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Guest post: “When we hear about birth we often hear two very distinct stories”
Dr Emma Svanberg is a clinical psychologist specialising in working with women in the perinatal period – from pregnancy to the early years of parenthood. She is the co-founder of Make Birth Better, a collaborative of parents and professionals dedicated to reducing the life changing impact of birth trauma.
Posted on: Mon 08-Jul-19 14:48:29
(81 comments )
If you’ve had a difficult birth in the past, or are preparing to give birth at the moment, you may want to read this post with someone you feel able to talk to about any feelings that arise.
When we hear about birth we often hear two very distinct stories – that it’s either terrible, or wonderful. People talk about birth ‘horror stories’ that leave women and their families suffering, or they talk about the beautiful empowering experience of birth. When we talk in such dichotomies, there’s little room for those in the middle whose experience is often a little bit terrible and a little bit wonderful (and sometimes a little bit exciting and a little bit terrifying and at times even pretty boring). This can leave many people feeling unable to talk openly about their experiences – and whether birth is terrible, wonderful, or somewhere in the middle, we know that it can leave a huge impact on us. It’s the entryway into our parenting experience, and if we come out feeling that it hasn’t gone the way we had hoped, it can mean the start of that journey is complicated.
A year ago, I set up an organisation called Make Birth Better with my colleague psychiatrist Dr Rebecca Moore. We’d noticed this black and white way of talking about birth and wanted to provide a platform to showcase the wide variety of stories and experiences that exist around birth – from both parents, healthcare and birth professionals. We also noticed how few birth stories exist from people who, research shows, might face additional stigma from maternity services such as Black and Minority Ethnic women, same sex couples, trans individuals, non gender conforming people, those with physical or learning disabilities, women living with disadvantages. It’s only by showing how varied birth can be that we can start to speak about every kind of birth story.
We heard stories about how ineffective preparation can feel when you enter a system which is, in itself, traumatised.
Over the past year, we’ve met with women, partners and professionals to ask them what they felt could make birth better. While often antenatal education and stories about birth focus on the women or birthing person’s responsibility to educate and empower themselves, we heard stories about how ineffective preparation can feel when you enter a system which is, in itself, traumatised. Overstretched and overstressed maternity services can feel like they are reactive, rather than proactive, with midwives often dealing with more than one person in labour simultaneously, without time for a loo break let alone to learn about a person’s birth plans.
We’ve started to create a new story around birth. One which includes not only the woman or birthing person and her partner, but also the staff who will travel that journey with a family. And if we’re to include staff, we also need to include the systems that exist around them – the teams which support them, the organisations which treat them with either kindness or blame. If we begin to see birth not as a solo affair but a collaboration between all of these different layers of the system, then we can create a new narrative. That includes all of us too, of course. So that we not only share the different and varied birth experiences that we have (being mindful of any parts that could be emotive), but we ask to hear others’ experiences too. Then we can hear about births that are neither horror stories or fairytales, neither black or white, but full of colour.
If you’re reading this currently preparing for birth, do take a look at the online resources at www.makebirthbetter.org and take a look at the Positive Birth Movement, Association for Improvements in Maternity Services & Birthrights. If you’re reading this and you think you might have some symptoms of trauma following your birth, do take a look at those resources too as well as the Birth Trauma Association who have an active peer support group on Facebook.
Emma’s new book ‘Why Birth Trauma Matters’ (Pinter & Martin) is published on 11 July.
EDITED BY MNHQ Emma will now be coming back on Thursday at midday
By Dr Emma Svanberg
Thanks for pointers to the trauma resources. 11 years on and I still well up when I think of my only birth experience. It was awful and debasing and I'm still angry.
I am a woman. My birthing experiences were difficult and triggered MH crises because they stirred up memories of having been raped. A crime overwhelmingly committed against women. The underinvestment in maternity services exists in part because of institutional misogyny. That is, prejudice against women.
You can't airbrush women out of birth.
Woman. It's a woman who gives birth not a birthing person, that's a whole new level of ridiculousness
Glad I'm not the only one reading that and thinking "what the hell is a birthing person?"
Only women can give birth.
Birthing person and her partner? So...it's a "her" but not a woman?! I can't keep up.
I'm one of the adult female humans traumatised by a chaotic system that stops giving a shit as soon as baby appears safely. The worst hospital care of my life was postnatal care. It played a significant role in my decision to stop at one child - a decision that was less about real choice and more about survival from a mental health viewpoint. I'm still angry about all of it.
To talk about birthing 'persons' is an insult. Women carry babies in their wombs and give birth. Women's services are being massively underfunded. So many of the cuts under this hateful government have impacted on women. Biology matters in these discussions. Stop pandering to the woke and the Twitterati.
It was us on the campaigns team who asked Emma to write this post about birth trauma - Make Birth Better are making some waves in this field at the moment and we on Mumsnet Campaigns know how deeply lots of MNers feel about birth experiences, especially those that go badly and have lifelong health impacts for mothers, so we asked Emma to write something for us.
With that in mind I just wanted to speak up for Emma's language here - I spend a lot of my time talking to maternity professionals and helping trans men to give birth is a standard part of their professional duties. As part of their professional duty to respect the person they're caring for they absolutely respect their gender identity - after all it would be quite odd (and inappropriate) to start disputing with someone about their gender identity in the course of delivering maternity care.
Emma will be coming back to the thread to chat at midday on Friday so she can express her own viewpoint then. It just would feel a bit of a shame if birth trauma (an issue of extreme significance to so many MNers) gets lost in this thread.
Thanks, and peace and love and all that
I suspect we have "black & white" (not a very woke way of putting it, actually) story around birth because frankly a mediocre labour/birth is not interesting.
I agree with previous posters - "birthing person" is just daft.
If you want to see birth as collaboration to create a new narrative, may I suggest you scrap the current system and start again.
This is a fantastic initiative, choice of language aside!
I don't have children yet but from everything I've read, we desperately need to improve things in this field and I applaud your efforts and those of your colleagues!
I want to know why women are suffering more now?
I don’t know anyone in my mothers generation or any of my peers who has had any problems giving birth.
My mother’s generation they nearly all gave birth at home, no pain relieve. I had children in 1995 and 1998 and no pain relief, the consensus being that you just got on with it.
There was talk of birthing pools but they were looked upon as being a bit ridiculous. ( I’m just being honest), pain relief by way of a spinal block was seen as something to fear. Caesarians were only when things were going wrong.
I don’t know anyone that has ever had stitches. The main focus on our giving birth was to concentrate on breathing and when to push.
Now my daughters and nieces generation are having babies and the horror stories are aplenty!
Tales of needing stitches, rips and tears sometimes with permanent damage, exceptionally long labours, trauma to the nether regions, awful hellish tales of giving birth and suffering.
I have many women in the family, have worked with many and of course friendships along the way and it is very noticeable that women today suffer more.
We have more information to hand, better medical services and support but things have got worse not easier.
I hope postnatal care improves. I think postnatal wards should be for women only at night, and that drugs should be offered at the right time. In my experience, I had to ask for painkillers post csection as they weren't offered. I also had to push for morphine as I was only offered paracetamol and some sort of anti inflammatory drug, which wasn't enough as I was in pain moving around to feed my baby.
I got terrible advice and minimal support to breastfeed twins (my first babies). I was also advised to consider bottle feeding as there weren't enough night staff to keep coming to help pass me my babies (post csection).
I sincerely feel for women giving birth in this country as the care is so often substandard and uncaring.
This is so fascinating. My partner had a traumatic birth and I really am aware of how it's affected (and still affects) her. I'm so glad you're doing this important work!
'Birthing person' is indeed ridiculous. WOMEN have babies.
In one of the hospitals I have given birth in, men weren't allowed on the ward at night. How on earth will this work if a 'birthing trans man' is registered as 'male?' Do they not get to stay?
Absurd choice of language.
Saying women and those who ID as transmen is fine but "birthing person" ignores and sidelines women. It also allows them to conveniently ignore misogyny, which is the real reason behind substandard care in this area.
Irl I volunteer in this area so I am not just a keyboard warrior. I also had a horrible experience birthing twins in 2018. This really really matters to me and other women who have experienced birth trauma.
It is ignoring a huge dimension of my experience which ironically is exactly the same attitude as the HCPs who ignored my repeated pleas for help.
It is not just semantics. It matters.
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