Ahead of Mothers’ Day, Hysterical Women explores the idea of the ‘neurotic mother’, whose concerns about her own health and that of her children, are dismissed or minimised.
“Just pop up on the bed.”
“Failure to progress.”
“I’m just going to have a quick feel of your tummy.”
“I’ll have a little feel down below.”
“I’m going to make a little cut to let the baby out.”
“Lack of maternal effort.”
The routine language of childbirth is often minimising, infantilising and dismissive. As a mother, an occasional doula, a founder of the human rights in childbirth charity Birthrights, and a campaigner for women’s reproductive rights, I’m fed up of the dismissal of women’s experiences, knowledge, pain and decisions at a time in their lives when supportive care is proven to improve experiences, and when suicide remains the leading indirect cause of maternal death.
I work alongside dedicated midwives, doctors and experts-by-experience who are trying hard to change that and to support developments in policy, training and practice that are centring women in a conversation that they’ve been sidelined in for decades.
But we are not there yet. Black and minority ethnic women die in childbirth at far higher rates than their white counterparts and, tragically, so do their babies. Confidential enquiries into stillbirth show that babies’ lives would be saved if services just listened to women who turn up at the maternity assessment unit with a hunch that something is wrong. Women are turned away from hospital because they are “not in labour yet”, only to give birth in a taxi, in their living room or in the street hours later. Refugee and asylum seeking women are dispersed away from their support networks and midwives throughout their pregnancies and the overseas visitors charging system has been shown to deter some vulnerable women from seeking life-saving antenatal care.
The advice and support that the legal charity Birthrights continues to provide to women and those who care for them shows time and time again that many are not being listened to, are being discriminated against, have had their autonomy stripped from them or are prevented from making reasonable choices about their births. We’ve campaigned for respectful care pathways for women who ask for a caesarean. Though stereotyped as too-posh-to-push, these women most often ask for a caesarean to avoid the trauma of their previous births, because of medical complications that aren’t given adequate attention or because of trauma or sexual violence in their past.
We’ve helped women insist on an apology when their doctor has threatened them with a social services referral for declining a test. We’ve advised those who are told they “are not allowed” to give birth at home, or in water or at a birth centre because of an arbitrary policy rather than then individualised conversation they are entitled to. We’ve helped women complain when they have said “no” to serious interventions like forceps and episiotomies and they have been ignored with disastrous consequences for their physical and mental health. And we are working with others like Birth Companions to research the impact of maternity experiences on women facing the most severe disadvantage in our society.
Birth campaigning is often characterised as being all about strident, entitled women asking to give birth in a moonlit pool at midnight – and there has been a bit of that. But it’s also a handy trick the patriarchy has pulled, a switcheroo that means any time childbirth is mentioned women are pitted against each. We hold our mothering identities tightly in our hands – after all, they were made of the decisions, experiences and ups and downs of our own journeys, and we know that the world is unfriendly. So once the birth word is said we’re screaming at each other about homebirth vs. caesareans, conned in to thinking that there is a right or a wrong way to give birth.
Birth is not just one day, and research shows us that women remember it for their lifetimes. Kind, compassionate care, which ensures women are decision-makers and do not feel alone, reduces trauma and saves lives. What this care consists of will look different for every woman and so we need to campaign to ensure our maternity services value women as experts in their bodies and lives, and listen to them as they make this leap.
Midwives and doctors want to provide this care and women want to receive it. But getting there will mean treating women like adults. Talking openly and compassionately about loss, fear and pain, as well as joy and transformation. It will mean speaking honest words kindly and turning a “little feel down below”, to “I would like to examine your cervix and this is why and this is exactly how it will happen. Is that ok for you?”
Buy Rebecca’s books Your No Guilt Pregnancy Plan: a revolutionary guide to pregnancy, birth and the weeks that follow and Why Human Rights in Childbirth Matter on Amazon.
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