Hours after giving birth to my first child, I had the post-baby shower. I distinctly remember staring in the hospital bathroom mirror at my unfamiliar face which was a pale shade of grey from blood loss, and said to myself ‘DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN.’
Despite having what was clearly the world’s best baby, and on paper, a fairly quick and ‘normal’ delivery, I felt utterly shell-shocked after my first labour. Weeks after, I’d get flashbacks and think ‘Did that really happen…?’ And ‘Why did no-one tell me it was going to be like that?‘
(I clearly did do it again, and five minutes after giving birth to our second child, bloody but blissed out and on top of the world, I turned to my husband and said ‘Shall we have another one soon?’ Two very different births).
After birth, you hear about it everywhere, as a new mum. Whispers, murmurs and hushed conversations. At breastfeeding groups, NCT meetings, in the queue for the health visitor and down on the mat at playgroups. What happened to you, what happened to them, what happened next. Half a glass of wine in to your first post-baby night out, out it comes, again – the birth story.
But in the news today is a talk by Catriona Jones, a lecturer in midwifery at the University of Hull, who believes women sharing birth stories and birth experiences on social media and sites like Mumsnet are partly to blame for a rise in Tocophobia, a mental condition defined as a severe fear or dread of childbirth, leading to women requesting c-section deliveries or also discussing abortions (read about it in The Guardian).
She also stated that women ‘have a tendency to like things that ramp up how dramatic childbirth can be and how difficult it can be. That can be a bit concerning sometimes. So you can be drawn to reading about that rather than women who give birth in a beautiful calm situation in a birthing pool or give birth at home surrounded by family.’ (In the Daily Mail, which I’m not linking to).
Hands up here, I use sites like Mumsnet, as a blogger I shared my own birth stories online, and I talked about labour experiences on social media with other new mums. So am I partly to blame for traumatising other women and should I have just stayed silent?
For starters, no-one wants to scare a mum-to-be unnecessarily, at all, and that would never, ever be my – and hopefully anyone else’s – intention. Pregnancy can be wonderful but a bewildering time of change and most women are apprehensive about birth anyway, so to have an extreme fear of it must be traumatic and distressing. It goes without saying that women affected by Tocophobia need specialist help and advice along with a network of trained people who can support them.
However, one thing I found really damaging as a new mum was the conspiracy of silence around childbirth and the fact that no-one really tells you what it’s like, for fear of upsetting you. Despite being, I thought, informed and educated about labour, nothing I’d read prepared me for the reality of what my birth experience was actually like. The truth is that there’s no one truth about childbirth – it can be amazing, it can be the beautiful calm situation in a birthing pool Catriona Jones describes, but for many other women it can also be awful, and not talking about the good AND bad bits – both in real life and online – can lead to a shock when you actually give birth, and for a long time after.
Childbirth is an enormous event that happens, it happens to a huge portion of half of society. And women don’t, for the most part, share birth stories to freak other people out. Women share stories for a multitude of reasons, among them because they both want and need to talk about birth, to swap experiences, to make sense of this enormous thing that’s just happened to them, to process it, to normalise it.
And of course, sharing your birth story and talking about your experience online is the modern way of the new mum playgroup conversation, especially as women can be isolated after birth and often the internet is the most immediate place they can reach out to other women. Sites like Mumsnet – a platform set up by and for women, where women chat about every topic under the sun – are spaces where woman, who have traditionally been silenced on many issues, can share our stories, and we should celebrate these sites, not demonise them or the women that use them.
As for saying that women ‘ramp up’ their experience, let’s be honest, the truth is enough, isn’t it?. What The Guardian describes as ‘horror stories’ can easily resonate as a description of women’s actual experience. And as a woman who shared both my birth stories on my blog, on the contrary, I heavily edited out the gore and most of the nitty gritty details.
No-one wants to scare a mum-to-be and my heart goes out to anyone who’s even slightly afraid (trust me, I’ve been there). However childbirth can be a wonderful, enormously positive and empowering experience, and we need to hear about that, but it can also be the opposite, and we need to hear about that, too.
We need to hear about the emergency c-section, we need to hear about the relaxed home birth. Most importantly we deserve to know all the possibilities of what the reality could be like, if we want. We don’t need to infantilise women who want to be armed with the whole truth about our bodies and that’s why we need to talk about childbirth, both in real life and online.
Here are my birth stories, if you want to read them – an unexpectedly quick induction of labour and a speedy second delivery. And some more posts…things they don’t tell you in NCT classes and what 10 weird things no-one tells your about your body after pregnancy