Sunday, 8 July 2012

Invalid choices

When I was in hospital having the Boy, there was a woman in the bed next to me who had found out that she needed a c-section rather than having the vaginal birth she wanted. She was a complete arsehole about it, and kept whinging about what an inconvenience it was and how she felt she was missing out on an experience. Nothing about the baby being ok, just about her.

This post was going to be a rant about how people who moan about not getting the birth they wanted should grow up. Then I reflected that, maybe, it wasn't as straightforward as all that.

For most people in the West, female reproduction is seen as a series of choices. You choose to use contraception, or not. You choose the sort of birth you want, whether to breastfeed or formula feed. When you're done, you or your husband choose to be sterilised, permanently. It's all as easy as choosing the Silver Cross pram or the Mamas and Papas, or choosing to stay in skinny jeans and side step the maternity aisle altogether.

Except, it's not really like that, at all.

IFers know this - their choice is taken away from the off, more or less. And dealing with the fact that we can't control our lives is very painful indeed.

Miscarriage, ectopic pregnancies and other pregnancy losses - they're beyond our power to choose, they happen to us, rather than us deciding. The path we thought we were on is ripped away from us, and our lives and futures can be turned upside down by those telltale red or brown spots.

Inasmuch as you can compare experiences, I don't think having a healthy baby at the end of a birth that wasn't on your birth plan didn't want is as awful as a pregnancy loss. But then, going through a bad birth isn't exactly a picnic either. I've had three operations on my stomach and am unfazed about scars or anaesthetics, but can understand that if you're desperate to avoid surgery, then it must be very frightening to be told that you need to go under the knife (Conversely, I went through a phase of being upset about the prospect of a vaginal birth).

And, with anything to do with our reproductive systems, emotions run high. It's not like breaking a leg or catching a virus. Problems with conceiving and birthing are heavily tied into our self esteem. They're also generally badly understood - we're conditioned to believe that we can control them, but also that we shouldn't talk about "women's problems" when they go wrong. It's a dangerous combination that means that we're isolated if we want to talk about how things haven't gone the way we planned.

This all means that the women who do get their choices can be quite smug about it all, and tend to assume that problems with birth or conception or feeding or any one of a hundred other things are because other people don't work as hard/are somehow less deserving, rather than the whole thing being down in a large part to genetics - and for 'genetics', read 'luck'.

The pregnancy industry colludes in the idea that we can always decide our outcome - usually because they want to believe we do and that buying x, y, or z product will enhance our ability to control the uncontrollable . I've seen a birthing gown advertised that claims to make labour more dignified (how?). The packaging on my pregnancy pillow claimed it could help make labour shorter. There's a whole industry devoted to telling women they can buy the sort of birth they want. It's all bollocks. Just like the vast majority of the vitamins, potions, alternative treatments and whatever else you can buy that purports to help you conceive.

Perhaps more seriously, I think that the staff at hospitals sometimes give the impression that we've got more choice than we do. I was a bit surprised at an antenatal class where we all got asked what position we'd chosen to labour and give birth in, and a few people happily volunteered that they were going to use birthing balls then give birth on all fours, or whatever. I didn't really understand how anyone could be so confident about how they'd feel in labour. Fair enough being informed about what you can do, it just seems to be rather setting yourself up to fail to plan that level of detail in advance.

I was more cynical - I remember asking one midwife if there was any point in having a birth plan. She said that yes, it was a "very valuable document". So I wrote one - it had a few things like my husband telling me the gender and cutting the cord, and said I was ok with having a section. The section happened - I think it would have done regardless - and everything else got swept aside, as the staff were concentrating on getting the Boy out rather than making sure my non-medical requests were adhered to.

I'm not that bothered as the main thing is that I have the Boy now, but I am faintly annoyed I spent time writing a plan when I could have been playing Guitar Hero. What was the point? But then, I could equally see why someone might reasonably be upset about their wishes being ignored, too.

Obviously, women should have a choice about their reproductive health whenever possible. No-one wants to have things decided for them by doctors unless they absolutely have to be.

But, equally, it should be clearer to everyone that sometimes there just is no choice. And that being built up to believe you can control something, and then to have that choice taken away, can be very damaging to the mind and soul. We need more understanding and less judgement.

Having written all that, I still believe the woman in the next bed was an arsehole, though. There's being led to believe we have choices we don't and being upset about something that ultimately isn't our fault, and then there's being a madly entitled biatch from hell...


  1. Thank you for writing this. It is so true. The whole culture tries to sell us the idea that we have choices when it comes to reproduction, when really, it's all mostly out of our control. I do think we have a measure of control, and that there are some choices we can make, but in then end, whether or not things go the way we want them to is mostly out of our control.

  2. Oh my, I think I'm in love with you. That was AWESOMELY written.