Why Telling a Positive Birth Story Makes you a ‘Smug Mummy’.

Almost 11 years ago I gave birth to my firstborn. I had planned a home waterbirth, however after 2 days of latent labour and 16 hours of active labour at home I transferred into hospital for an epidural and augmentation of labour (syntocinon drip), I know now why this happened – a combination of lack of support for my husband and I, a less than ideal birth environment even though I was at home and the effect of the constant fussing over my ‘lack of progress’ from the midwives including an artificial rupture of membranes. My story was made all the more dramatic by my walking out into the road stark naked to get into the ambulance – so desperate was I for pain relief – wailing that I needed my sandals (clothes apparently weren’t top of my list of priorities but I *had* to have my shoes!) and the fact that we ‘clipped’ a motorcyclist when approaching a roundabout in the ambulance and for a while it looked like I would have an extra passenger in the back of the ambulance with me.

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After my first traumatic birth experience.

Ambulance transfers in labour aren’t fun, being told to lay still on the little stretcher bed and being politely asked if you could perhaps not scream quite so loudly as they are worried that the driver will be distracted in his driving (in part I fear I am partly responsible for the resulting accident with the biker!) is demoralising and doing it all with a midwife you barely know whilst your husband is told to drive in his own car is pretty scary.

On arrival at the hospital I was hooked up to a drip and then oh the blessed relief when I had my epidural, I told the anaesthetist I loved him, as had thousands of labouring women before I should imagine. Five hours later, finally fully dilated I was told to “PUSH” and in the worst possible position I shoved with all my might (well I think I did anyway, I had begged them for an epidural top up and felt nothing at this point) and pushed my huge headed 10lb baby into the world causing myself some pretty dramatic perineal damage in the process. I pushed so hard that I burst a blood vessel in my eye as well as many in my face and lets not talk about the haemorrhoids………

My first birth was painful, scary, traumatic and dramatic. I could guarantee to make people wince and sharply draw breath when I told it and people loved to hear it – in all the gory details. How many stitches did I have? How much did it hurt when his head was born, it must have been like giving birth to a toddler? What was it like to be ‘blues and two’d’ in an ambulance? Yes, people were only too happy to hear my story.

My second birth was as dramatic and traumatic as my first, I suddenly became very poorly with pre-eclampsia at the end of my pregnancy and had to be admitted to hospital, after a quick and brutal induction which saw me labouring in the corridor due to the lack of availability of a labour room and another epidural I gave birth to a screaming little boy covered in meconium in a room full of medics waiting to whisk my baby away from me. Again my traumatic story was retold to rapt audiences who love to listen to dramatic recounts.

Then something changed, my third and fourth babies were both born at home in a birth pool. No illness, no ambulance transfers, no motor accidents, no naked wailing in the street, no corridor labouring, no epidurals, no stitches, no emergency, just peaceful, healing natural births. Babies born into my own hands in our dimly lit living room, focussed breathing rather than screaming, no pain relief necessary.

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My first empowering birth experience.

I *needed* these births, I needed to know I could ‘do birth’ and needed to heal my demons. My last two births were so very special to me and so important, they were so profound something in me changed. I had to tell the world, I had to tell expectant mothers that birth could be enjoyable, they needn’t go through what I went through first time around, it needn’t be full of drama and trauma. I wanted to tell my story and so I did, my birth stories (with my last two babies) appeared in ‘Love It’ and ‘Take a Break’ magazine, in the Observer newspaper, The Green Parent magazine and even the AIMS journal. With the exception of the latter they were all received negatively (yes, even the Green Parent – the subsequent issue contained 3 letters from readers complaining that my story – and others featured – was unrealistic), just as THIS recent piece I contributed to in the Daily Mail. The comments were all pretty similar to these in response to the Daily Mail piece:

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Why is it acceptable for me to tell me drama filled stories with my first two births, the ones that left lasting psychological and physical damage, yet when I – and others like me – try to share a positive birth story (with the overwhelming hope that it will empower other women reading to experience birth as it can be and not the birth I experienced the first two times around) the response is pretty much always one that involves the words “smug”, “show-off” and “does she want a medal?”.

I am anything but smug, grateful – yes, very. Sad that I didn’t know then what I know now, angry at the way I was treated by the medics who don’t realise the damage their comments of “birth is only one day in your life, a health baby is all that matters” can do, even years after the event and determined to make a difference, to help as many women as possible experience birth as the positive event it can be rather than the traumatic event it so often is. I am anything but smug. Neither are THESE women who have been compelled to share their positive stories too. We just want to make a difference, we want to empower those reading, to awaken them to the fact that birth can be an amazing experience and not one that they have to suffer. Is that so wrong?

Why is it so hard to share a positive birth story in our society?

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Birth and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Why Telling a Positive Birth Story Makes you a ‘Smug Mummy’.

  1. yogamumma says:

    Great post i totally agree…i have had two great natural birth experiences and people attacked me for “being a hero” and “well you teach yoga so you can do it”….i was gobsmacked being a yoga teacher had nothing to do with it, me being proactive in my preparation in birth did, i followed The Gentle Birth Method by UK Dr Gowri Motha, prepared my body and most of all my MIND to manage a drug free birth it was still intense and full on however i got to birth on my terms i also had the most amazing birth support during my pregnancy and present at both births…it saddens me when i try to recount to others especially first timers to listen to mothers who have had good experiences, empowering wonderful births…it’s like they believe they cannot, it’s that far ingrained in women’s minds they are incapable and it needs to damn well change….women need to start listening to support stories not Doctors etc who just tell them “keep an open mind” about birth…tool yourself and you already are a few steps ahead of the game, it’s all about giving yourself the best chance to birth well.

  2. I completely agreaa. As soon as someone announces they are pregnant everyone wants to share the gory details of their awful delivery and how painful it was. If more women could share their amazing experiences maybe new Mums wouldn’t be so scared and would advocate for better births for themselves. I find it hard to describe my first birth as painful as I really didn’t find it that way, but for many the pain is the focus. I see lots of new Mums in my work and I would say that 9/10 who go to my local hospital have an awful first time experience and will take a long time getting over it although none would ever think about complaining. Since the new birth centre has opened I see many more happy Mums. I read one of Ina May Gaskins Books before I had my first and filled up on all those positive stories of birth.

  3. Lora says:

    Great post. I agree, I don’t get it. Just like the news mostly only reports doom and gloom and TV ratings are boosted my your favourite character dying, For some reason us humans just love negativity. Why they just can’t be happy for someone who is telling a lovely birth story and appreciating it for the miracle that every birth is!

  4. Rachael Farnsworth says:

    I think there are a whole host of reasons but for me, the primary one is ‘why are you telling me this?’. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that some women have lovely, ’empowering’ (whatever that means) births with minimal or no pain relief. All the best to them. But I question the motivations behind anyone telling me their birth story. I’m not them, they didn’t give birth to my daughter, my pregnancy wasn’t their pregnancy So why do I need to know about how they gave birth? If I do everything exactly the same as them will I have a lovely pain-free birth too? Am I less of a woman because my daughter’s birth didn’t go to plan, or because I never wanted a homebirth, or because I had pain relief? In the interests of fairness I think exactly the same of those who love to recount gory episiotomies, days-long labours, and so on… why exactly are you telling me this?

    As a commenter above said, I read all the natural birth books; prepared my body for birth. I could quote Ina May Gaskin word for word. I knew I didn’t want to give birth at home for reasons of logistics but I did envisage a lovely calm waterbirth at the MLU. Except, for a lot of very good reasons, I gave birth in an operating theatre via emergency caesarean to my daughter. I found my birth plan the other day and it’s quite hilarious.

    I don’t speak a lot about my daughter’s birth – partly because yes, it WAS traumatic and I had a lot of therapy to get to where I am now, which is contentment with what happened and delight in my daughter. But I do find that people want to know, and friends want to tell others about my birth experience! But what does telling the great drama achieve? It’s my story, and mine to share with who I wish. Which is my husband, and eventually my daughter. Despite everything it was a wonderful part of our relationship and really cemented the reasons we love each other and are a team.

    I’m rambling terribly but I suppose I just think that there is a balance between birth being Something Of Which We Do Not Speak and shouting it from the rooftops because I really do not believe that it helps anyone other than the storyteller. And despite human nature’s love for a gory birth story we actually do not talk anywhere near enough about the mental toll that birth trauma can take; for me it was never about the care I received – I cannot fault them – but that everything I had hoped for had not happened and it shook me to my foundations.

    Every baby, every mother, every pregnancy is different and EVERYONE needs to remember that.

  5. kat_rocket says:

    I’ve had 2 traumatic births. I don’t tell people about them, I don’t write them down because people really don’t need to know and I don’t think it will help. When I read about how wonderful natural birth is it is like a dagger to my heart, a reminder that my body failed me despite all my preparation and trying my utmost. Maybe at the heart of some mothers’ resentment is that they don’t like being reminded that they couldn’t do it. Even if I had another baby it wouldn’t be a natural birth. I had to get over my demons, I can’t give birth naturally now even if I wanted to so yes I personally have to take the approach of ‘at least my babies are here and I am here’. I have to find my empowerment in other ways.

  6. tiffany says:

    Yes, I can appreciate that must feel quite sad for you, that you want to share with the world the positivity of childbirth, only to be met head on with negativity…..I guess some of it may be because ‘MOST’ women experience birth as painful, traumatic and quite scary, probably because it has been so medicalised over the past however many years, that this has greatly disempowered women, whilst giving the power to the medical profession! Like you say, some babies were taken straight from their mothers, I’m sure in my nan’s generation, and the midwives fed the babies etc, in another room….So, I think we’ve come such a long way THANK GOD….in that women do get to feel more empowered in a birthing situation, but we still have a long way to go to pull it back to a more ‘natural’ and ‘beautiful’ experience….I think the point is, even though birth can be natural and beautiful — it also does come with pain and pain is a difficult thing to be measured — if you take a scale of 1 to 10….my 5 say, might be different from another woman’s 5? We’re all unique / different and so are our pain thresholds….but I think what we don’t want to do, is go the other way, and not get the compassion and empathy that we need as women after going through pregnancy and childbirth — because it is a ‘challenging’ journey….and takes a while to ‘recover’…and you usually have no recovery time, because you instantly have to care for your baby…so I think the message should be, you can have a positive birth story, with the right tools and environment etc, but that it may not be free of pain….but it will be free of fear and hysteria….which often makes birthing a baby 10 x worse…perhaps advertising a positive – I had no pain message — really feels undermining to those women who did experience pain, and who are often labelled as martyrs or moaning about nothing, which is equally sad…and like I said, undermining…..we are beautiful women, who enjoy pregnancy, but the message should be it’s a challenge worth undergoing….and it can be made more positive, perhaps rather than solely advertising ‘I had a pain free birth’….it sort of just rubs salt in the wounds of those who’ve experienced great pain or trauma I guess xx I’m so glad that you got to experience two really positive and beautiful births, after the two first ones you had, which sounded incredibly traumatising….good for you for going for it again and getting the positive results that you deserved xx

  7. jp says:

    Completely agree. I’ve got five babies.. All very different labour’s and subsequent breastfeeding experiences. I wanted a day couldn’t have the births I wanted with my last two. (Had a water birth with 2nd) and I’d been called smug. It shouldn’t be a battle between mothers. We should all surely respect and support our decisions, not make nasty sweeping statements and cutting jibes. Sadly I think I won’t happen.

  8. I was a teenaged mum and people were more bothered about the fact I was still too young to have a baby rather than the fact I managed to have an easy, relatively pleasant home birth despite the high blood pressure (which I’m pretty sure was caused by stress every time I had to enter a hospital, it was fine all the time the midwife took it at home!). Quite glad I wasn’t called ‘smug’ for that! Well done to you for managing to have two natural births after two such traumatic ones. As for the Daily Fail comments, their readership is just a bunch of reactionary fuckwits with nothing better to do with their empty lives than get outraged at pretty much everything. 🙂

  9. pobbingalong says:

    I think this is a fantastic post. I’m so glad you got to have wonderful births with 3 & 4. I had a horrific time with number 1 http://wp.me/p1XFlR-1l and then an experience I couldn’t have wished for with number 2 (albeit with an epidural) http://wp.me/p1XFlR-RR I really think if more people shared their positive experiences then there would be more positive experiences. It’s sad that’s it’s easier to share horrific tales than wonderful ones. I hope that by sharing other women can experience positive births 🙂 however they choose, epidural, section or water birth 😉 x

  10. Mumanu says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I recently got slated on my blogs/facebook page for asking women to think about ‘just in case’ interventions putting them at risk… and for saying that a woman who births naturally smiles differently straight after birth than someone who’s had drugs/interventions. I haven’t had children yet but I’m very qualified, knowledgable and experienced about birth in other ways and have spoken with 2000+ pregnant women/ new mothers. When you tell a woman who’s had a hard birth that it doesn’t always have to be that way they nearly always say “just wait til you have kids”…. as if they’re wishing this traumatic experience onto me too! Women can be so hateful. I think what’s really happening is that they’re stuck somewhere in their grief but because they don’t even realise they’re grieving they think it’s normal to lash out and say mean things. Keep telling everyone your amazing stories!!!! The more women and society can hear that birth can be done without drugs the more they will believe in themselves and trust themselves to do it too.

  11. Lisa says:

    I can so relate to this people say things like you’re obviously just lucky and its because you’ve got child bearing hips or I’ve got a high pain threshold ! Makes me very sad that I was met with such negativity in my birth experience !

    I appreciate that good experiences are hard to come by for some women but I do think we need to be a little more accepting and start to actually believe in the power of our own bodies we are after all designed for birth!

  12. jasmine says:

    I just want to say that I found your blog very enlightening and I think the negative comments are unjust and possibly left by negative people. I also had a pleasant experience giving birth to my lovely little girl. I’m a 1st time mother and although I was in the maternity ward at my local hospital I had a water birth, not in a pool but just a large-ish tubb. I did try using the gas but it just made me feel ill so stopped. My labour (all stages) was 6 hrs total with a small perineal tear as a result, I think of it as my ‘battle scar’. I have been an advocate for waterbirth ever since.

  13. tiffany says:

    I’ve read all the commentary attached to this post with great interest…..one thing that I’d like to respond on in one of the posts is why is it necessary for women to share and talk about their birth experiences?…..well, personally, I think it is good / positive to share and absolutely because it makes the person sharing feel like they’ve lifted a weight off their shoulders, because it does help human emotions to share / talk — we often process them, once we’ve heard ourselves talk about them! BUT, I think women must also be conscious of who they are sharing their stories with and have some sensitivity, especially for newly expecting mothers…..I don’t think it’s appropriate for a mother who’s had a very traumatic birth experience to share with a pregnancy first time mum — because it’s scary / negative enough going through pregnancy, without hearing horror type stories, which just exaggerate the fear! It’s a bit like someone going in for a hip replacement, and someone who’s had a hip replacement go wrong — tell them all about it…..the last thing you want is a negative / fearful story, before you walk into the operating theatre to have your hip replaced….yes, statistically things do go wrong, but no one wants to be that statistic … and if you increase a person’s fear, they are more likely to have a negative experience….
    Personally, I’m not happy hearing ‘negative’ birth stories, because it turns my stomach….it took me a lot of time to get my head around getting pregnant, because I was scared to death of pregnancy….I spent lots of time in ‘healing’ and counselling etc, just processing my fears….thankfully when I did eventually get pregnant, I suffered terrible morning sickness for the first 3 months, because I’m sure I just felt anxious, but I did it, managed to get my fear to a level where I could cope with conceiving and cope with pregnancy and birth….I decided against going to NCT classes, because I didn’t want to fill my head with any negativity and I do believe in those sorts of classes (after talking to the facilitator), that they do tell you about all the possible ‘what could go wrong’s’ — they believe to ‘prepare’ a pregnant mum for the ‘worst’……well, the very last thing I wanted to do was prepare myself for the worst, I wanted to prepare myself for the best and keep my head free from fear as much as possible….that also went for anyone trying to share their birth story — Id instantly shut them up (politely of course)….but again like another person commenting on here — I am unique, my body is unique and my birth experience would be unique to me….so I don’t need to fill my head with other people’s birth experiences — I just needed to focus on being positive, working on my own blocks and fear, and getting through my birth experience…..which I did, and have a beautiful little girl….I don’t need to recount my story — because the painful bit is over…why dwell on that….I want to live in the present and the present is now my gorgeous little girl, not whatever lengths I had to go to, to bring her into this world — she’s here and that’s all that counts for me now! If I had a second, I might well go back to counselling and pull apart my first experience, to get over any new fear blocks….but I think I’m happy with one haha!

  14. Orla Desmond says:

    Sarah-I am sad to hear you had such a negative response after so generously sharing such personal experiences with us all. All I can contribute is that people are uninformed about the slowing effect that medical interventions have on the natural process of labour. Society has been brainwashed into believing that labour is a medical condition.

  15. Anon says:

    I can relate to this, having to grow up in a third world country giving birth is considered a normal thing. Pain and such is not even lamented on, and women are expecting it and even forgetting about it when its done, It is in the US that I hear my MIL laid in details about the pain and discomfort, having to have epidural and oxytocin that still ended her up miserable. When my husband and I decided to have me a natural birth for my first baby, instead of support it was a silent disapproval. Like saying in their head (what are you better than me/us). It seems to them that i was making them feel like a loser that they were sissy when it was not my intention. Fast forward– gave birth painful but wasnt as bad as i thought it was. came out of the delivery room, and carted off to my room. Exhausted but still have energy smiling, feeling pretty much normal other than feeling a pain down under. When my inlaws came into the room, they were expecting a sad state of me, expecting me to tell them of horrors of the experience. When I told them that it was not as bad as I expected, and had my energy back and did not look like i just gave birth. I saw the almost like an annoyance in their face, instead of a hug or a smile. all I wanted to hear at that that time was glad you are alright. Father in law was happy for my experiene though, but not MIL and SIL. When people ask me how it was esp when my MIL is present. I almost have to like and make it look like it was really a horrible experience than I experience to make her happy.

    P.S. i know that not all women have a pleasant experience and I dont judge mothers who decided to get medication for whatever reason. It is a painful and I respect for their decision. My point is those of us who have a positive experience almost have to feel shame for those who didn’t(some women of course)

  16. Naomi says:

    For all the narrow mindedness that wanna call us “smug” I focus on all the wonderful amazing testimonials that I receive back from the wonderful couples I work with where someone believing in them makes a huge positive difference….. I have 3 completely different birth stories…. All have positive elements and leanings that I love to share. It’s such a shame that remarks like this cause the positive story tellers underground and the inspiration gets lost.

  17. Kelly Walker says:

    The number one way that we can ensure that more ladies have positive birth stories is to remove the fear that surrounds birth. telling positive birth stories instead of negitive ones is a key contributor to this. Congratulations on finding empowering births after tough ones.
    If you are reading this and have had a tough one. take heart, each birth is different.

  18. Linda says:

    I think that is a beautiful story. I do not think you sounded smug at all. Everyone experiences childbirth different. Pain hurts and if you need that painkiller then fine, but if we prefer to not use painkillers and doing a homebirth doesn’t mean we think we are better and deserve a medal. I didn’t plan on homebirth but didn’t have insurance and you really have no control on the costs in the US so I found an alternative. I had no worries as I think of way back when babies were born at home all the time and childbirth was natural without all the fears of “what could go wrong” and treating pregnancy/childbirth as a medical emergency it is today. It was much different in a hospital setting but not familiar either. At home you are in familiar surroundings and it was my fastest labor time not easiest delivery as she was 10lb 2oz but it was the best decision I ever made. I do wish there was more information out there/media coverage on homebirthing but in the US but when it is, it’s usually about how dangerous it is because “so many things could go wrong” which makes me wonder how all those babies even survived before hospitals
    started delivering them……lol

  19. Rochelle says:

    Good for you for continuing to share your story, in spite of the criticism. I’ve had one horrible birth and one wonderful birth, and I’m very clear that what made the most difference for having a great experience the second time around was being able to hear from women who had had positive experiences like yours. Yes, every woman is different, every birth is different, and different people have different pain thresholds etc, etc. I don’t think by sharing a positive story you in any way invalidate someone else who needed pain relief (and after all, who is to say you can’t have pain relief *and* a beautiful birth too!) or had a difficult time. But once you’ve experienced a wonderful birth it feels stingy not to share what made it happen for you. Some things, all women need for a good birth – feeling safe and comfortable in your surroundings, being 100% supported by those attending you, having faith in your body’s ability. Those things will show up in different ways for different ways for each woman so there can be no “prescription” or “how to” and I don’t think you’re trying to give one. Nor can there be any guarantee that with all the best things in place it will definitely be a positive experience. But how can a little encouragement in the form of “I did it, why not give it a go?” be bad?

  20. Tam says:

    The fact is people need to know both sides. It can be easy and beautiful and it can be terrifying and painful.

    Telling only of your “good” births would be misleading. Especially considering after a couple babies (especially big ones) it is sometimes easier.

  21. Deb says:

    I can totally relate. I read this article this morning in relation to a similar issue for those of us who have gifted children, it’s a long read, but a very interesting take on envy and groupthink and how people come to conclusions like the comments you posted above. It applies to so many walks of life. Breastfeeding is another one. I don’t understand how anyone citing scientific facts (formula is inferior etc) can make another person feel guilty. No one makes you feel guilty but yourself, best to look within instead of spouting negativity towards others who mean no harm.

  22. Georgia says:

    Love this article i had a scary firat birth two days latent epidural on third doc wouldn’t induce.all ended in an emergency cesarian. 2nnd time around i was so scared i couldnt do it i was booked in for c section however baby decided to come early!! Again two days of latent labour but to my surqprise my body was muxh fitter and after dealing with a midwife who didnt believe i was in real labour or baring bown i finally got her to check under my dress and she said to me i can see the head!!! No

  23. Agena says:

    I’m personally grateful to all the women who shared their positive birth experiences. If not for them, I wouldn’t even know there is an alternative to a mind-bogglingly painful birth on my back in a hospital. Thanks to them I knew to educate myself and take control. Thanks to them I managed a vaginal birth at home with my first. Thanks to them I managed to avoid the trauma many first-time mothers now have to face. Thank you, sharing mums. You are not smug.

  24. Lauren says:

    I agree with the comment above. If my mother hadn’t shared her birth stories, and if you and other mothers hadn’t shared theirs, I wouldn’t know that there is another side to birth other than what Hollywood portrays. I like reading/listening to anyone’s birth experience. What’s positive for one person may not be for another, but it’s wonderful to be able to communicate about our experiences and support one another. Becoming a parent, whether through childbirth or adoption is an amazing gift. No one should be ashamed to share their story/stories.

  25. Karen says:

    Having delivered 4 wonderful babies 1 daughter and 3 healthy sons I can completely relate to this! My daughter took almost 30 hours to deliver and I was in labor for a week( they kept stopping labor as I was only 35 weeks) She had shoulder dystocia and I was never once told what was going on. They used a vacuum on her and I was still never told what was going on. Her collar bone was broken and yet I was never told what was going on.
    My oldest son was 2 weeks late, we had holes in the placenta and again we were never told what was going on. He was whisked away as he had a very low red cell count into the icu he went but again I was never told what was going on.
    My 3 child was a epidural but very low dose I was able to move around a little and he was a breeze entering the world 3 pushes and he was here. I held him instantly and it was amazing I had never had that moment it was all clinical before and all panic.
    Baby 4 my angel my blessing from above. He was a rapid descent baby. I did not push he flew out literally. I was over an hour from the hospital on the side of the road there was no where to pull over so I delivered him myself to the knees. HIs umbilical cord was tied off with daddy’s shoe lace. He was bruised head to toe but he was alert and alive and perfect. I was blessed with his natural delivery. Had I known how empowering it was and how natural it could be without all the bells and beeps and whistles I might have had all 3 boys at home.
    I now tell anyone considering home birth to really look into it birth is natural not a medical condition to be treated and cured!

  26. People want to justify choosing comfort over there newborn’s safety. They are aware that US hospital births are 27th Infant survival and to find a hospital environment more likely to kill or maim your infant you have to visit a 3rd world hospital, or go into an active war zone. Home birth may be harder, but it greatly increases you and your child’s chances of survival.

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