a physically healthy mother and baby. But to the mum, a good birth necessitates other important needs are met too. Which brings me to the second reason your 'good' birth left you feeling so broken...
Reason #2: 'Good' or 'safe' births are only measured in terms of physical outcomes
Birth is a time of massive transition - a woman becomes a mother, a vulnerable new baby experiences its first cues about what extra-uterine life provides. Birth is not simply a means to an end, it's an incredible, lives-altering experience. Through birth, a woman can realise the upper reaches of her physical and mental capacities - she may experience a new-found respect for her body and her instincts. Such a birth lays the foundations for confident mothering and an extraordinary mother-baby bond. This is nature's design for birth and new motherhood. It requires the birthing woman to feel safe, respected, trusted and trusting throughout her birth process.
But the over-medicalised births described in Reason #1 are focused solely on physical outcomes. If the mother and baby are physically fine, the birth is deemed a success. Never mind the mother who feels violated, disrespected, unheard, scared and powerless as she attempts to safely bring her baby into the world. The professionals aren't concerned with those aspects of her experience, so who is she to expect anything more than a healthy baby at the end of what has become a harrowing ordeal? She has learnt that her needs are selfish wants, and that she is merely a faulty vessel from which her baby is to be forcefully extracted.
This, remember, is a standard birth in the medicalised birthing world. It's no wonder new mothers struggle to reconcile their negative thoughts and feelings - all they've learnt from the professionals is that they were lucky to have received the care that they did and that they ought to be grateful for their healthy baby. Her feelings and experiences are completely undermined, leaving her utterly invalidated and unsupported.
Reason #3: Birthing women's rights are not respected
When women share their birth stories, the language they use speaks volumes about how little they understand regarding their rights, and/or how poorly their rights were respected... "I wasn't allowed to go more than two weeks overdue", "They wouldn't let me try for a vaginal birth", "They told me I had to be monitored continually on the CTG machine." Clearly such women were not made aware that there is no hospital policy, protocol or guideline, nor any expert opinion that supersedes a woman's right to choose. Even if the woman chooses an option which she knows will put her or her baby at greater risk, that is still her choice to make. I understand that this might perturb some of you a bit, but think about it; no one is more invested in a safe outcome for the baby than the baby's mother (except in very rare circumstances when mental illness or drug abuse render the mother incapable of making well reasoned choices).
However, the 'safest' course of action is not always as obvious as it is made out to be. Ask any woman who has chosen a caesarean birth after a traumatic vaginal birth, or any mother who has opted to birth her baby at home after multiple caesareans. To a traumatised mother, mental wellbeing, in relation to birth, is equally as relevant as physical wellbeing. In fact, the two are, in many ways, inextricably linked. For example, if a birthing woman feels fearful, release of oxytocin may be hindered thus slowing, or sometimes even stopping, her labour (cue the 'Failure to Progress' label and its inherent demand for interventions).
Part of the problem is that even when women are aware of their right to informed consent or refusal, maternity practitioners may not provide the necessary support for them to enact that right. Bullying or coercion may be used to push women into agreeing to interventions that they don't want. Or, maternity practitioners may give biased or emotive descriptions about why women 'should' have the intervention. An extreme example of this is the cruel, patronising and abusive use of the, "You don't want a dead baby on your hands, do you?" rhetoric. Shocking! Women need to be made aware of their birthing rights, and maternity practitioners who abuse them need to be held accountable.
I am sorry to all you women out there feeling broken by your births. Please know that your feelings are valid and that you are worthy of support and healing. Most importantly, trust me when I say that your broken birth was not your fault, and that with the right information and support, birth can be better next time.