Pregnant with my first child, about five years ago, I was terrified. My whole life I don't think I had ever heard anyone say a single positive thing about the act of giving birth, and to me it seemed an impossible horror. I knew that I absolutely had to do it, and often compared my situation to a person about to parachute jump from a plane, only they - lucky bastards - actually had the option to duck out at the last minute, which I didn't.
I wasn't helped by what seemed to me like a constant insistence by others on asking what my plans for the birth were, which always included the question, 'And what are you going to do about pain relief?'. My suggestion that I was thinking of having an unmedicated birth was met with everything from surprised smiles to outright scoffing, including a man in the pub who told me, 'Once you're in labour you'll soon change your tune and be begging for drugs, luv.'
I ranted and raved to my partner. 'If I said I was going to run the London Marathon, or climb Everest, would they all be giving me these looks of anxiety? Would they be asking me how I would cope with the pain? Would they be telling me how many people die in the process?! No! They'd be telling me how great I was, and how they were sure I could do it!' But in spite of my protestations, and even my bold plans for a birth at home, I was scared, and the negative comments only served to deepen my fear.
At the time, the Channel 4 hit series One Born Every Minute hadn't begun, but I'm pretty sure that if it had, this would only have made things worse for me. Week after week, woman after woman is seen, lying on her back on a bed, with midwives frowning and offering drugs. Often the pushing stage is directed, with several people surrounding the woman and telling her what to do. Admittedly, there is the occasional drug-free birth in a pool or on all fours, but this seems to be so rare that even the midwives themselves are both shocked and mystified by it.
Virginia Howes, an experienced midwife who now works independently, has set up the Facebook page, One Born Every Minute - The Truth, to highlight practices on the program that are not evidence based or woman centred. I asked her to tell me a little about her objections to the program and how she came to set up the page.
"I knew as soon as I heard the title and saw the adverts for the Channel 4 programme what it was going to be like," she told me, "Huge billboards proudly displaying little babies traveling along a conveyor belt….I was quite upset that a maternity unit would take part or pride in using that scene to advertise midwifery. I knew that we would not see empowering, gentle, women friendly births; I knew it would be the medical model in all its gore and train crash mentality. Of course editing makes it seem worse and of course some births are difficult and need medical involvement - but very few- and that is not how it comes across on this programme. The majority of women are lying on beds from the outset, they are all monitored even without epidurals, the midwives appear to encourage epidurals, they use discredited unsafe practice in second stage, and the baby is always separated by cutting the cord straight away - to name but a few things. For sure a lot of editing goes on, but we cannot get away from the things we are seeing and hearing as they are really happening. What I am hearing is the worst thing for me, in particular some of the things that are said to women and explanations about why things are being implemented. Hearing myth and labour ward outdated rituals spoken week after week. I am just at a loss at how it is being allowed. Is the Midwifery governing body the Nursing and Midwifery Council not listening to some of the midwives words? Are they not watching as we witness them in breach of their rules?
I understand that the programme makers want to pull in the audiences but other birth programmes have done just that without all the frightening stuff being shown. Many women are saying they now have a fear of birth due to the programme, but surely it does not need to be like that? I believe it is the couples stories along with the births that make it so emotional and compelling viewing, so normal non-medicalised empowering birth would still be an audience puller, but it would also give the most amazing messages to women that birth can be amazing, empowering and something to embrace rather than to be afraid of."
Pregnant women across the UK are glued to One Born Every Minute, and I'm quite sure there are equivalent shows in the U.S and beyond. And yet they do nothing but perpetuate the myth that birth is a time of fear, horror and agony, which a helpless woman must try to endure with the help of as many drugs as she can lay her hands on. This 'wallpaper of fear' may seem like it is just decoration, but in fact it creates a vivid, time-specific and influential backdrop to our world. Imagery has great influence. Women who have never seen anyone else nursing often struggle to breastfeed. Little girls who are bombarded with high heeled shoes, make-up and motifs of princesses start to believe that these are of great importance to them. And women who watch other women protesting that they 'cannot do it' as they lie on their backs on a bed, numb from the waist down, will most likely give birth in this way when it comes to their turn.
When my first daughter was born, my fear got the better of me, in the end, as my body held on tight to her and my hopes of a home birth ended in a hospital induction and forceps delivery. My fear and negative expectations became, as they do for many, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two years later, pregnant for the second time, I watched the show One Born Every Minute, and heard a midwife say to her colleagues, 'I really think she should have an epidural. I just don't like seeing her like that'. This comment inspired me - to hire an Independent Midwife, someone who I could be sure would believe in my body's ability to birth naturally and who would understand that to medicate a woman in labour is not always in her best interests, even if it often helps ease the discomfort of those who surround her. Whilst both of my births were incredible experiences ending with a healthy baby in my arms, my second birth at home brought me the empowering and transformational rite of passage I felt I had slightly missed the first time around.
If you are pregnant right now or plan to have a baby one day, pause for a moment and consider the wallpaper that surrounds you. What messages are you receiving about birth from your family, your partner, your friends, magazines, books, TV and film? What image comes to your mind when you picture a woman in labour or the moment of birth? If this is a negative or frightening image, is it possible that there could be another way, a way that is better for you as the woman, that empowers you, inspires you, and fills you with strength - and STILL delivers a healthy baby?! Allow yourself to consider this option. Switch off One Born Every Minute, and watch some of the births on a resource like mybirth.tv instead. Look at some of the images of birth on sites like Bring Birth Home and Birth Without Fear. Try to find imagery that challenges your expectations, rather than conforming to them. Consider that how you personally decide to bring your baby into the world is entirely your choice, and that you can create the birth that feels right and positive for you. Birth is not a rented house, it belongs to you - take ownership - and decorate it with the wallpaper of your own choosing!