What does giving birth feel like? Is giving birth painful? After years of censoring the truth, it’s time we talked more openly about the realities of childbirth and new motherhood, says author Melanie Golding.
Before I had children, I asked my mother: “Does it hurt, giving birth?”
Her answer was, “Yes, but it’s a good pain”.
Oh, excellent, I thought, good pain sounds like the kind I would quite like. I will breeze through this. After all, everyone has to be born, right? How bad can it be? Humans are everywhere.
I bumped into a friend from my antenatal class a few weeks after her baby was born, while I was still massively pregnant.
“How was the birth?” I asked.
She hedged. She admitted she’d been induced and forceps were used.
“Oh,” I said, “what’s induction like, then?”
“Not too bad,” she replied.
But something about her expression and tone of voice made me suspicious. Later, after I’d had my son, she told me the truth: her birth was the most horrific thing that had ever happened to her, and that she was in therapy due to the emotional and physical trauma it had left her with.
“Why didn’t you tell me?!” I asked her.
“You can’t tell a pregnant woman these things,” she said. “It might frighten them, make the birth harder.”
My birth could not have been harder. When it was over, and for months afterwards, I felt a great sense of failure, because I hadn’t had the ‘normal’ birth I’d been expecting. Then, I started to examine the source of that expectation. That’s when I started to get angry.
I’d describe myself as a realist-pessimist – I like to imagine the worst will happen, so that if it doesn’t, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. I felt that I was prevented from finding out, before I gave birth, the truth about how bad it could be. I wish I’d had a few over-sharers in my social circle, who would have delighted in telling me their horror stories. But instead, people clammed up. As a pregnant woman I was treated differently, and subjected to an unspoken set of rules about what pregnant women ‘ought’ to know. This discrimination is as unacceptable as all other forms of discrimination. People are people, and should be treated as individuals.
Michel Odent revolutionised modern approaches to prenatal care – he invented the birthing pool, and made the benefits of skin-to-skin contact widely known. His idea that women should be encouraged to move around during labour, and labour in positions they feel comfortable with – ideally undisturbed by medics for the duration – was revolutionary when he first put it forward in the Seventies.
And yet, he too, decided that pregnant women should be effectively lied to.
“I put a caveat in my books – they are not for pregnant women,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “I tell them not to read them. They are books for people who are interested in the future of human beings – preferably ones with a scientific background, people interested in thinking in terms of the future and the future of the species. That’s the public I want to reach.”
So, pregnant scientists, put away your brains: this book about giving birth is not for you. And God forbid that a woman who is pregnant would be interested in the future of human beings.
According to the NCT, nearly half of women with postnatal depression are not identified as having the condition, despite being asked a carefully-worded set of questions by health professionals at the six-week check. I think I know why this is. Below are a few of the depression identification questions. Imagine me, sitting there, holding the baby, wondering what the right answers are. Wondering what I want her to think about me.
“Do you have trouble sleeping at night?”
“Are you joking?” I reply. She just looks at me. I close my mouth and decide to edit my responses.
“Do you feel tired all the time?” Well, duh, I don’t say. The baby wakes up and starts crying.
“Do you socialise less than before?” Um…
“Do you have trouble with motivation?”
To all of the above: Yes, replies the mother of a newborn. Yes, replies the woman with depression. And here’s the best question: “Have you recently experienced a traumatic event?” I look down at the baby, shift in my seat, feel the stitches pulling. Does she mean the birth? Can I mention that, or are we taking that for granted? Can I say, yes, of course I bloody have, look, this human just came out of me?
Early motherhood looks exactly like depression. That’s why postnatal depression isn’t identified in half of all cases: because it’s so hard to tell the difference. Think about that for a second. The symptoms are the same, but the cause is difficult to determine. It’s like saying that the gash on your head isn’t really that significant because I think sticks are less painful than stones.
And if the condition of early motherhood looks exactly like depression, why are we being asked to cope with it alone? Give us all counselling. Treat us all as if we’ve been in a major car crash. That’s how it felt to me.
I applaud the NCT for their efforts in raising awareness of the issue of postnatal depression. Also, I loved those classes. They were really fun and friendly. But in terms of preparation for birth? Absolutely useless, I’m afraid. We did have an enjoyable session where we were shown how many wires were needed if we ‘opted’ for a medicalised birth, but when it came to it there were wires all over the shop and I didn’t even count them. I was too busy screaming in pain, you see.
Eight out the nine women in my class went on to have an instrumental delivery or an emergency Caesarean. I don’t know how the other seven felt, but for me, despite being as well-read on the subject as any middle-class first-time mother might be, the birth was 100 times more horrific than I’d imagined. And although both myself and my baby survived intact, for a long time afterwards I still felt that I had failed in multiple ways.
Meanwhile, back in my living room, I was being asked the question: “Do you have feelings of guilt, hopelessness and self-blame?”
Of course. Wasn’t it my fault that I didn’t get the birth I wanted? I deserved those feelings. I saw it as a personal flaw of mine; I was just not good at giving birth. That is what I decided, based on what people had told me about birth.
I have met one or two women who had wonderful births, who bragged about having ‘no drugs’ on social media. We’ve all met these women, and heard these stories, because these are the only stories that get shared in public. I would listen to the ‘great birth’ stories, grimly smiling, saying nothing, thinking my own story would be unwelcome and only make everyone uncomfortable. I thought I was the exception. I was thinking of how awful it was, how shocking, and how I had failed at every turn. But then I started talking to the others who listened quietly, and I found that many other women had had a terrible time, just like me. Many of them felt cheated, and lied to, and patronised.
They also felt, like my NCT buddy, that they had a duty to keep the secret, to continue the secrecy surrounding what is probably the most dangerous thing a woman can do. They felt they had to carry on pretending that it’s possible for everyone to have the birth they envisage, if only they breathe in the right direction or something.
I know that not everyone will be helped by being given all the facts. I’ve met people who had the opposite experience as well – who found that when they were pregnant, strangers felt they ought to tell them the worst-case scenario, and did so with a kind of glee. It’s a very personal issue, and should be different for each individual.
If you feel, as I do, that a little more truth would be helpful, then when that woman starts telling a group of you how much she enjoyed her home waterbirth, that it was almost ecstatic, she did it with hypnotherapy or whatever, look around for the silent one, the one who says nothing. Ask her about her experience, and if she asks you too, tell her in great detail how shit your birth was. Tell her how frightened you were, and how many medical professionals didn’t have time to acknowledge your fear, because the health service is critically underfunded and overstretched.
If you are brave, tell all the pregnant women, all the young women. Everyone deserves to know.
Nothing would have made the outcome of my two traumatic, invasive, instrumental deliveries any different. No amount of hypnobirthing, positive thinking or bouncing on a big, blue ball would have changed a single thing. Baby one would still have gotten stuck in the birth canal. Baby two would still have been dramatically, and horrifically, induced. What might have made a difference to me would have been knowing the truth. The terrible, painful, dangerous truth: that I might die. That I most likely wouldn’t, but that I would come close.
The ‘good pain’ I was expecting turned out to be the worst pain ever.
Censoring ‘bad’ birth stories, however you feel about that, is not a way of protecting us. It is simply another way in which women are silenced.
This feature was originally published in May 2019
Little Darlings by Melanie Golding is published on 2nd May by HQ. You can preorder your copy here.
Images: Unsplash, Getty