Stolen from women, given willingly, or a bit of both?
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about childbirth. That’s normal: I am six months pregnant, after all. But actually, I’ve been specifically pondering on how the power of childbirth as a transformative rite-of-passage has been stolen from women. Just a small issue, then.
In today’s Western society, healthcare has become more and more of a business, and pregnancy/childbirth doubly so. While advances in medicine have brought untold benefits to pregnant women, improving infant and mother mortality rates and providing necessary interventions to save lives, the changing business model of healthcare, both within the private sector and in the NHS, has simultaneously led to some ethically grey areas.
Pregnancy is treated – both by the medical profession and by the layman – as an illness: something to be treated, managed, endured.¹ There is widespread misinformation about home births, leading to a giant over-medicalisation of the birth process. While I firmly believe that a complication of pregnancy needs to receive timely treatment in a hospital, there are also a great many uncomplicated pregnancies that could fare better away from the bleeping of a thousand machines. While some people (myself included, the first time around) may feel reassured by the proximity of all that medical assistance, others feel quite the opposite. There’s evidence to suggest that uncomplicated births taking place in hospital environments are more likely to receive interventions that could have been avoided.
It’s a thorny issue (and the home birth/hospital debate is best saved for another day), but my point here is that it is the choice that has been taken away. Throughout my two pregnancies (both uncomplicated, so far), I have been encouraged to give birth in hospital. In fact, the alternatives haven’t even been outlined to me. Considering I live in Brighton – a town that (a) has some of the highest breastfeeding rates in the country, (b) is considered to be forward-thinking and progressive and (c) is full of hippies and “birth doulas” – that’s very surprising and more than a little disconcerting. And don’t even get me started on the ethics (or lack thereof) of Bounty and their – spit! – ubiquitous Bounty Packs. That’s a whole other blog post.
But, while the intervention of medicine in the process of pregnancy and childbirth is no doubt a huge factor, it’s unfair to lay all the blame at their feet. There are plenty of small ways that women are sabotaging themselves. For example, I read a blog post this morning in which a lady photographed and shamed early morning commuters for sitting in the priority seats while she – six months pregnant – was left to stand. The problem I have with this isn’t that it’s not bloody irritating when people don’t notice and get up – it is! – but that she automatically assumed the default position of “victim.” Instead of tapping one of said commuters on the shoulder and politely asking to sit down, she ranted about it later on her blog. People aren’t mind readers; while pregnancy seems very obvious to the person who’s actually pregnant, it’s a little more difficult to discern from the outside. Even at six months gone, people are often reluctant to point it out, just in case you scream, “I’M JUST FAT, YOU FUCKER!” and roundhouse them in the face. More likely still, they’re probably off in “commuter world” – daydreaming and not paying attention to what’s going on around them. Not volunteering to get up is an unknown. Refusing to get up when asked, however, is a tangible sleight, and a whole Other Thing.
I’ve deviated somewhat, but if even we women feel that we ought to be lumped in with the old, the frail and the disadvantaged; that we can’t speak up for ourselves to say, “I’m pregnant and my feet hurt, up you get,” something has gone badly awry. Perpetuating the outdated idea that pregnant women are made of glass and should be treated accordingly only serves to justify nine months of sitting on the sofa eating cakes, when we should really be training like it’s a goddamn marathon. It is a goddamn marathon. Physically and mentally, it’s just as demanding, and you sure wouldn’t train for the Great North Run by lolling around watching Homes Under The Hammer. (Don’t get me wrong; I’ve eaten a lot of cake this pregnancy. I’m fully aware that I’m throwing stones from a glass house here.)
What I’m trying to say, in a very clumsy and rushed way, is this: with so much rife misinformation in the media, so much bearing down of medicine on the natural processes of pregnancy and birth, and a society so utterly twisted up about mothers that it has to constantly debate the appropriateness of breastfeeding an infant in public, women and men both have a responsibility to stand up for ourselves and to reeducate those around us about what it means to be pregnant. That shouldn’t mean never getting a bit of special treatment when your fingers have swollen up like giant sausages and you think you might never be able to sit down without wincing again, but it does mean empowering yourself to speak clearly and confidently about pregnancy; to assure people that you won’t break if they breathe on you; and arming yourself with as much unbiased, reliable information about childbirth as you can get your hands on before you make any decisions. Sadly, nobody else is going to do that for you.
¹ Jesus, even the Man From Sainsbury’s who delivers my shopping thinks I can’t lift a bag of potatoes when I’m pregnant.
On a somewhat deeper note about this, take a look at this video, which is what sparked me thinking about it this week. It’s issues like these that make it all the more important for women who are in a position to do so to speak out about pregnancy and childbirth, and take back its power. Fear and misinformation lead, ultimately, to this: midwifery being banned and all women being forced to give birth in hospitals. Whatever your personal stance on home births, surely we can all agree that women should have a choice.