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Don’t tell women to shut up about childbirth. Sharing stories saves lives

The Guardian logo The Guardian 9/13/2018 Suzanne Moore
Pregnant women: Women fear childbirth because pushing out another human being through a small opening in your body is to be split asunder. © Getty Images Women fear childbirth because pushing out another human being through a small opening in your body is to be split asunder.

Mumsnet may be responsible for a lot of questionable things – penis beaker, anyone? – but will it actually end the human race? Will it stop us reproducing? This seems a tad excessive but apparently by sharing stories about childbirth there, women are scaring other women into “a pathological terror of childbirth”, says an expert. Catriona Jones is a lecturer in midwifery at the University of Hull who studies “tocophopbia”. She suggests social media is partly to blame for this fear-with-no-name (which, of course, now has one).

Let’s break this down, shall we? Women fear childbirth because pushing out another human being through a small opening in your body is to be split asunder. They fear the pain that leads up to it: labour. They fear the pain during the actual pushing-it-out bit, and often have little idea about the pain that comes after. But we “feel the fear and do it anyway” – just as that dumb mantra tells us to.

The fear is rational. When women tell each other birth horror stories nowadays, this is not an exercise in fiction. They are telling the truth.

My mother described childbirth to me thus: “I was sitting next to your nana on the couch. I felt a twinge, and she said, ‘It’s time to pop upstairs’ – and you were born.” She also said there was no need to “make any noise”. That phrase came back to me when, off my skull on pethidine, I was giving birth to my second child, I thought I was in a field of enormous cows mooing; then I realised these deep, groaning noises were actually coming from me.

For my sins, I have had one natural birth, one on monitors (with said lovely pethidine), and a caesarean. My experience is that I recovered much more quickly from vaginal deliveries than caesarean ones. Anecdote is not data, though, and essentially I feel women should have the choice.

Choice cannot be made in a vacuum. And this is why women talk to each other. You might get the odd sadist who takes pleasure in describing torn perinea, infection, the devastation of their entire “undercarriage” (!). But you also learn. In theory everyone wants a low-lit birthing pool. In reality, when the shit hits the fan – or sometimes the birth “partner” – one is relieved that hi-tech, medicalised births are to be had.

The feminist discourse around birth seeks simply a smidgen of control. Women should not have to beg for pain relief or caesareans, any more than they should have to beg to keep everything as natural as possible. Extreme pain makes us feel out of control – all of us. To prepare for that, it is necessary to know what options are available.

This is not sharing “horror stories”. But while babies may be beautiful, let’s not pretend birth is. It is full-body horror. Why deny it? Who knew that once the baby comes out you still have to deliver what looks like a massive internal organ – the placenta? Who actually wants to be stitched up in the most sensitive part of your body, while being told you don’t feel it, even though you do?

The euphoria may take the edge off, but this does not mean you will not be sent home in pain, heavily bleeding – whichever way you have given birth. All the squidgy toys and soft baby blankets and consumable cuteness is a huge denial of the blood-and-guts experience of birth. It is telling that so many female obstetricians opt for elective caesareans.

They say you forget the pain of childbirth. Yes and no. You mainly wonder how you got through it. What I don’t forget is the pain after childbirth, and that actually is what much conversation on Mumsnet is about. Women feel damaged, sore, cut, worried about ever having sex again. They fear incontinence and the loss of the ability ever to feel pleasure again, as well as totally abandoned by medics. They are meant to be happy, but their bodies feel broken. They feel that no one told them it would be this way, and they are afraid.

This does not fuel fear: it fuels action. How else would the scandal of vaginal mesh have been made prominent? The reality of an NHS stretched to it limits is: not enough midwives, too few anaesthetists on call, and ante- and postnatal care reduced to six-minute slots. In this context, then, fear of childbirth is not ungrounded, or to be treated with a bit of CBT.

I would say to any women: yes, it bloody hurts, but it’s usually only a day or so out of your life. Don’t blame yourself if it doesn’t go as planned. The best plan is the one where both you and the child are alive at the end of it. It is the experience of a lifetime. If you feel mentally and physically traumatised, please do keep talking. You are not spreading fear. Because women sharing their truths, however bloody messy these are, is actually how we change things.

• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist

  • Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the author.

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