Hello hello. I am more than halfway through the first year of my obstetrics and gynecology residency. It has been wonderful and challenging and wonderful so far. I am the chief resident. Our residents did very well on our CREOG exams, so I am quite proud of us. I have been busy and obviously not blogging.
A friend of mine, one of the proprietors of a great local resource center, the Gathering Place, posted a Facebook status yesterday asking for everyone’s favorite quotes regarding birth. I posted two. One was by Kurt Vonnegut:
Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’
The second was this quote. I don’t know the author, Laura Stavoe Harm, and I don’t know the context, which is frightfully ignorant of me, but I stumbled across it and have always absolutely loved it:
There is a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.
My friend, who is a Ph.D. candidate in Family Therapy and specializes in birth related issues including perinatal bereavement and birth related post traumatic stress disorder, shared this blog post, in which a woman who writes about her birth trauma discusses how the quote is painful and triggering to her.
The reason this quote is so damaging for a 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 entire article is nuanced and well written. But, I have trouble seeing how these truths are mutually exclusive. She does come to the conclusion later that “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.”
Yes. Her personal prism is not every woman’s truth, even though her point of view is very important. But that doesn’t make this quote damaging. It’s definitely not as potentially blaming or dismissing as “trust birth” or “your body is not a lemon.”
Here was my Facebook reply:
I respect what she’s saying, and she is certainly an expert on her own experience and trauma. I really disagree with her about the interpretation of that quote, however. I am very sensitive to blaming people for their birth outcomes (and health outcomes in general).
The problem with discussing birth (and breastfeeding and many other topics surrounding motherhood) is the juxtaposition of the universal and the personal. Being an inspirational supporter of unmedicated birth (or vaginal birth or breastfeeding) in general can be a painful reminder to someone who has had an experience like that poster.
I think the conversation about birth in general is often missing a discussion of the agency or autonomy of the woman. I know friends in the birth interest community who laughingly point out headlines when a woman delivers a baby on the subway or on the side of the road in which they mention everyone who was at the birth in the article instead of the mom. Bus driver delivers baby! Onlookers cheered! Father beamed! It was a boy! News at eleven.
What this quote means to me, and I suspect most people who overwhelmingly love it and find it inspirational, is that women are strong. Women will have cesareans are strong. Women who get epidurals are strong. Women who try to breast-feed and don’t or can’t for whatever reason are strong. Women who suffer with infertility are strong. Women who choose abortion are strong. Teen mothers are strong.
The conversation surrounding birth so often focuses on how horrible labor is, and how many things can go wrong. Stephen King wrote an introduction to one of Ina May’s books in which he said he could never tell stories scarier then the stories women tell each other about birth.
I don’t think the secret to being strong is a secret that wasn’t told to this woman, so she failed. I think the secret that women are strong is a secret that isn’t spoken about women in general because our agency is taken away. I think there’s a place for her to discuss her birth trauma, and telling women simply that they are strong isn’t denying her that voice, which I respect. Discussion of birth in general is most likely painful to her, and for that I’m sorry. The secret is, she is strong.