You can’t have missed the news last week – the Telegraph’s headline about Mumsnet stories increasing fear and requests for a caesarean birth. Instead of jumping onto social media and commenting with indignation, I sat back and thought about it. A few people wrote to me and said, you should write a blog on this, but I was reluctant.
Why? Because it’s a huge, complicated issue that I find difficult to sum up in just a few words of a blog. Women who are having babies are affected, women who have had babies are affected, it affects the people who care for those women, and the families of those women. A different narrative exists for each and every group of women involved in this. And when it comes down to it this is largely a woman’s issue.
This debate was needed, because so many women are angry, fed up and traumatised. There are women who have lost the will to fight – the will to fight the healthcare providers if they are told to have an intervention they don’t want, the will to stay in a profession they love and care about, the will to do do simple day to day tasks when they are overcoming a trauma.
I have had mixed feelings for a while about the role of social media in bringing birth more into the public eye. The raw nature of birth is just a hashtag click away on Instagram; is this a good or a bad thing? On the one hand there is a necessity to normalise birth, and it’s true that many women find reassurance in seeing other women birth. Images and stories of positive births, and of trauma have a role to play in forming our own choices around birth. When we allow our curiosity to dig deep under the surface, rather than skim an Instagram reel with 3 second flickers of engagement, we are beginning to realise that this is a much more profound societal shift than it presents itself as.
It’s an exposé of birth, what it could be, what its impact is at every level. It educates and empowers us, but it also opens up a wound that exists in our society which is being shoved under the carpet with promises of more midwives, better services, like a sticking plaster. All over the country there are failings, like the tragic closure of the beautiful Halcyon Birth Centre in Smethwick this week, a centre originally campaigned for by the Midwife Kathryn Gutteridge and a gold standard of maternity care for families. The wounded mother archetype is there is for all to see, vulnerable, strong, persistent, unfailing in her determination to do what’s right for the generations that come after her despite the challenges she faces.
Do I think this level of exposure of trauma increases anxiety? Yes, I do. Why? Many women are anxious before birth anyway and seeing images related to that fear, without an even basic therapeutic or learning support system in place, can compound that fear. But the things that women are anxious about could, on the whole, be easily remedied by good antenatal education, an understanding about how their bodies are working. Yet, more and more I am seeing women who are frightened not of birth itself but of their autonomy around choice and whether they can trust their care provider. This is about the system, not the people who work to support those women each and every day, who are wonderful in my experience.
New research shows that 29 out of every 30 midwives that are trained leave the profession. And the most recent RCM report shows that despite training 2000 new midwives last year that there are only 67 more midwives registered.
These are people who LOVE the essence of their job but can’t do it properly. They put their own registration and health at risk, by trying to rise above a severe lack of resources because they care so much. The trauma we hear of isn’t because a woman’s body has failed her, or because of the midwives who supported her. We know we can birth, midwives are confident in their knowledge to support and care antenatally and postnatally, but it’s about a system that is failing all of us, and that causes us to doubt that we will make it through unscathed.
And the mothers, women who are left with trauma? They are on social media, because there is nowhere else for them to go. This I find is the biggest failing of all. Social Media helps women find their tribe, but women who have been traumatised should not need to seek this out because they fail to get the support they need elsewhere. How is it ok for women with trauma to have to turn to a medium that is now known to increase problems with mental health, because they are not heard elsewhere? Or, because of the stigma around perinatal mental health, not want to talk about it elsewhere. They have to be heard within a compassionate structure that helps them process trauma in a healthy way.
And how to prevent trauma? We have to educate ourselves. When the system fails us, what have we always done? We do it ourselves. If you are pregnant, you have to be assertive in your preparation, decide what is important to you, learn about your options. You have choice. But you have to know those choices so you can ask for them. There are ways to make the most of the system, sometimes you get lucky but most of the time you have to really be prepared. This isn’t meant to scare you, but it is urging you to gather your partner, your midwife, and your plan together, to do your research and to be assertive, even when it feels like it’s too much like hard work. Knowing about doula’s, and other practical resources that can help reduce the risks of intervention and trauma are all part of this learning process.
There are all sorts of movements begun by women and professionals, Make Birth Better initiative, The Positive Birth Movement, the incredible Save our Midwives campaign that rescued the option of independent midwives – hard fought and desperate at times but victorious. All over the country there are actions and initiatives run by midwives, health professionals, women like you and me. Each and every one of us can make a difference and although sometimes invisible we are all there, working together for the same goal, to make birth better for the women who come after us. Social media may not be the perfect medium but it’s raising questions and creating debate, it’s tearing off the plaster.
If you need to speak to someone and feel you are struggling please talk to your midwife or someone close to you. This page on Make Birth Better is full of good resources. You might always want to read this resource by Mind.