Written by Meg Heket
Modern culture views birth as a degrading and humiliating process, one in which women have no control and should expect nothing but a baby afterwards. Women don’t have unrealistic expectations of birth, society has unrealistic expectations of women and of birth.
A growing number of sources are proving that when maternity care is humanised, the outcomes for both women and their babies are significantly improved, and women are far more confident, competent, mothers to their new babies.
The idea that a woman must martyr herself in order to give her baby a good beginning is not only outdated but debunked by all reputable sources. Not even hospitals believe that anymore, although their practices don’t necessarily reflect that shift in belief.
Women and their babies are an inseparable dyad, what you do to one, you do to the other. When a mother watches her baby sick or in pain, she feels a great deal of stress, and when a baby’s mother is in pain or afraid, her baby feels it, either directly or as a result of her capacity to care for them.
We spend 9 months telling pregnant women to reduce stress for the sake of their babies. Then suddenly claim that a mother must martyr herself and willingly undergo painful, degrading procedures, which can ONLY make her stressed and fearful, in order to benefit her baby. This is highly hypocritical at best, and outright dangerous at worst.
We do not expect oncology patients, cardiology patients, of paediatric patients to endure humiliation and stress because we know it is not beneficial to them. If they do undergo unnecessary stress we express outrage, however when a pregnant women describes the same thing she is dismissed as having unrealistic expectation.
How can we expect staff in one ward of the hospital to treat patients with respect, to ease their fears, minimise their stress and to support and maintain their dignity as vigorously as possible, and yet not only excuse the opposite behaviour in the maternity ward, but blame women for their interpretation of it!
It comes down to two factors. Firstly our society currently believes that women must be humiliated in order to give birth, however at the same time, in complete contrast we also believe that hospital staff would never willingly harm a pregnant woman.
These two beliefs, in conjunction with each other, are nothing short of extreme cognitive dissonance. They are the result of the complete distortion of birth, they are the epitome of obstetric culture, but they are not a reflection on the true nature of birth.
When a woman gives birth, she is biologically designed to feel on top of the world. Her body releases more oxytocin at the moment of birth than at any other time in her life. This is nature’s way of making competent mothers.
Women don’t expect birth to be a picnic, they don’t expect everything to go perfectly to plan, what they expect is to be fully supported by caring, skilled care providers, who will respect them as they work to bring their babies into their arms. They expect that staff will meet their legal obligations, providing informed consent or refusal, and by upholding their bodily integrity.
Unless those same expectations are unrealistic for oncology, cardiology, or paediatric patients, they are not unrealistic for maternity patients. What is unrealistic is expecting vulnerable pregnant women to forget their basic human rights and permit strangers to perform unnecessary, painful, and harmful procedures on them, many which are not even based on scientific evidence.
It’s pretty obvious that sometimes complications arise in birth, no woman ever believes otherwise, however even in those situations it is entirely possible for care providers to protect and respect the woman and her baby.
People need to stop telling traumatised and grieving women that they had unrealistic expectations. It’s time to turn the spotlight onto the unrealistic expectations that obstetric culture has forced onto women and babies.
It is not unrealistic for a woman to believe that she will be cared for when she is vulnerable and labouring. It is however, extremely unrealistic to expect vulnerable women to forgo their dignity and bodily integrity in order to welcome their babies. Science says so.
“Anything that disturbs a labouring woman’s sense of safety and privacy will disrupt the birth process. This definition covers most of modern obstetrics, which has created an entire industry around the observation and monitoring of pregnant and birthing women. Some of the techniques used are painful or uncomfortable, most involve some some transgression of bodily or social boundaries, and almost all techniques are performed by people who are essentially strangers to the woman herself. All of these factors are as disruptive to pregnant and birthing women as they would be to any other laboring mammal – with whom we share the majority of our hormonal orchestration in labor and birth.” – Dr Sarah Buckley