“You are not allowed to do that”. We might say that to a child, but would we say that to a grown woman? Well, it is happening an awful lot amongst grown women who are pregnant or have just had a baby. I was in the Yemen a good while ago, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they have very different attitudes towards women. When visiting a Yemeni colleague of my dad’s, I was asked to sit with the women and children. There were only two, one of whom had given birth the previous day. The other woman was her sister. She had walked for a whole day to be with her, because this lady had laboured and birthed while suffering with Malaria, and she needed help to manage the house, husband and children. So I walked in to her, lying with Malaria, on a cloth on a dusty floor, swarming with flies in the heat, and children running in and out. Next door, the sister served the men their meat and honey in an enormous ventilated room next door. We women ate left over beans.
Many years later, I’m reflecting on how we treat our women in Britain. Pregnancy and birth is one area where it is only women, not men, who are being “treated”. As part of my job, I hear about how women are treated during their antenatal care. And I wonder whether, if men had babies, they would be subjected to the same treatment. I’m sad to say that I hear regular stories of scare-mongering, patronisation, belittling, and even bullying behaviour that some women are subjected to. And that is before they have the baby. I’ve heard a lot worse during and after they’ve had the baby. Michel Odent, the natural birth obstetrician, says that “when you meet a pregnant women, your duty is to protect her emotional state”. Ina May Gaskin, the natural birth guru, says “if you cannot be kind when you are with a woman in labour, then you gotta get the hell outa there”. She knows the importance of compassion for labour to progress safely. I say that a woman who has just begun her journey as a mother needs practical and emotional support, and if she is in hospital, a hospital needs to meet these basic needs.
It makes me sad to see how our society is not giving women the support they need. Mums need support, and the midwives need support, in order to properly support our women at this most precious time. Doctors need support to recognise when they are needed (in medical circumstances) and when they are not needed (all other circumstances). The NHS needs to understand the detrimental effect that frequent “testing” and “just in case” psychology has on the wellbeing of our most important citizens – mothers to be. And the mothers themselves need to get stronger. In a lot of cases, they don’t even question how they are being treated. For example, women often tell me that they are ” not allowed” or “have to”, without even batting an eyelid. (I did it too – it happens to most of us when we are part of an institutional system).
So, although I say it makes me sad, it actually makes me angry. I go to midwives’ conferences, where we bemoan the state of the NHS, and lack of funding and support, and closures of wonderful birthing places, and medicalisation and patriarchal control of birth. But so far, no one has got angry. We still tie women up in stirrups for goodness sake! We still tell them they are better off drugged than noisy during labour. We still tell them they can’t birth their own babies because they are too old, too fat, too short (yes, I’ve heard all of those). We tell them they are making selfish decisions, and need to think about the baby, not just ourselves (yes, I was told that one myself). I could go on and on. The whole system is crazy. Many years hence, they will look back on the way we treated women in the perinatal period, and be shocked. We do that now about how women were treated in medieval times, but we’re still doing it now! I’m more and more shocked the more stories I hear. As soon as women get active and angry about the maltreatment, the patronisation, bullying, neglect and denigration that is going on, I’ll be at the front of the demonstration with my banner. Afterall, I missed out on the other feminist movements, so I’d quite like to get in on this one. If, in the meantime, you are pregnant and want some support regarding your rights, go to http://www.aims.org.uk/, or ask to speak with your allocated supervisor of midwives. Hopefully though, you are getting fabulous care from run down, over-worked midwives, who still keep their loving smile on their faces and battle on in the face of staff shortages, and lack of funding. Once again, if midwives were mainly men, would they be struggling? And if so, wouldn’t they complain? I am not criticising individuals – there are lovely doctors, lovely midwives, lovely mums and lovely dads out there. This is an institutional problem, a societal problem, not an individual one. And on many many levels, childbirth is a wonderful, caring and cared for experience for almost all of the women I work with and for. It just needs to keep going in the right direction – not the wrong one.
Mia Scotland, www.yourbirthright.co.uk.