Sunday, 18 March 2012

Becoming a Mother: The Wallpaper of Fear

Recently I wrote about the products marketed to girls and what the Bailey Review refers to the increasingly 'sexualised wallpaper' that surrounds our children today. I like the way this idea of 'wallpaper' neatly acknowledges that the imagery that surrounds us can and does have a huge impact on the way we think, feel and live our lives. This got me thinking about other wallpapers, fabrics, and trimmings that decorate our world and the way in which they might be impacting on us, either consciously or unconsciously.

Pregnant with my first child, about five years ago, I was terrified. My whole life I don't think I had ever heard anyone say a single positive thing about the act of giving birth, and to me it seemed an impossible horror. I knew that I absolutely had to do it, and often compared my situation to a person about to parachute jump from a plane, only they - lucky bastards - actually had the option to duck out at the last minute, which I didn't.

I wasn't helped by what seemed to me like a constant insistence by others on asking what my plans for the birth were, which always included the question, 'And what are you going to do about pain relief?'. My suggestion that I was thinking of having an unmedicated birth was met with everything from surprised smiles to outright scoffing, including a man in the pub who told me, 'Once you're in labour you'll soon change your tune and be begging for drugs, luv.'

I ranted and raved to my partner. 'If I said I was going to run the London Marathon, or climb Everest, would they all be giving me these looks of anxiety? Would they be asking me how I would cope with the pain? Would they be telling me how many people die in the process?! No! They'd be telling me how great I was, and how they were sure I could do it!' But in spite of my protestations, and even my bold plans for a birth at home, I was scared, and the negative comments only served to deepen my fear.

At the time, the Channel 4 hit series One Born Every Minute hadn't begun, but I'm pretty sure that if it had, this would only have made things worse for me. Week after week, woman after woman is seen, lying on her back on a bed, with midwives frowning and offering drugs. Often the pushing stage is directed, with several people surrounding the woman and telling her what to do. Admittedly, there is the occasional drug-free birth in a pool or on all fours, but this seems to be so rare that even the midwives themselves are both shocked and mystified by it.

Virginia Howes, an experienced midwife who now works independently, has set up the Facebook page, One Born Every Minute - The Truth, to highlight practices on the program that are not evidence based or woman centred. I asked her to tell me a little about her objections to the program and how she came to set up the page.

"I knew as soon as I heard the title and saw the adverts for the Channel 4 programme what it was going to be like," she told me, "Huge billboards proudly displaying little babies traveling along a conveyor belt….I was quite upset that a maternity unit would take part or pride in using that scene to advertise midwifery. I knew that we would not see empowering, gentle, women friendly births; I knew it would be the medical model in all its gore and train crash mentality. Of course editing makes it seem worse and of course some births are difficult and need medical involvement - but very few- and that is not how it comes across on this programme. The majority of women are lying on beds from the outset, they are all monitored even without epidurals, the midwives appear to encourage epidurals, they use discredited unsafe practice in second stage, and the baby is always separated by cutting the cord straight away - to name but a few things. For sure a lot of editing goes on, but we cannot get away from the things we are seeing and hearing as they are really happening. What I am hearing is the worst thing for me, in particular some of the things that are said to women and explanations about why things are being implemented. Hearing myth and labour ward outdated rituals spoken week after week. I am just at a loss at how it is being allowed. Is the Midwifery governing body the Nursing and Midwifery Council not listening to some of the midwives words? Are they not watching as we witness them in breach of their rules?

I understand that the programme makers want to pull in the audiences but other birth programmes have done just that without all the frightening stuff being shown. Many women are saying they now have a fear of birth due to the programme, but surely it does not need to be like that? I believe it is the couples stories along with the births that make it so emotional and compelling viewing, so normal non-medicalised empowering birth would still be an audience puller, but it would also give the most amazing messages to women that birth can be amazing, empowering and something to embrace rather than to be afraid of."

Pregnant women across the UK are glued to One Born Every Minute, and I'm quite sure there are equivalent shows in the U.S and beyond. And yet they do nothing but perpetuate the myth that birth is a time of fear, horror and agony, which a helpless woman must try to endure with the help of as many drugs as she can lay her hands on. This 'wallpaper of fear' may seem like it is just decoration, but in fact it creates a vivid, time-specific and influential backdrop to our world. Imagery has great influence. Women who have never seen anyone else nursing often struggle to breastfeed. Little girls who are bombarded with high heeled shoes, make-up and motifs of princesses start to believe that these are of great importance to them. And women who watch other women protesting that they 'cannot do it' as they lie on their backs on a bed, numb from the waist down, will most likely give birth in this way when it comes to their turn.

When my first daughter was born, my fear got the better of me, in the end, as my body held on tight to her and my hopes of a home birth ended in a hospital induction and forceps delivery. My fear and negative expectations became, as they do for many, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two years later, pregnant for the second time, I watched the show One Born Every Minute, and heard a midwife say to her colleagues, 'I really think she should have an epidural. I just don't like seeing her like that'. This comment inspired me - to hire an Independent Midwife, someone who I could be sure would believe in my body's ability to birth naturally and who would understand that to medicate a woman in labour is not always in her best interests, even if it often helps ease the discomfort of those who surround her. Whilst both of my births were incredible experiences ending with a healthy baby in my arms, my second birth at home brought me the empowering and transformational rite of passage I felt I had slightly missed the first time around. 

If you are pregnant right now or plan to have a baby one day, pause for a moment and consider the wallpaper that surrounds you. What messages are you receiving about birth from your family, your partner, your friends, magazines, books, TV and film? What image comes to your mind when you picture a woman in labour or the moment of birth? If this is a negative or frightening image, is it possible that there could be another way, a way that is better for you as the woman, that empowers you, inspires you, and fills you with strength - and STILL delivers a healthy baby?! Allow yourself to consider this option. Switch off One Born Every Minute, and watch some of the births on a resource like mybirth.tv instead. Look at some of the images of birth on sites like Bring Birth Home and Birth Without Fear. Try to find imagery that challenges your expectations, rather than conforming to them. Consider that how you personally decide to bring your baby into the world is entirely your choice, and that you can create the birth that feels right and positive for you. Birth is not a rented house, it belongs to you - take ownership - and decorate it with the wallpaper of your own choosing!



17 comments:

  1. There is an US version of OBEM and it is much worse than the UK one. It is on one of the freeview channels if you dare!! ;)

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    1. Yikes, fishukie, i'm not sure i do dare! ;-) x

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  2. I have seen the US OBEM it is aweful, most women come in for an elective induction and order an epidural before they have even started contracting properly!
    I think it is sad birth has become like that, I ended up having an epidural and flat on my back hospital delivery after a failed home waterbirth attempt. I had lack of belief from a lot of people when I told them I wanted a unmedicated home birth.
    Maybe if they had believed in me more I would have believed in myself better. Possibly the birth would have been easier? Who knows?
    My mother had 6 babies 5 at home all unmedicated and she tells them as wonderful happy events. I have faith that my next birth (if there is one) will not be in a hospital!! It will be the empowering experience you talk of =D

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    1. I agree Holly that, when things don't go the way we wanted, 't is hard to know what if anything could have helped. I really hope that you, like I did, get the natural birth you want at some time in the future. Sometimes it can feel like we are being a bit selfish to want this, but I don't think we are, the mother's experience matters too and also has an impact on attachment and the future well being of her child! Good luck x

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  3. You took the words right out of my mouth! Brilliant post and a great comfort to those who are expecting. Birth can be stressful and painful but it can also be wonderful and empowering.

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    1. Thank you CR. You are right, it is important to remember that it can be BOTH of those things, at once! x

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  4. after having a bad reaction to pethidine with my son I knew I didnt want that or its equivalent this time round and put this in my birthplan.....sadly I and my partner(this was his first child) were pressured into it,the result being I had a bad reaction to it and feel very sad how my daughters birth was....nothing bad happened but I was so out of it and hardly remember anything and just wish I been allowed to be in pain and know what was going on,after all its not called labour for nothing....

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    1. Quite right Jude. I'm sorry to hear that you were pressured into pethidine, even though it was in your plan that you specifically didn't want it, that is really terrible. You are right that it is better to be in pain and have a memory of the experience than to miss such an important moment in your life. I'm really sorry this happened to you and hope you will have another baby and an empowered birth? Or perhaps find some way to make your peace with it. x

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  5. Thanks for this article, brings me back to 2 years ago when I gave birth here in Los Angeles. As an expat Kiwi living in the US I've spent the majority of my 16 years here seeking out alternative medicine practices and healthcare options, avoiding the bio-medical "system" that permeates, thrives and profits greatly within a culture of fear and paranoia, and is driven largely by the mainstream media. When it comes to birth, many of the doctors here have never even witnessed a natural vaginal birth or a laboring woman, as they were educated and indoctrinated into the pharmaceutical "system" themselves. What I learned during my pregnancy was not so much what I needed to do in order to birth naturally, which was really just about exercise and healthy eating and letting nature do the rest. I learned more about what I needed to NOT do. As I set my intention for a home water birth, I made sure to also sequester myself from any negativity, hype and fear surrounding birth. Since I had gotten rid of satellite TV long ago this was relatively easy! I surrounded myself with people that either didn't know and were curious about my journey, or women friends that had birthed the same way, or books like Gurmukh's "Bountiful, Beautiful Blissful". I sought out midwives and doulas that were in alignment with this picture, and I went to them for all my pre-natal care. I would have even shut both of our mothers completely out of the experience if they had lived closer and were planning to be present, such was my commitment to this process (luckily they were both in NZ, full of their own fear and concern for our decision). In hindsight I think this is SO important especially for first time mothers, I think you absolutely MUST be discerning about what images you allow yourself to be subjected to during pregnancy, as you say images are so very powerful. The same goes for conversation, and the "energy" of people you plan to have around you. Ultimately I had the most beautiful birth experience I could have imagined, my labor was 3 days long, the first day I spent running last minute errands as my girl was coming a week early. Day 2 and 3 were spent in the comfort of my home, where I could be outside in the sun, inside on the loo, in my kitchen making food, at the dinner table eating with my husband, midwife, doula and a good friend (who I trusted to film the experience). I dilated very slowly, yet I was allowed the opportunity to move through MY OWN process, however long it took, and after several walks around the block (and concerned passerby pulling over to ask if we needed help!), my 8lb healthy baby arrived. It was with complete respect for my individual journey, complete support for the natural process of a woman's body in labor, complete surrender on my part, and complete co-operation on the part of my clear-minded, unmedicated baby, that we birthed naturally at home that day. There are so many variables when it comes to birth, and I know that my labor would NOT have been "allowed" to progress this way in a hospital setting. Every woman has her own unique labor experience, the beauty of natural birth is that it allows for all these variables, and trusts inherently in the bodies innate ability to bring forth the child that it has so successfully grown and nourished. The more information that is out there in support of this process, the more options women have of where to go to obtain this kind of care, the more blogs and articles like this that are shared, the more peaceful this most sacred practice can become, and the more empowered our women and children become. A child born from the safety of its mothers womb into a peaceful world of love and safety understands and imprints this world differently from day one. I truly believe it changes the world, one birth at a time. Sorry for the long reply I'm impassioned by the memories of this experience! Thankyou for this article and your dedication to Mamas everywhere :)

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    1. Thank YOU, 'unknown', for this wonderful comment. Your words and story add so much to what I have already said. This blog does well in google these days and it always pleases me so much when I see that someone has googled something and found a post like this, not just because of my own words, but because of comments like yours that add so much. If just one pregnant woman reads my words or yours and has a better chance of a natural birth as a result, I will be so happy! Thank you again so much. x

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  6. Oh Sorry! I've never commented on a blog before and don't know how I've managed to label myself as 'Unknown' lol. Perhaps you can give me some guidance on changing that. My name is Reirani, I also just read your ultra-beautiful post from last week on nursing down to sleep. Such beautiful poetic words! Thankyou :) I still nurse my 2 year old down to sleep, though she no longer nurses during the day, and couldn't agree with you more on all the reason TO continue past the age of 1 also. Again, thank you for your blog, you give so much to the rest of us just by sharing your creativity and experiences this way...

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    1. Thank you very much Reirani, that is a far more beautiful name than 'Unknown'!
      I'm not sure about changing your name as it appears on the comments, sorry!
      Thanks again so much for your appreciative words, they mean a lot x

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  7. thanks for your kind words.

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  8. This really resonates with my own experiences. My first was an induction. I did actually have a great registrar who listened to what I wanted and basically went all out to avoid a Caesarean. Thank god! My second was much better.... although I still really felt like they were rushing me. I am just coming up to my 3rd. Had a scare last week - breech presentation - but seems to have settled down again. My midwife seems to be in the job to add stress rather than reassure and give information. Why is there no trust in nature?

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    1. Can you get a different midwife Rebecca or have you thought about a Doula to help protect your interests? I will tweet you in case you don't see this! x

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  9. The wallpaper that affected me the most was the sort that promised postpartum life would be all soft-focused, beatific scenes of gentle motherhood. What a joke!

    I dealt with preterm labor and the highly medicalized early birth of my twins, but assumed that once I got them home everything would be naturally wonderful and fall into place. That's not how it happened, and dealing with reality spiraled me into some fierce mommy-guilt, and perpetuated the myth of the supermom in my own life.

    Luckily, I had a great tool for tearing down that particular wallpaper... the internet. Finding online support was invaluable. And it still is as I continue on my journey, looking beyond the wallpaper and finding my own truths.

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