Birth has many faces and no one situation prevails, it is as individual to each woman, baby and family as a fingerprint. Often things such a ‘risk’, ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ are mentioned along with ‘informed choice’ and ‘statistics’. Birth can be very straight forward but it can also be very complicated and so providing care, support while respecting individual choice can be difficult. What do I mean?

What are the many faces to birth?

Firstly the ‘positive natural’ side of birth that we hear so much about. As I trained as a doula I learned so much about the human body, its ability to birth and how as women we can help support our body, hormones and instincts during the stages of labouring. I truly believe that giving birth can be a wonderful, momentous, truly beautiful event during which a woman can, by trusting her body, birth her baby safely anywhere she wishes. In fact women have been doing exactly that for thousands of years.

There are many things women find helpful while in the stages of labour such as keeping mobile, hypnotherapy, relaxation techniques, massage, and affirmations, as well as the right environment and support. Providing information for women and helping them believe in themselves and their bodies is very important. However this is often not always the case and women will voice that many antenatal classes, or the conversations they have with care providers will place much emphasis on pain relief and types of interventions rather than supporting a physiological birth.

However, working with women who have experienced birth trauma I also see that we must be cautious. Why?

When birth goes well and is the experience a woman hoped for it is amazing. Many times however I have heard women say that when things in birth has taken a different journey to the one they had envisioned they have felt like a failure. When her baby comes early, or a labour becomes complicated, when hypnobirthing hasn’t worked or when a woman hasn’t been able to give birth vaginally and birth ends in a caesarean she may feel her body has failed her. I have personally heard many women voice that they felt let down, that the reality of birth wasn’t explained to them and that they felt unprepared and almost lulled into a false sense of security believing that their birth would go to plan if they just believed it and nature would do the rest. This however doesn’t always happen, birth sometimes takes a different turn, or a woman may not manage labour like she hoped she would. Sometimes there is medical complications or emergencies. Sometimes health issues in a woman or her baby mean that birth takes a different turn. When a woman doesn’t have the birth she wanted then comments like ‘whats wrong with me’ or ‘why did I fail’, ‘what what did I do wrong’ or ‘I regret my birth’ often are said. This can then result in the pursuit of the ultimate ideal birth. Or for some women it can result in a feeling of despair and sometimes trauma.

So how do we empower women but also at the same time not give a unrealistic view of birth?

The key here is knowledge that is evidence-based but also realistic and takes into account each woman’s wishes and choices but also her history, previous births and physical and emotional health.

We also must never put one form of birth on a pedestal as the ultimate to be achieved and as a sort of goal or prize to be attained. Why are women that have laboured for hours, attempting to birth vaginally but going on to have caesareans feeling like failures? In fact why is any woman who has had a baby feeling like failure? When did it happen that one way of birth equals success and another failure? I read recently a women asking for support after going on a facebook page where women were discussing the length of their labours and competing with each other on how long they laboured before they accepted any pain relief. The woman in question had suffered a long labour, then a episiotomy, then forceps, then a caesarean because her baby was firmly wedged and in distress. Why was she seeking support? Because she felt a failure for having accepted pain relief during her difficult labour.

I feel like a failure

Women are then often let down after birth. When birth hasn’t gone as planned women are told “you have a healthy baby, thats all that matters” but this is not true. Birth has a profound effect upon a woman and her family, there must be support after. Emotionally it can take time to process birth and with a new baby to care for it can be overwhelming. Expectations abound, as does advice. Time spent with a women reflecting on her birth can be invaluable.

Sometimes there can be so much emphasis on the birth itself that little time is given to thinking about after. Especially where birth has been traumatic is it important that it is acknowledged and support offered. Reflecting on good experiences is also important as it enables learning what helps and supports a woman and helps improve care given. It is important that women know it is ok to be disappointed with their birth experience but it doesn’t mean that their birth was any less an amazing event.

This brings me on to another side of birth, the medical side and in particular healthcare professionals.

To be fair those that care for women often come in for a lot of criticism. Sometimes this is justified, I myself had very poor care after the birth of my daughter, however many are trying hard under very difficult circumstances to provide care in birth that is kind, compassionate and patient centred. Empowering women can be hard in a hospital environment. Rooms are often bright, clinical areas with lots of equipment with many staff coming and going. Language often used such as ‘failure to progress’ or ‘allowed’ does little to build confidence. Midwife led units while providing the lovely environment for birth and being available for things like water births often have such strict guidelines that few women qualify to use them. Even if women do qualify are often transferred to hospital if complications arise causing anxiety and concern. At a recent support group nearly all the moms there said they had started labouring in a MLU but was transferred over to hospital. They all stated they would not try to use a MLU again as they felt there was no point as they would likely just be transferred.

What is the reason for this almost ‘over concern’?

Im not a midwife or an obstetrician but I would imagine that being responsible for the safety birth of a baby is a heavy responsibility. No one wants anything to go wrong or a woman or her baby to suffer any problems. However birth can be risky and unpredictable and so in the hast to make it as safe as possible it has in many ways become over medicalised. Rather than risk injury or death of a women or her baby doctors or midwives may edge on the side of caution preferring to monitor and whisk baby out at any sign of a problem. Having procedures and policies in place makes staff feel safe and processing medical training they may see things from a very different angle to the family they are caring for. Add into this the risk of litigation when things do go wrong and it can be a mix that doesn’t allow for much movement. Even if a woman makes an informed choice regarding her birth, if things go wrong doctors and staff may still face questioning and litigation. It may also be hard to accept that a woman is indeed making an informed choice if it seems to go against the very medical guidelines that have been set in place to keep her safe. Because of this much of the ‘natural’ way of birthing has been lost in a sea of trying to make everything ‘safe’ with checks, more checks and even more checks. Of course for some this has meant the saving of their life or that of their baby, however for others it has meant they haven’t had the birth experience they wanted, felt coerced or traumatised as a result.

No one wants anything to go wrong

If a women came to you as a doctor requesting a vaginal birth after multiple complicated pregnancies that had resulted in caesareans likely the answer you would jump to would be to advise against it. Everything you know, have experienced, and trained for, as well as all the polices and guidance around you would be screaming in your head that this was not the best idea for this woman. But what if that was that woman’s desire and choice? What if she felt informed and educated. What if she felt she was aware of the risks?

Which leads onto another face of birth.

How far do we feel women should be able to ‘choose’ how they give birth? When everything is clearly pointing to great risk to her and her baby, or if pursuing that choice could have the potential to cause complications how do we then support a woman in her choice, showing respect and dignity but at the same time mitigate risk? Do we allow a woman to birth as she wishes knowing that it may not be safe for her and her baby?

There may be no clear answer to this and this is where the waters become muddy. It is true that a woman has the choice and control over her own body and baby. But also those caring for her have a responsibility too. Informed choice must truly be that, an informed choice. As women the onus is upon us to make sure that we truly are educating ourselves on birth before making a choice. That includes not only the way to help our bodies birth our babies but also to make sure we are aware for the situations when that may not be possible. We must also remember that we are then responsible for our choices, including any consequences so it’s important that we truly are making a choice that is informed and evidence based.

As women we should not try to live up to any ‘ideals’ of what a birth should or shouldn’t be. It is your birth, it is your body, it is your family, does it really matter what anyone else has or hasn’t done? For some women they do not wish to be the one making all the choices but instead are happy to work with their care provides and build a plan that is right for them.

Likewise those that care for women must be mindful of the woman. Communication is the key. Finding out what her choices are, why she has chosen certain things. Look at a woman as a whole person with her own thoughts, ideas, needs, wants and desires. There are so many aspects to birth that include culture, beliefs, that can be spiritual and diverse. This is very challenging and may seem impossible. But only by doing so can correct information and support be given that relates to that women and her circumstances.

Language is very important as is respecting choice. It can be easy to say ‘but that’s what we have always advised, suggested’, but challenge your knowledge and seek to always learn more and improve care given. Fear of litigation is very real however that fear can lead to being over cautious, leaving no room for choice or movement or consideration of ¬†individual requests. Also important is consent. No matter what the situation it is very important that a woman gives consent. Ive lost count of the amount of women who have voiced that they had procedures done to them during birth that they did not consent to or that felt they had no choice but to allow. Communicating why, and making sure that a woman fully understands and consents to anything done to her cannot be overly stated.

Birth may have many faces, the woman, her family, those that care for her and other women and their experiences, but what matters is the woman herself. Teamwork, communication, consent and dignity all play a part. Women and staff who care for a women need a good relationship built on trust.

Failure has no place in birth, because no woman fails but only does her best in the circumstances she finds herself in. Birth is not a competition or a race, it isn’t the same journey for any two women, in fact for any two babies. Birth is individual, wonderful and breathtaking, sometimes it can be difficult and heartbreaking but, if women are at the centre, if a women are the motive, the passion, the love, then everyone will always strive to make every woman’s birth the best it can be for HER, no matter what that may be, because for every women that will be something different.

As women yes believe in yourself and your body and your ability to birth your baby, but also be aware that sometimes things don’t go to plan. That doesn’t mean your choices are gone, or that you have failed or that your experience is somehow less than anyone else’s. It just means your birth journey changed but with help, support and care it can still be a beautiful journey.

The many Faces of Birth