Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Did I cheat? I feel a bit cheated...

From the first agonising contraction to the emergency caesarean 36 hours later, the birth of my elder child was crap.

I didn't go into the enterprise of childbirth expecting it to be empowering or lovely or spiritually fulfilling. I didn't plan to burn aromatic candles or listen to whale noises on CD as I brought new life into the world. (I did buy the greatest hits of Wham! to keep my spirits up during labour, but forgot to take it, and indeed my shoes, along to the hospital.) So I wouldn't say I had fixed or unrealistic expectations of the birth experience - but I did expect I'd actually be able to give birth.

I strongly believe that it's a woman's right to call the shots about how she has her baby. She shouldn't have interventions foisted on her, but if she makes informed decisions to use pain relief or other technology, that should be respected. At a purely personal level, though, I feel it's better to manage without interventions if you can. That was what I planned to do, and it never occurred to me, not even for a moment, that my body wouldn't be able to do what's supposedly the most natural thing in the world.

So when my daughter was born surgically, I felt quite a deep sense of disappointment with myself - as though my body had let me down, and I was somehow a 'failed' woman. The message of failure had come through a variety of sources. Once book I'd read during pregnancy discussed at great length how caesareans are best avoided - then belatedly added, in one feeble sentence, that women who have caesars shouldn't feel bad because all births are special. Like, whatever. I found myself thinking of my second pregnancy as a chance to redeem myself, and though I managed a vaginal delivery, I was so epiduralled, ventuesed, episiotomied and generally off the planet that the second birth seemed little different from the first.

My midwife, who was excellent, encouraged me through both pregnancies to avoid interventions if I could, and talked me through the evidence in favour of 'natural' birth. The message was an important one, and helped me make informed choices. But I think the challenge for feminists is this: how we can promote the advantages of non-intervention birth without 'looking down' on the experiences of women who need, or choose, interventions?


Azlemed said...

birth is a highly politicised event in so many ways... the whole natural birth is better thing might be best, but if you cant do it you shouldnt be beaten up by other women over it.

It seems such a divisive thing, how other women judge you because u had a csection or u had quick labours.. i had an ex friend make me feel guilty because i had quick labours without pain relief.. it didnt matter to her that both my girls spent time in nicu, and I had terrible mastitis etc.. i was supposed to feel bad because my body did what it needed too and feel sorry for her that she had a csection.... but in the end it was her baggage to deal with not mine, each birth is a miracle.

Birth Options in NZ are great compared to the US or OZ, VBAC is an option for most women here, in some places once a c section always a c section. we have moved to a more women focussed system which gives us more rights, the US system has very little choice and c sections account for up to 46% of births in some hospitals.

Our homebirth rate is twice that of Australia, but no where near the rate in the Netherlands which is over 30% of births are planned homebirths.

the business of being born by Rikki Lake is well worth watching. Esp as the right wing like to make out that our system is wrong with midwife LMC's.

Giovanni said...

But I think the challenge for feminists is this: how we can promote the advantages of non-intervention birth without 'looking down' on the experiences of women who need, or choose, interventionsOh, I don't know, looking down on one's peers is such an important part of parenting, I'd hate to see it disappear.

But seriously, folks, I'm with Azlemed: the range of choices in NZ is really quite good. And we personally never felt bullied or pressured into adopting one or another, not by our midwife, not by our friends, not by our ante-natal group. Lucky, I guess. And later when we did speak to ante-natal groups it was because we believed in the idea of telling your story, be it positive or negative, in a way that doesn't pre-judge the choices of others.

I did meet this mother at a party once who had the most upsetting relationship with the work of Sheila Kitzinger. She hated that stuff with real convintion, and it was the same books that we found inspiring in their common-sense. So I wonder what fears and insecurities we project into this most life-changing event, regardless of the intention behind the messages that might be out there.

Anonymous said...

My experience was that, no matter what was agreed before labour, a lot of things happen in hospital that make natural birth damn near impossible.

We have a great cultural belief that birth is hard and women are not strong enough to handle it. This means that women go into labour feeling fearful (and fear in and of itself can interfere with the process) and then are often surrounded by people who also don't believe they can do it. No wonder so few of us actually have natural births.

My first birth involved every drug known to humankind and I had a doctor banging on the door, desperate to use the vonteuse, as I pushed my son out. I came out of it sure my body was broken. I opted for a homebirth with my second but was secretly half convinced that I'd be a hospital transfer due to being "bad at birthing". Imagine my surprise when I had a very quick and easy labour.

The ex-expat said...

I have many theories about this, not the least of which being that men are expected and encouraged and welcome to occupy many meaningful roles in their lives, from father to career man to hobbyist, gathering a sense of self from a multitude of activities. Women, however, are boxed into being accepted mostly for being "pretty" or in the only role pushed onto us pretty much from birth: motherhood.

But If our society values motherhood so much, then why, after a woman gives birth, is everyone's attention zeroed in on her waistline and hips to determine if she has returned to her pre-baby body yet? No one is asking "How is the baby? How are the mother and father?" The question is always, "Did she lose the baby weight yet, and did she lose it faster than the last tabloid mom?" Why is erasing any sign of pregnancy or giving birth so all-encompassingly crucial, and why does it trump the new responsibilities, concerns, and joys of parenting

Geeze a lot of opinions for someone who has never given birth.

Giovanni said...

But If our society values motherhood so much, then why, after a woman gives birth, is everyone's attention zeroed in on her waistline and hips to determine if she has returned to her pre-baby body yet? No one is asking "How is the baby? How are the mother and father?" The question is always, "Did she lose the baby weight yet, and did she lose it faster than the last tabloid mom?"Er, really? I've never heard anything other than how's the baby, and how's the mother. Honest.

Azlemed said...

women are fearful of birth becuase most people delight in telling the horror stories instead of telling about the euphoria that they had after giving birth or the stories that arent horror ones, I have had 3 drug free births, all under 3 hours, for me birth is an amazing experience and I tell people about the birth experiences I have had because its talking about things that changes the levels of fear...

fear has been instilled by the medical institutions too.. that we cant give birth without intervention, that you are being irresponsible if you use a midwife not an ob/gyn. Women are made to feel guilty whatever choice they make, and that is something that needs reclaimed, we need to reclaim belief in ourselves as women and our ability to birth children.

Anonymous said...

Azelmed - is there a way to talk about our good births without being perceived to be skiting?

People look at me funny when I use words like "cool", "fun" and "awesome" to describe my second birth.

Azlemed said...

@hungrymama, I dont know, that is one of the problems I have encountered is that having good births you are supposed to feel embarrassed about it, and guilty that you didnt "suffer" enough. Why should childbirth be about suffering... are we still being tarred with Eves brush... if you need an epidural then use it, if you need a csection, then you need one. but we do need to look at reasons why women dont opt for vbac the next time, why "elective" c sections are pushed for second births, and if you have had 2 c sections then you arent even considered to be able to have a vbac. .

muerk said...

Women need to take back our confidence and celebrate everytime a healthy baby is born.

I would have loved to homebirth, but as a high risk mother it was never going to happen. Without all the medical intervention my sons could have died. My last almost did but was saved because of the pediatric doctor with the resuss equipment that was on the birthing ward.

All my births were induced and vaginal, but the first was hell. But I don't care because my son was born alive.

The priority is health for mum and baby and each individual birth has differing needs. We need to be supportive over highly medicalised difficult births _and_ easy homebirths.

What I do not agree with is freebirthing. (A homebirth but with no midwife or specialist care.)

An Australian baby recently died due to her mother's choice to do it alone.


Azlemed said...

Anna, I had to write a blogpost because i had heaps of thoughts about this... http://sahmfeminist.blogspot.com/2009/04/birth-why-do-women-feel-like-failures.html

Thanks for making me think again

Anna said...

Giovanni, I don't think it's an issue of the choices available to women - I agree with Azlemed that things are overall pretty good in NZ - so much as the moral value attached to the choices.

Same thing applies with breastfeeding. It's been taken up (quite rightly) as a public health issue, but the downside of this zeal is that women who can't or choose not to breastfeed are often made to feel a bit useless.

Can you promote one option without implicitly dissing the other one?

Julie said...

Here are homepaddock's thoughts on the matter too. More later, if I can stop procrastinating long enough to do some work!

Tamara said...

I must say, none of the mothers I am friends with have ever judged eachother on their birth performance. Or on breastfeeding, which some of them had a lot of trouble with. It seems we have been able to be friends and support eachother's parenting and not allow external influences to affect that. I do agree with Giovanni about how we bring our own issues to the information we are given. My ante-natal group friends have differing views on the messages given by the same instructor in the same course. You can't please all of the people all of the time.

Azlemed said...

i have often thought about joining la leche, but they seem so scary in their push that breast is best... I am more moderate on this and would love to help mums with breastfeeding, but there seems little support other than through highly politicised groups.

Ante natal groups can be awesome, others can just bring the feeling of failure. A more moderate tone is needed on so many of these issues but its always black or white, yet to me its such a grey area really.

Trouble said...

I'm staring down the barrel of this particular issue in a few months, and having read just about every book out there including Naomi Wolf's terrifying Misconceptions, I'm working on making it Not Such A Huge Deal. It's one or two or three days in what's going to be a lifetime of parenthood, and not nearly as important for the kid as how I help it negotiate the rest of life's slings and arrows, providing a few basic minimum health and safety standards.

It's going to be my experience much more than anyone else's, and providing it goes ok for me (I keep a sense of agency, I'm not injured, baby's not injured, nobody suffers psychological trauma) the rest of the world and its judgement can go hang.
Caesarians aren't so great because they take a lot longer to recover from, but if on balance that's better than risking a bunch of other bad things, so be it. Elective caesarian doesn't mean you choose it to fit in between your pedicure and your salon appointment.

Providing I get to have a say in how it goes (nothing that makes me space out, thanks), that fits the bill for me.

Anna said...

Good for you, Trouble! As Azlemed points out, women do have a tendency to tell you horror stories when you're pregnant, and it's bloody unhelpful. That wasn't my purpose in writing this post, and although my own experiences weren't great, they were also very atypical. And anyhoo, I lived to tell the tale, have two marvellous kids, and am secretly a bit proud of my battle scars... ;-)

Trouble said...

I think it's one of the many issues where people confuse advocacy for choice with campaigning for one particular choice. While it's incredibly important that women can give birth in the safest, least traumatic circumstances possible, and some aspects of our health system (don't get me started on the LMC model or some of its predecessors) militate against that, how we negotiate that minefield as individuals is our business and ours alone.

It's not as if high-intervention births are scab labour making life harder for natural births, or vice versa. I can't see how a collective approach is useful in this context.

So much about motherhood is subject to public ownership, whether it's the public health variety or the "letting the side down" peer pressure. Either limits choice, and I think this is an issue sufficiently up close and personal that choice is far more important than applying a vision of what's best for everyone, whether that vision finds its origins in public health management or a grassroots natural health movement.

Anonymous said...

I think with birth and breastfeeding both the problem is not that a particular option is advocated for (because there are damn good reasons why breastfeeding and natural birth are healthier and safer for most mothers and babies) but that we push the idea of those things and then put tons of roadblocks in the way so many women are unable, through no fault of their own, to meet their goals.

And then many of us manage to feel guilty where we should be feeling angry.

Azlemed - -LLL suffer from bad publicity. We ARE passionate but we're not big scary zealots for the most part(just like feminists aren't big scary manhaters for the most part). The stated aim of the organisation is to help mothers reach their own breastfeeding goals.

Anonymous said...

Trouble - actually a society in which high intervention births are common can make having a natural birth much harder. If your carers don't know how to help a non-drugged woman handle labour or don't have faith in your ability to do it unmedicated you may find yourself under enormous pressure to accept interventions you don't really want. Also a lot of knowledge such as how to deliver a breech baby vaginally, gets lost through lack of use. Women wanting a natural birth often actually have to go into labour "fighting" in order to get their choice.

homepaddock said...

Thanks for the link, Julie.

Pregnancy and delivery aren't a competition, what's right for one woman and her baby in specific circumstances might not be for another.

Choices and the ability to make informed decisions are important.

But what matters most is the wellbeing of mother and baby and we must keep in mind that the point of being pregnant is to have a healthy baby.

Azlemed said...

The lll group I went to scared me, they were very pushy and it was only that it was my third child that I wasnt intimidated by them, some people are freaked out seeing mums feeding 3 year olds and new babies together,

Natural birth is difficult and its been through the patience and guidance of my midwives that I have achieved them. Its very easy to say give me the pain killers, and i did, but it was too late the first time, and the next two times I knew I could do it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, if you're bothered by older nurslings LLL might not be somewhere you're completely comfortable. Mind you, for women who are nursing three-year-olds it might be the only place they ever do get to feel comfortable :-)

Make Tea Not War said...

I went to natural childbirth antenatal classes and some of the (mis)information we were given was just shocking in its attempt at scaremongering emotional blackmail. I particularly remember the table of likelihood that your child would become a serious drug addict which escalated as the level of birth intervention escalated. Oxygen=cannabis user but epidural=heroin addict

This is by way of lead in to saying that I am not at all convinced by the natural childbirth is preferable movement. I know there are women who do have good experiences of it and that's great for them but I have grave doubts about much of the pseudo science so frequently used to justify non interventionist approaches and the damage this does to the women and babies when things don't go smoothly. I know its a fraught subject. I'm not here to judge anyone's personal choices or negate anyone experiences- just to provide an alternative perspective and a link to further information and analysis http://homebirthdebate.blogspot.com/ for the benefit of anyone who is interested. I know I would have appreciated this when I was trying to navigate my way through the big puddle o' crazy that is so much of popular discourse surrounding childbirth

Trouble- you've got exactly the right attitude, I think.

Giovanni said...

Wow. Somebody who shall remain nameless encouraged my partner and I to join the homebirth association on the grounds of the fact that "they could use people who aren't insane". Now maybe I know what he or she meant.

LS1 said...

That was what I planned to do, and it never occurred to me, not even for a moment, that my body wouldn't be able to do what's supposedly the most natural thing in the world.This is the part I find really odd. I struggle to think of any other natural human bugger-up (like getting cancer, or having a heart attack) that is treated in terms of being a failure. Many women cannot give birth "naturally" - they simply can't and would die if they tried. If you have a heart attack or you get cancer, or kidney stones, or a brain tumor you could die without intervention. And yet this treatment is seldom cast in terms of being such a "failure".

I'm over the whole birthing thing; it seems many women love to oppress one another and find it an endless sense of entertainment to judge one another's decisions. It's pathetic. I cannot believe the sheer number of people who have said to me recently (as I get ready to pop out a baby) "Oh well of course, everyone wants the most natural birth possible" as if this is the default assumed position.

It's like someone saying to a cancer patient "Oh well of course, you'll want the absolute minimum treatment to alleiviate your suffering" (sotto voce: "Otherwise you are a failure").

I want to deny the risks of nature and have a baby that lives and a birth that doesn't leave me traumatised. And I think the best way to avoid being unduly traumatised is to be flexible about the services available to you and accepting of treatments that can save your life and your baby.

Also, I know some homebirthers - none of them are unreasonable nutjobs. I don't know any who wouldn't go off to hospital if things got racey - that's generally called freebirthing I think. Sounds like some kind of expensive extreme sport that one does on hardwood floors.

Anna said...

Beautifully argued, LS1!