I once read somewhere that the goal of psychotherapy is to reveal the secrets we are keeping, even from ourselves. We all do this. We all keep a few bits of reality out of sight, sometimes because they are painful, but more often, perhaps, simply because to acknowledge them would be a difficult admission of a lifetime of misguided beliefs, misdirected energy, and mistakes.
We see this a lot with the birth issue. Sometimes it’s as if simply talking about birth in a positive way is too much for people to tolerate. The cultural attitude that birth is dangerous and downright unpleasant has become so engrained that many people seem to no longer see it as an attitude at all – they see it as a solid FACT. To challenge this would involve accessing ways of thinking that, whilst they may exist, are completely beyond everyday awareness, like rooms in a mansion that have been put under dust sheets and long forgotten.
In the media, journalists with the power and influence for positive change often reveal their own beliefs about birth, beliefs so deeply held they can only be perceived, by the holder, as facts. In this recent article in the Guardian, for example, the interviewer met Caroline Flint, one of the UK’s most highly regarded midwives. Flint was clearly overflowing with wisdom and wonderful positive messages about birth, so much so that the interviewer herself was, “almost swayed” – almost. Ultimately, for reasons the interviewer probably keeps secret, even from herself, she felt compelled to dismiss Flint’s ideas – with all their power to be transformative for women – as ‘transcendental gubbins’, accusing her of ‘piling guilt onto mothers’, and wheeling out an Obstetrician to remind us yet again not to pin our hopes too high when it comes to labour, because, after all, yup, you guessed it, all that matters is a healthy baby.
You don’t have to look very far to find similar examples of the media pouring scorn on the notion that birth can be pleasant, delightful, or even orgasmic. In fact, it’s much harder to find an article that doesn’t. Even articles that are about women who do actually manage to have positive births seem to carry the addendum, ‘Birth is not like this for most women. For most women it is painful and frightening. We just thought you might be entertained for a moment by this lunatic fringe who think otherwise.’
Sometimes in life we start with the evidence and build up our beliefs, other times we start with our beliefs and make damn sure we find some evidence. Nothing illustrates this better than a story told to me in my first pregnancy by a midwife friend, which I’m pretty sure taught me more about birth than a lot of the books I have subsequently read:
A field mouse is snuggled in a little nest of hay, quietly beginning to give birth to her litter of babies. Some walkers pass by, see the mouse, and feel worried. What should they do? Knowing there is a vet nearby, they scoop up the mouse, and gently take her to the vets surgery. The vet assures them there is no need to panic, puts the mouse on the examination table, and shines bright lights on her. The mouse is frightened, and her labour stops. The vet tries to restart it with drugs, to no avail, and eventually performs a caesarean. The mother and all of her mouse babies survive. “Well”, say the people who found her in her field nest, “Thank goodness we were passing by and saw the mouse in time, otherwise, who knows what might have happened?”
In the stories we hear, and the events that take place in our lives, we often see what we most want to see, and filter out or dismiss the stuff that doesn’t conform to our belief system or world view. When we apply this to birth, it means that often the stories of women who relish and enjoy it do not sit comfortably with us, and that we prefer and even find more reassuring the stories of horror and trauma, which reinforce the attitudes we have come to believe are facts.
There may be many reasons for this collective denial, which often keeps women a prisoner of their own self-fulfilling prophecy, believing that birth cannot be positive let alone ‘transcendental’, and therefore not even trying to make it so. For some women, perhaps, having had their own babies in unpleasant circumstances, it’s too painful to admit that things could have been different. Maybe this is what is meant when, as it often is, the notion of ‘piling on guilt’ is raised.
To move forwards, perhaps this pain needs to be acknowledged; a few generations of women who have missed their chance for an empowering experience and instead had a birth they would rather forget. Maybe they need a collective apology, for the shaving, the cutting, the stirrups, the steel, the brutal experiences they suffered, and continue to suffer, in the name of progress? Perhaps this would be a way of pulling off the dust sheets in the long forgotten room, of laying bare the secrets we are collectively keeping from ourselves – and of clearing the way for women to make a new start and have the positive births they deserve.