Lots of debate on the F-Word about Labour’s plans to give women more choice about home births and having partners to stay the night after a baby’s birth. The whole thing really irritates me and at first I couldn’t work out why. But finally, I think it’s because in all this no one seems to remember that a experiencing a successful live birth is not testimony to the power of womankind, but basically a massive privilege. I don’t mean this in the sense of “so think yourselves lucky and stop questioning the conditions of such births” (on the contrary, we should continue to do so). What I mean is that if you start presenting labour as an area in which women know their own bodies and can make choices from a position of authority, you have to consider how this might resonate with women who’ve experienced miscarriage and stillbirth. Since being fortunate enough to have my two sons, these things don’t get to me any more, but after a disastrous first pregnancy I would have found exactly this type of debate deeply upsetting. How can women who are having successful pregnancies lay claim to such knowledge and capability, just because they are more able than others to physically reproduce? It strikes me as a little similar to when people talk about positive attitude with reference to cancer and describe survivors as having “won their battle”. Those who don’t seem to be able to harness this apparently innate physical ability and instead experience their bodies as doing something beyond their control and desire are made to experience a personal tragedy as a personal failure as well.
Giving birth is such an extreme physical and emotional experience, yet most women only experience it a few times at the most. Birth experiences are so variable, yet the intensity of your own can lead you to see it as representative of something deeper, applicable to other women and what could or couldn’t be the “right” birth. To be honest, I think we should be more cautious and if anything, place less import on experiencing in a way which gives you the appropriate narrative at the end. No one should be using women’s bodies as a battleground for their own ideals (and I think some, but far from all, midwives and doctors do this, as though we’re pieces of meat to be fought over in a quest for professional status). At the same time, I wonder how helpful it is for us to shackle ourselves with birth plans and ideals which don’t respect our own physical responses and desires once the contractions kick in. We don’t have the breadth of experience to say in advance what should happen, not just to others, but even perhaps to us, since births are so unique and we’ll never go through the same birth twice for comparison’s sake. And really, I wonder how feminist it actually is to make experiencing a good labour an issue of empowerment and choice. I can’t see this doing much more that making women who’ve had good labours without intervention fail to appreciate how randomly lucky they’ve been, and women who for reasons beyond anyone’s control have horrendous experiences feel they have somehow let themselves and their bodies down.
Can’t we just aim for an okay birth experience, one which treats all women with respect as autonomous human beings, whether it’s in an NHS hospital or at home? I found the former, while not exactly a luxurious experience, absolutely fine, but would hope to have the latter, were I to get pregnant again, as simply the safest bet, as I have a history of very fast labours. My second son, in his eagerness to arrive, was born via an unorthodox “compromise” option, between our house and the hospital, delivered by my partner on the ground next to a portakabin. I still think of those moments just after he arrived, when there was just the three of us in the world, as perhaps the most magical I will ever experience. Still, I’m not about to recommend open-air freebirthing for all (if, as had been the case with my first son, the umbilical cord had been wrapped around my second son’s neck, a minor hiccup could have turned into a tragedy due to the absence of a midwife, however bossy and overly-officious [and the midwife I had with the first one was just that…]).
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while I’d also have liked to have had my partner there on the night after our first child was born (I too was very scared) and may have liked a home birth with our second (however special, it was not as safe as I'd have liked) I don’t think we should allow labour, birth and the time immediately afterwards to gain too much import in terms of perceptions of our own power. Whether or not a partner is or isn’t there for one night or you are or you aren’t at home is simply scratching at the surface, beneath which lies such a vast number of things you can’t control, however organised and forceful you are. We should fight for control over any decisions made regarding our own bodies, but we should not confuse this with believing that our bodies will thereby always be controllable.