Wednesday 16 October 2019

Comment: Childbirth isn't such a private affair anymore - but women need to hear more than just the 'bloodbath' stories

Staff at The Rotunda
Staff at The Rotunda

Kathy Donaghy

WATCHING ‘The Rotunda’, RTÉ’s documentary going behind the scenes at one of Dublin’s maternity hospitals, brought me back to my own long nights of pacing the floor awaiting the birth of my children.

The programme, which documents the exhilarating highs and devastating lows of childbirth, has seen social media light up in response to those stories – particularly those of loss. But women have also taken to social media to talk about the kinds of birth and choices available to women in the documentary.

‘The Rotunda’ comes at a time when a debate has been raging over whether sharing stories about difficult births on social media is prompting a rise in women experiencing a pathological terror of childbirth known as ‘tocophobia’.

The debate was sparked after Catriona Jones, a midwifery lecturer at the University of Hull in England, suggested the sharing of birth horror stories on social media might be fuelling women’s fear of childbirth.

Shauna and Daryl with their baby son
Shauna and Daryl with their baby son

“You just have to google childbirth and you’re met with a tsunami of horror stories. If you go on to any of the Mumsnet forums, there are women telling their stories of childbirth – ‘Oh it was terrible’, ‘It was a bloodbath’. I think that can be quite frightening for women to engage with,” Jones said.

Her comments unleashed their own tidal wave of resentment from women saying they would not be silenced – Jones says that was never her intention.

Kay Cramp and her baby grandson Lar from The Rotunda
Kay Cramp and her baby grandson Lar from The Rotunda

For generations, childbirth was very much a private affair. It certainly wasn’t something that was talked about. But at what cost? Women were simply told to get on with it, that they should count themselves lucky.

But there has been a sea change.

Online forums and parenting sites provide women with access to information about every aspect of labour and birth. Shared stories about the ups and the downs of childbirth allow women to talk freely about their experience.

There is a sense that knowledge is power in every aspect of life and going into something like labour and childbirth with your homework done can only be a good thing. Because, be honest, you’re not going for a walk in the park and the more you demystify the process, the better.

The Rotunda, Kayla Lafferty and Margaret Condon
The Rotunda, Kayla Lafferty and Margaret Condon

But what if we only listen to the negative stories, to the ones of trauma and hurt?

Surely, then, during the hours of labour those are the ones we’ll play on repeat in our heads as we prepare to meet our baby.

Staff battle to save baby Michael in The Rotunda, RTE One, 9.30pm
Staff battle to save baby Michael in The Rotunda, RTE One, 9.30pm

Being made to feel left out of the decision-making process at birth, not feeling at the centre of the care or being emotionally scarred by a traumatic birth are, for many women, the reality of their experience.

What about the positive stories? It’s important to hear those too.

Michelle reveals her heartbreak after losing several babies at the same gestation
Michelle reveals her heartbreak after losing several babies at the same gestation

Maybe you feel those stories of women breathing their babies out in a darkened room bear little resemblance to the bloody reality. But they exist online too. So why not listen to both?

Sharing our stories and learning that we were not the only ones to experience something can be hugely empowering. It can make us breathe a sigh of relief to learn that we’re not alone, that this happened to someone else.

Our individual stories are what make us unique and also connect us to a larger collective human experience.

But it’s important to find a forum where your story is heard and honoured. Having the courage to go online, tell your birth story only to come away with a feeling that it wasn’t understood or worse, drew negative reactions, is unhelpful. It could even compound the hurt and leave a woman feeling isolated.

Finding a space from where you can speak in confidence, where what you say will not be judged, is really important.

Organisations like AIMS Ireland – the association for Improvements in Maternity Services – provide such forums where women can share their experiences in a safe environment.

Talking about the types of birth we want, or hope for, is good. It makes us realise that we all have different preferences.

For those preferences to be informed, we need to talk to others and learn from their experience. Then we can make our own minds up. Choice can’t happen in a vacuum.

For some women, that choice might be to avail of every drug going. For others, it might be to opt for a home birth with a midwife. Each to their own, and it’s important for us to acknowledge that one size certainly does not fit all.

And when it comes to sensitive yet universal subjects like childbirth, it is important to choose who you talk to. Only by opening up to people we trust can we ever break taboos around other sensitive subjects such as miscarriage and post-natal depression.

Not talking about these things means they keep getting brushed under the carpet, eating away at us. Change happens when we bring these things into the open.

So we need to keep talking and speaking our truths. It’s fundamental to our wellbeing. But finding the right forum or person to talk to is also important. Keep talking but make sure the listener is on your side.

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