I regularly spot articles shared by mummy friends all about birth as an empowering, life-affirming miracle. Last week I read a piece with an entirely different angle; it declared ‘Childbirth is not empowering. It’s grisly, frightening, and astonishing stuff.’
So which is it?
I’ve had 2 babies in the last 3 years. My first labour did leave me feeling empowered, proud, awed and, a sensible amount of time later, willing to do it again.
With my second I felt disengaged, anxious and in pain.
By rights, my first birth should have been more traumatic- our daughter was born at 33 weeks after an uncertain week in a hospital 80 miles from my home and family. Second time round I gave birth at 39 weeks, in a maternity unit 10 minutes from home.
How a midwife can make a woman feel
Without a doubt, despite significant variations in circumstances, it was the midwives who made all the difference.
There’s no question that on both occasions of giving birth my physical wellbeing was monitored and managed, baby was kept safe and I was guided into getting the job done with minimal damage. Both midwives were clinically without fault. But first time round I felt that my midwife cared. She was a student, but confident, positive and assured. She was under supervision of course, but when her shift came to an end at 8.30pm, but my labour hadn’t, she was the one who stayed behind, kept encouraging me, remained right beside me, proving to me that we were in it together. She challenged the limiting beliefs which were standing in my way and was a cheerleader and task-master all in one. When I delivered at 9.35pm she finally headed off on her Saturday night out. But she came back the next day to tell me how brilliantly I had done, and exactly why, in case it had all blurred (it had). It doesn’t even matter if it was true or not; it made me re-evaluate what I had achieved, and perhaps what I could go on to accomplish in the future because of it.
Second time round I got the sense that what I was going through was very routine and unremarkable. I wasn’t much more than a number, an unchecked item to cross off a list. At one point, in distress and exhausted I asked how much longer it would go on for. My midwife glanced at her watch, and not looking at me, returned to writing her notes. Back to me, she replied off-handedly ‘baby will be here before 10pm.’ She was very close, 10.04pm. It was further proof that she had been there before, a thousand times. Giving birth to my precious son wasn’t special or unique, it was labour by numbers.
A midwife’s phenomenal impact
For new midwives entering the profession their heads must be full of facts and checklists, risk factors, safe practice and clinical requirements. What can be easy to overlook is how important their demeanour and approach is to the psychological and therefore physical outcomes of the patient. A strong, supportive, kind midwife will bring out the best in a woman experiencing a deeply personal, transformational life event. A disinterested, transactional, impersonal midwife simply can’t.
Facilitating the experience, not just the birth
Midwives don’t just facilitate a birth; they facilitate how a woman will perceive themselves and the event, which will always be a monumental part of their history. It will stay with them for the rest of their life, long after the midwife has moved on, through hundreds more babies, hundreds more shifts, thousands more stories. But to each of us, our story, and the part where it finally intersects with that of our new-born child, is the ONLY story that matters. Which is why it takes such an exceptional individual to not just do it safely, but in a way that enhances the story. Women giving birth deserve nothing less.