Feminist Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth
A guide to not being bullied with your pregnancy and childbirth. Take back the power for your feminist labour of love.
TW: pregnancy/childbirth phobias, childbirth descriptions, mentions of abuse, rape, SH, racism, etc.
Going into labour will test every fibre of one’s being, completely absorbing every scrap of tenacity of your mind, body and soul. To say that focusing on the little details during labour can be difficult is an understatement, especially if it’s your first try, or you’re in a lot of pain or distress. So it’s no real surprise that I, like many others, find myself looking back at my labour over two years later, feeling decidedly sad about how it went.
Yes, my child and I are healthy and happy, and I owe everything to the excellent team of people who made that happen – including myself, my partner and my child; we all worked hard to get to where we are today.
And, while respectfully acknowledging that, there is also another part of me – lately, a bigger part of me – that is furious. Initially, I was angry with myself for not sticking to my birth plan, or for not thinking outside of the box when writing the birth plan, or for not attending ante-natal classes, which might have helped prepared me better for some things.
But the truth of it is, I did as much as I could – I was completely snowed in when my classes were on, and I read more medical accounts of labour than I can even remember. I wrote the most informed and assertive birth plan that I could. I even had a second job during my pregnancy! It took many internal self-examinations to remember all of this, and to know that things happened the way they did not because I was lazy, or stupid, or even, dare anyone suggest it, too young.
In the space of the 3 hours and 58 minutes is took me to deliver my son, I was repeatedly screamed at, refused food or short walks or other simple requests, told more than once to “relax” or that I was “doing it wrong”, and when a surgical assistant was asked to enter the room, he just rolled his eyes at me, then sighed, leaned against the wall, and proceeded to gaze boredly up my vagina until he was told that he wasn’t needed after all.
Oh yes, there’s a lot that I’d change if I could go back in time. Here’s a short list of things that I would tell my past self, if I could, in the hope of avoiding some of the indignity myself and many others have suffered from the simple thoughtlessness of the medical community.
You know your body better than any doctor.
You know what’s funny? The above heading is courtesy of my physiotherapist! Almost three full years after delivering my baby, I will be having a renal ultrasound to check for abnormalities in my kidneys and bladder. Why? Because, even today, I get occasional, sporadic, inexplicable and painful bleeding from the urethra. The sheer fecking volume of doctors, nurses, midwives and public health nurses who have had the audacity to ask me if I’m sure that it’s not just vaginal bleeding is absolutely shocking. What am I, twelve? I’ve been having periods for well over half my life now – I can tell the difference! It has taken me this long to find someone who’s taken it as a serious risk to my health, and only now have I been added to a mountainous waiting list. I could’ve been seen to and everything by now if that first doctor had listened to me, instead of waving her hand at me and grunting “after-birth urethral trauma, it happens all the time. It’ll fix itself.”
Want to squat, or give birth on all fours? Then you get down on that floor, babe. I was chatting to a midwife at a wedding recently, whose opinion was, roughly, that you should be able to prance around naked whilst screaming your head off, if that’s how you want to labour. If you are told that you really must do or not do something – for example, once you have an epidural put in, you will be completely numb and incapable of proper movement from, roughly, your breastbone down, so you’ll be unable to walk and must lie down – then you’d best trust the professionals and listen. But if you’re not given a damn good reason as to why you’re not allowed to do something that will make you infinitely more comfortable, then fight for it. It’s sad that we’ve got to fight for simple things while giving birth, but if you instinctively know you must do something, then fight for it – do not back down.
Do not allow yourself to be bullied.
If you are considered to be a young parent, or an alternative parent, or a pierced or tattooed, multi-coloured pubic haired, gay, foreign, single, religious, non-religious, polyamorus, rape victim, scarred from self-harm, sex worker, fat, methadone patient, shaved headed, gender neutral, non-white, or any and all of the above, or anything remotely out of the norm, you are at risk of having to face some amount, deliberate or not, of judgement based on your choice or self, and subsequently, potential abuse. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, REPORT ABUSIVE STAFF. DO NOT let them make a victim of you. Even well-meaning jokes should not be acceptable. In the aftermath of my labour, I was actually asked if my genital piercings hurt more than childbirth, and expected to laugh, while having approximately 30 stitches applied. If you face prejudice in any shape or form, remember two key things – it is not your fault, and it is not okay.
You’re about to do one of the most incredible things of your life – do not let anyone ruin it with their hatred. You are excellent and deserve better, so do not doubt it for a moment just because they’re medical staff. Don’t let ethical malpractice take away from your glorious labouring!
Have you spent weeks writing a birth plan, or rented a TENS machine, or want to have a go in a birthing pool, but find yourself being steered in a totally different direction? Stop right there and tell them, straight up, that you want to do different to what you’re being told. In most situations, this is not only allowed, but also encouraged, but it’s very easy to forget about the slip of paper tucked away into your groaning hospital bag, especially considering that nobody is obliged to ask for it. In hindsight, there’s nothing I wish more than to have had a quieter labour; I really, really wish that I’d asked the midwife to stop screaming at me, especially considering that I felt okay, and was rather enjoying using the radio as a distraction from the pain.
Over the years, childbirth has become more and more medicalised, and less about bringing babies securely into the world. This has taken the control away from us, the labouring parents, for far too long now. But thankfully, things are starting to change. We are becoming more and more able to take back the control of our own labours, our bodies, and our children. And we need to fight for our child benefit rights, too.
So hold tight to your dignity, prepare to spit fire, and labour comfortably, happily, and with love!
This lovely picture is the cover of My Mother Wears Combat Boots: A Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us. Which we haven’t read but we bet is brilliant.