This time three years ago, my first baby was just a few days old. And I can’t help but recall the story, now worn thin with telling, of how she was born eighteen days past her ‘due date’.
Expected on the 21st December, it was to be a long and more than usually stressful festive season, as the days and nights of waiting wore on. At a time of year when I was more inclined towards numbing myself with a mixture of socially acceptable 11am sherry drinking and, if that failed, a spot of monstrous overeating, I found myself nearly ten months pregnant and able to do neither. Ladies and gentlemen, this was The Christmas I Cried.
When not lying on the sofa surrounded by used tissues, I spent my time eating pineapples, running up and down the stairs, going for bumpy car rides, having acupuncture, and drinking large amounts of castor oil, which, for those of you who are curious, tastes like melted tea lights, and makes you shit through the eye of a needle. There. That will teach you to be curious.
I spent a total of eighteen days ‘being overdue’, getting bigger and bigger, and more and more desperate. The pressure mounted. Friends and family became anxious. But it was the obstetricians who were the most twitchy. From about a week into my gestational marathon, they wanted ‘to induce me’. I was summoned to meet them. After months of care at the hands of female midwives, it felt strange to be suddenly talking to men-in-suits. As I sat on one side of the desk, and they sat on the other, I had the strange feeling that I had not handed in my homework on time and had been sent to the Headmaster. They looked rather sceptical, and, did I dream it, faintly amused, when I told them of my planned home birth, and explained to me the risks, mounting daily, of my baby’s demise as my placenta rapidly deteriorated. Their explanations seemed a bit flimsy, but they did not seem to take to being pressed, and I was not on fighting form, being as I was bigger sideways on than I was tall, and teetering on the brink of lunacy. Did I mention it was Christmas?
After that meeting with the Obs, I spent another week at home trying every form of Quackery that Google could suggest to me. Oils, potions, lunar phases, meditation, visualisation, hypnosis, birth art, and perhaps craziest of all, sex; you name it, I was at it that week. I even had four ‘Membrane Sweeps’ from the midwives. (What’s a membrane sweep? Remember the castor oil. Don’t be curious.) Nothing worked, and in retrospect, I think most of my frantic efforts were probably counter-productive, and my poor terrified cervix remained clamped tightly shut. In the end I went to hospital and accepted induction, and my daughter was born on day eighteen.
The funny thing about this story is that very often, when I tell it, I get the same response. “Eighteen days? I didn’t think they let you go that overdue.” “Erm, well, actually”, I reply, “You can, um, do what you like! It’s sort of, kind of, up to you!”. “Really?!“, people say in amazement, “I did not know that!”.
To me, the language of their statement, “I didn’t think they let you“, says a great deal about the balance of power in UK maternity units. In fact, I’ve noticed that the expression ‘they let me’, is used a lot by women talking about their birth experiences in general. How often have you heard it, or used it yourself? “They let me have a bit more time” “They wouldn’t let me have a home birth” “They let mehold my baby straight away” “They let me move around instead of staying on the bed”, etc, etc.
What on earth are we thinking talking in these terms?! It’s the 21st century, we are supposed to be ‘liberated’, and yet here we are, speaking about one of the most important moments in our lives as if the decisions about how it pans out belong almost entirely to someone else!
When a woman gives birth, she should feel at the height of her powers, not beholden to anyone. She should not have to seek permission from anyone, about where or how she brings new life into the world. If she feels that she is not the person in charge, how is this going to impact on her ability to birth her baby? When we are in labour, this is not the time to be conventional, conformist. This is one of life’s moments when we need to play the role of the Hero, not the Victim. We should not have to be looking over our shoulder to see if the midwife, the man in the suit, or even our partner, approves.
And we cannot really blame ‘them’ if we are . We need to take responsibility, grow up, take charge. It is not good enough to keep using this ‘language of permission’, unconsciously and blindly giving away our power and then complaining when we don’t get the kind of birth we hoped for. From the moment we get pregnant, it should be us carrying the clipboard and asking the questions. It should be us who are calm, confident, highly informed. It should be us doing the ‘letting’.
As for my story, well, I let them induce me. Somewhere along the line after that, the balance of power shifted and I met another man in a suit, who delivered my daughter by forceps, and thereafter became known affectionately in my family as Cutlery Ken. My second daughter was born last summer, twelve days ‘late’, and for somewhat obvious reasons, I chose to give Ken the day off and stayed at home to deliver her myself. An interesting side effect of having a home birth is that, because you are on your own territory, your own turf, it is those who attend you who become the permission seekers. “Would you mind if I used your loo?”, “Could I possibly make myself a cup of tea?”, and so on. As the woman giving birth, you remain the most powerful person in the room, and let me tell you my friends, having done it both ways, that is exactly as it should be.
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