There is a secret in our culture, but it is not that women are strong. Why some birth quotes may be damaging to women.
Posted by Birthtalk.org on June 3, 2010
There is a current trend in online social networking sites that cater to birthing women to broadcast empowering quotes about birth. Many of these quotes are wonderful reminders of the power and strength of women’s bodies and minds. Many quotes are testimonies to the transformative power of birth. But a few of them are easily misinterpreted, and can – when taken out of context – increase the misunderstanding and confusion that surround traumatic birth. Some quotes, if misread, serve to place birth as a competitive act, pitting women against each other. Others appear to point the finger at the woman herself as being to blame for a less-than-great birth, even though that interpretation is unlikely intended by either the author, or those who post the quote online. We are concerned about the impact of these quotes on women recovering from a traumatic birth, and also on women in general, as they perpetuate myths that potentially prevent women from supporting each other in the early mothering phase.
Our article below focuses on one of these quotes, in an effort to explain our concerns, and place the quotes within a context that enables women to better understand their birth experiences, without feeling blamed or like a failure.
There is a secret in our culture
There is a well-known quote about birth that receives a lot of airplay within the birthing community, and is used a great deal on natural birth blogs, websites and in chat forum signatures . The quote, by Laura Stavoe Harm, reads : “There is a secret in our culture and it is not that birth is painful but that women are strong”.
The intent of this quote might appear as an acknowledgement of women’s power and determination, and a direct counterattack on our culture’s approach to birth. It could be seen as refuting the notion that ‘birth is painful and something to be feared’. But this quote actually has the potential to continue the myths that abound about birth, and especially traumatic birth.
Discomfort with the message
At a Baby Expo we worked at a few years ago, we shared a stall with some wonderful local birthing groups. Our own posters on the wall behind us asked, “Scared of Birth?”, and “Had a Bad Birth?”, and alongside, one of the groups had placed a laminated version of Laura Stavoe Harm’s quote. We spent the day offering information and support to many women struggling with the aftermath of their births, some shedding quiet tears right there in the Convention Centre. We shared that is was ok to ‘not feel grateful’ and to grieve their experience. And we gradually became more and more uncomfortable with that birth quote on the wall behind us. Eventually, we explained to the convenor of the stall, who had placed the quote there, our concerns with the sign. She listened carefully, then stood up and took it straight down, saying she understood, and she’d never thought about it like that before. And we’d like to share with you why we are uncomfortable about this quote’s popularity, and the possible misinterpretations of its meaning…and what this can mean for a woman who has experienced a disappointing, difficult or traumatic birth.
Self-blame after a traumatic birth
If I had read a quote like that in the months after my own traumatic birth, it would have added to the emotional pain & confusion I was already in. I had laboured for 30 hours, 22 of those without pain relief, and then succumbed to a caesarean that there is a good chance that I did not need. It was a long, arduous journey to meeting my son, and left me emotionally shattered, physically fragile, and bereft of the ‘good stuff’ we anticipate that goes along with the arrival of our first child.
I was vulnerable afterwards to all the messages that abound about ‘You should be grateful’, and meanwhile, I felt I’d let my baby down, and failed miserably, by ending up with a caesarean. I doubted my ability to birth, and felt less of a woman because of this.
But saying to me after a birth like that, that the secret is not that birth is painful, but that women are strong would have been like a knife twisting in my chest. It says immediately to me that ‘you should have been stronger’. And maybe also “If you were strong, your birth wouldn’t be bothering you now”.
Implications and assumptions
There is a hidden implication in that quote. It says there is a secret…and implies that somehow knowing that secret would change things. It implies that if only women were told this secret, then things would be different. To me, the natural assumption would be as follows : “There is a secret in our culture…and if you knew this, it would have meant that you would have had a vaginal birth, and not had a traumatic birth or a caesarean.” And to me, there is the implication then, that if I’d just been strong, then I wouldn’t be feeling so wretched now.
I was already ‘putting myself through the wringer’, asking, “Why couldn’t I handle the pain? Why couldn’t I have a natural birth? Why was my whole world falling apart due to the trauma of the birth?” And, basically, this quote was telling me that I’d failed just because I wasn’t strong enough.
Excuse me? I laboured – drug-free – for 22 hours, without appropriate support, and with a posterior baby. I lived through the agonising experience of having to remain completely still, whilst having powerful contractions, to get a needle stuck into my spine. I lay quietly and wrestled with growing fears as I was cut open – while I was awake - in order to meet my child. And I wasn’t strong?
Why this quote is damaging
The reason this quote is so damaging for a traumatised woman, is that it is not true. The secret is not that women are strong. The truth is, in our culture, strength is simply not always enough to carry a woman through the birthing journey.
I was incredibly strong in my birth…but it was not enough to ward off the lack of good support & the poor care I received from the midwife in attendance. I knew birth was painful – no-one had to tell me that. But what no-one did tell me, was that birth hurts more when we are frightened and out-of-control and feel unsafe. And I certainly felt all of those!
The truth about strength
The truth is – strength cannot combat inadequate antenatal education, and a maternal health system that requires birth to present in a uniform fashion, that is, “if your birth isn’t ‘textbook’, then we have to make it fit the system”.
The truth is – the key to a birthing woman’s strength, (and the key to her labour progressing well), lies in her ability to be vulnerable, and open, and to surrender wholly to the experience that is overwhelming her entire body and mind. That’s when the hormones that progress labour do their work best. But she can’t risk being vulnerable and surrendering if she feels powerless or scared, or intimidated or even violated.
So really, it has nothing to do with just having strength, but plenty to do with creating a situation where a woman is able to unleash her strength. And this requires excellent and empowering antenatal education, and informed support people who understand why and how to advocate for the woman, and to protect her space.
The real secret
So what is the secret then, if it is not that women are strong?
The secret is that women cannot feel their strength unless they feel safe and supported and nurtured, and trusting of their body’s ability.
So how do they get these things? Firstly, it is hard for women to feel safe and supported and nurtured unless their support people understand the importance of this for labour progression and emotional health, so great communication and education is vital. And how do women gain trust in their body? Not just by blindly ‘trusting’, but by being given appropriate evidence-based information and the sharing of knowledge that enables birth to earn their trust.
Because they don’t know that, women (including myself) blame themselves when their bodies do what they have been designed to do and shut down when they feel unsafe. Women blame themselves when they begin to ‘friend-make’ with the very carers who are undermining them, because they have no choice…they need them for their survival. (this ‘friend-making’ is an adrenalin hormonal response too, designed to ensure survival)
How we go into birth
Many natural birth advocates talk of the amazing hormones of childbirth. They are right – they are amazing. But they are not available if the woman is scared out of her brain, or left alone in a room to labour when she is needing support, or given antenatal education that does not enable her to trust her body’s ability, or talked down to & patted on the head with a ‘don’t worry your pretty head’ attitude, or not had her questions answered. Yet this is how many, many women go into birth.
And these women who are birthing in this way have not failed. Really, they have been failed…by our system, our antenatal education, and even our culture in its attitudes to birth. If she is well-supported by her carers and her knowledge, a woman does have access to those amazing hormones. I know – I have experienced them with my second birth, and they were amazing. But this time, I felt safe, supported, respected, acknowledged, and had a new understanding of birth.
Fierceness or vulnerability?
Laura Stavoe Harm’s quote could be interpreted as suggesting that women who ‘give in’ to the pain of childbirth are weak (as opposed to strong). Another way I have seen it written is that women need to be ‘fierce’. But the issue here is really one of vulnerability.
In my first birth, I was vulnerable. But there is no way I was weak. The system weakened me by taking away my power, by abandoning my birthing body & my birthing mind, by withdrawing their Birth Centre philosophy when I went in the ‘un-textbook’ basket. Did I fail because I was not fierce enough? Of course not…I had no information that taught me I had anything to be fierce about…and certainly no possibility (due to lack of support) to perhaps find this intuitively. I had no inkling that I would be offered anything in that birth that was not in my best interest. My Birth Centre midwife did not come with me to the epidural and then caesarean. No Birth Centre midwife visited me afterwards, in the 7 days I was in hospital. I felt a failure and a reject. Weakened…but not by my own doing.
I was vulnerable in my second birth too. But this time, my fierceness was enabled and applauded and honoured by my midwife and my well-informed support people . I had access to different information, and, through copious research and reading (and even witnessing my niece enter the world)… birth had gained my trust. And I was enabled to open up to the enormity of the experience, and had a beautiful VBAC.
Releasing the myths
I remember being at a BBQ when my son was a couple of years old, and I was still emotionally very fragile from the birth. An acquaintance was talking about her smooth-sailing Birth Centre birth. She said she guessed her birth went so well because she was ‘so determined’. This completely crushed me. Did I ‘fail’ in my birth because I was not determined enough? Because I was not strong enough? I was lucky – Deb saw my face, and pulled me aside to explain the things this woman had access to that I had not. Then I could see that it was not that she was more determined, just that she had (amongst other things) better care, a more straightforward labour, and a one-on-one relationship with a midwife that she knew. But what about all those women who don’t have a ‘Deb’ to release them from these misperceptions about birth?
We’ve met incredibly strong women who have faced insurmountable odds in a traumatic birthing situation. It is not dictated by whether they are birthing in hospital or at home. It has nothing to do with their strength. It has to do with being in a situation to have that strength honoured and enabled to unfurl because the woman is safe, and knows it. This is only possible when a woman has exceptional antenatal education, and exceptional communication between herself and her carer, and has exceptional support people who are informed as to the importance of the woman feeling safe and unobserved, and who themselves trust birth. And unless women know this, they will continue to blame themselves, and remain ‘stuck’ in their healing.
It depends on where you are
Maybe it is all a matter of ‘where you are’ in your understanding of birth, as to how you interpret this, and other, quotes. If I had read Laura Stavoe Harm’s quote midway through my second pregnancy, my response would likely have been… “Yes!”. But by then I had a wealth of new information about birth, and was beginning to see just was required for a birthing woman to feel safe.
I also knew by then, without a doubt, that the things that had ‘gone wrong’ in my first birth were not because I wasn’t strong enough. And yes, I needed to hear that women were strong as I prepared for this next birth, but, without the insights I now had, I may have misinterpreted it to mean that ‘strength’ was what I needed…rather than an environment where my strength could be best supported and enabled to blossom.
Concerns over misinterpretation
Shortly prior to the completion of this article, we discovered another birth quote posted to a popular Facebook page that has over 6000 members. The quote, by Virginia Di Orio, reads : “Just as a woman’s heart knows how and when to pump, her lungs to inhale, and her hand to pull back from fire, so she knows when and how to give birth.” This quote has the same potential to be misinterpreted, especially by a woman who feels she failed in birth.
Whilst we agree with this quote, we’d like to add : “A woman (in our culture) knows when and how to give birth…if she receives appropriate antenatal education for herself (& her support people) that explains & honours her body’s capabilities, & has exceptional support and care from a known caregiver, & has the chance to develop a trust in birth and her body based on facts.”
It’s not a matter of being strong enough to ‘just trust’. There is much that needs to be in place for a woman to be able to ‘go there’ and listen to her body, and in many situations, things aren’t in place for that to occur. Most women have no knowledge that this is even important, which is not their fault. If we go back to the analogies in this quote : if a woman is frightened and feels out-of-control and has no support or understanding of what is happening to her…her heart rate will change, her breathing rate will change, her tolerance to pain can change, and her ability to draw on her innate birthing wisdom may be compromised too.
Taking care in our messages to women
This is why both Deb and I have concerns about the potential for certain quotes to be taken out of context, and the incorrect (or rather, incomplete) messages they then convey about birth. We know many wonderful natural birth advocates who use Laura Stavoe Harm’s quote, and we honour the wonderful work they do…and we also know that they do not ever mean any harm by it. We know that they are trying to remind women that birth is not something to be scared of, and to garner their inner strength that can often get lost in the disempowering maternal health system of today.
We hope that in expressing our views about this much-loved quote that we are bringing to the fore what it is like for a traumatised woman who is struggling to find validation for her experience.
We need to take care with every message we deliver to women about birth, and ensure that each message honours that every woman at every moment is making the best decisions she can for herself and her child, with the information she has.
And the truth is…that can take a mountain of strength.
©Melissa Bruijn and Debby Gould, Birthtalk 2010
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