I talk with a lot of women about birth and can't help but feel disheartened by the language I often hear them using when they relay their experiences...
"I had to have a caesarean because my baby was breech."
"I wasn't allowed to go more than two weeks overdue."
"They wouldn't let me try for a natural birth because..."
"My midwife decided to pop my waters to help speed things up."
When I hear these disempowering comments I feel pretty gutted. It seems that these women either a) do not realise that they are entitled to make fully informed choices about all aspects of their care, or b) are happy to let others make important decisions on their behalf when it comes to giving birth. Actually, I suspect that for most it's probably a combination of the two.
It's rather sad how unquestioning women can be when it comes to such an important and special occasion in their lives, though hardly surprising given the 'don't question authority' type education system most of us grew up with. Our upbringing led many of us to believe that authority figures in our lives - doctors, teachers, parents, religious leaders - knew better than we did about what was 'right' for us. We weren't encouraged to think for ourselves much and certainly weren't encouraged to question authority as we matured into adults. This wasn't necessarily something we were aware of, such is the insidious nature of society's teachings when it comes to issues related to power and control.
For me, it took becoming a midwife to begin to see my own naivety around all of this, and even then, it wasn't until I became a mother that I truly appreciated the importance of being self-determining. Ironically, becoming responsible for another's life and wellbeing (becoming a mother) was what opened my eyes to the need for me to take responsibility for my own wellbeing. I'd grown up believing that a 'responsible' approach to life meant blindly following the lead of the 'experts' but what midwifery and motherhood revealed to me was that living a responsible life meant researching my options, asking questions, and following through with whatever it was that I came to believe was right for me. The reality is, whatever life choices (including birth choices) we face, no expert out there knows the 'right' answer for us. Different experts will have different opinions about what path they believe is best for us to take, ultimately the 'right' path must surely be the one that we determine as being best for us.
I know that some women would rather be told what to do than bear the burden of responsibility that goes with making informed birth choices. If their birth doesn't go to plan, they don't have to feel the weight of having made the 'wrong' decision. Maybe the reality of the situation (that, had they made decisions for themselves, they may well have had a more positive birth experience) does not become apparent until retrospectively so, if at all. What I would say to these women is that becoming a parent is a massive responsibility and not one that we can choose to shy away from. For the rest of our child's youth we will have to make many life-altering decisions on their behalf. And becoming a parent starts when we become pregnant. To pretend that decisions about where and how we birth are not ours to make is not just foolish it is irresponsible and negligent. Plus, we miss out on an awesome opportunity to discover how powerful, wise and strong us birthing women are capable of being.
I'd like to encourage all parents out there to consider the importance of teaching our children how to grow up with questioning minds. Possibly the most effective way of teaching this is by demonstrating it and living that reality ourselves. For instance, when we take our child to the doctor and the doctor suggests a particular treatment we need to ask questions like: Are their any alternative treatments? What are the possible side effects of the treatment you are suggesting? What are the possible outcomes if we choose not to treat at this stage?... and so on. We also need to find ways of supporting our children to believe that their opinion is always valid regardless of whether or not it fits with mainstream thinking. My vegan 12 year old daughter was concerned that her school uniform policy required her to wear 'black, leather lace-up shoes'. It took quite some convincing to bring her to see that she had every right to insist on not wearing leather when it didn't fit with her belief system.
Making informed decisions about how, where and with whom I wanted to give birth was my first real taste of understanding the importance of taking control of my experiences, of questioning mainstream ideas, and of staying true to myself regardless of what others thought of my choices. Giving birth then became an incredibly empowering experience and one that put me in good stead for being a more confident mother who felt capable of making responsible parenting decisions.