This overused phrase so often silences new mothers, writes Milli Hill
You’ve just given birth. You had a tough time and you’re not sure how you feel – but your body hurts and there are some memories floating around that you’d rather forget. As you hold your newborn and greet the stream of well-wishers, there’s one phrase you’re almost certain to hear: “All that matters is a healthy baby.” This phrase is repeated so often it has almost become a cliché. New mothers hear it over and over, usually the moment they begin to open up and say that having their baby was difficult or even traumatic. Sometimes they even find they are saying it themselves: “Giving birth was awful, but at least I got my healthy baby, that’s all that matters.” And this is wrong. Because a healthy baby is not ALL that matters. This article might push your buttons so before we go on I want to ask you to stay calm, grab a cuppa and keep your wig on. I need to be very very clear, because I know from experience that talking about this issue can cause an outcry. So please listen carefully. The following sentence is crucial: When a woman gives birth, a healthy baby is absolutely completely and utterly the most important thing. Got that? OK – do not adjust your wig, there’s more… It is not ALL that matters. Two things – just to repeat: a healthy baby is the most important thing, AND it is not all that matters. Women matter too. When we tell women that a healthy baby is all that matters we often silence them. We say, or at least we very strongly imply, that their feelings do not matter, and that even though the birth may have left them feeling hurt, shocked or even violated, they should not complain because their baby is healthy and this is the only important thing. Not only do we turn a blind eye to the woman’s feelings, but by gaily proclaiming everyone ‘healthy’ we also ignore the complex relationship between mother and baby, and the impact of the birth experience on the future mental and physical health of both of them. Too often women who say they care about the details of their baby’s birth day are accused of wanting an ‘experience’, as if it is selfish to care about how their baby is born, how they feel or how they are treated. But, as the saying goes, ‘when a baby is born, so is a mother’. If a mother feels broken, dispirited, depressed or traumatised, how will this affect her baby? Is this healthy? A good birth doesn’t have to be a hippy dippy ‘natural’ birth, all candles, knitting midwives and placenta smoothies. Many women who have hospital births that don’t go the way they planned and end in interventions such as caesareans, report feeling positive about what happened. This is because how a woman is spoken to and treated as she has her baby is much much more important than the actual mode of delivery. Women need to feel that they have been consulted, respected and given the information they need to make free choices in the best interest of themselves and their child. This allows them to begin motherhood feeling strong, capable and mentally healthy – surely the best way to be when you are about to be given another human being’s fragile developing psychology to hold tenderly in the palm of your hand? Birth matters. To be respected, to be treated with dignity, to be in control of what happens to our bodies. To really feel the power of bringing a new life into the world – no matter whether in theatre or at home in a birth pool – why is it so wrong for women to want this? Some women ask for a ‘woman-centred’ caesarean. This means a caesarean in which things are done differently, only slightly, but different nevertheless. Doctors keep their voices low. Music of choice can be played. The screen is lowered for the woman to watch the birth, if she so wishes. Wires usually attached to her chest are instead put on her back, so that baby can be placed immediately on her for skin-to-skin contact. The atmosphere is kept reverent, respectful. Why?! Because birth, no matter how it happens, is important. It is a huge event in a woman’s life that she will remember in great detail for the rest of her life. We don’t have much ‘spirituality’ these days, but even for the most cynical of us, the moment when a new human being takes their first breath is a special and significant one. And yes, being there and being a part of it, is an ‘experience’.
Some reading this might feel this is nonsense. They don’t want a spiritual experience, or a rite of passage, or essential oils or a statue of a goddess. They don’t want the curtain lowered so they can see either, they just want the baby out safe and sound, and that’s fine too. Women are many and varied; birth can be many and varied too and should, ideally, be just as each woman wants it. What we do know is that many women DO care about what happens to them when they have their baby, but that they find it hard to talk about these feelings in a culture which persistently tells them that they really shouldn’t, and that what goes on in the delivery room is always acceptable as long as all everyone survives. Taken to the extreme, this idea that the woman does not matter as long as the baby is healthy can create an environment in which her autonomy over her own body is completely lost. If there is even a very small risk to the baby, what is justifiable? Recently, we have seen more and more reports of enforced caesareans, putting me in mind of the story – hilarious and awful both at once – of Dr Donal O’Sullivan, who famously declared on Irish radio in 1996 that if a woman wanted a home birth, her husband ought to put a bridle on her and ‘drive’ her to hospital like cattle. Extreme, perhaps, but if we continue to repeat that a healthy baby is all that matters, we open the doors for all manner of undignified or even abusive treatment to happen to women in the quest for absolute safety. We reduce a woman to being a mere ‘vessel’ for her child, and we quickly silence anyone who wishes to protest against any aspect of their care that they didn’t feel comfortable with. A healthy baby is the most important thing, and it is not all that matters. Respect, consent, choice, dignity – all that matters too.
This article was first published in BestDaily magazine in Spring 2014. That’s over 6 years ago!!
Since then, I’ve seen this message, ‘A healthy baby is not ALL that matters’, repeated over and over again. Women and birth workers alike keep repeating it, but I do wonder – what is actually changing? As I type this, I’m also talking to a woman (in the UK) on instagram messaging who is asking me, ‘What do I do? I want to have a home birth but I have been told I am not allowed if I go past 40+12. They have booked me in for an induction on Saturday’.
Every week I support women online who are being given similar disempowering and frankly inaccurate messages about what they are ‘allowed’ and ‘not allowed’ to to with their own bodies. The existence of the charity Birthrights has helped greatly with this in the sense that it is a place to send people for clear advice and information on their legal and human rights, bringing weight to the woman’s side of the ‘not allowed’ dialogues. But we need to go further. Too many women are still disempowered – even before their labours actually start; infantilised, patronised and given the entirely false message that, because they are pregnant, they no longer have a voice or a say in what happens to them – they must sacrifice their own needs and desires on the alter of motherhood.
Nearly a year ago my book ‘Give Birth Like a Feminist’ was published, a book which asks, ‘why is birth the most important, and at the same time the most overlooked, feminist issue of all?‘. In many ways, this article was the jumping off point for every one of the nearly 90 thousand words I wrote in Give Birth Like a Feminist – not just this article in itself, but the response to it. I have long since stopped keeping track of traffic and shares on it, but I do know that when it was first published on BestDaily, it gained over 100k shares, was read over half a million times, and was even retweeted by Ricki Lake. And that was 6 years ago!
As a writer to get a response like this is always a great thing for the ego but, looking deeper, the huge response says so much about how women are feeling and about how much still needs to change. I’ve had many many messages from women about this piece, and the gist of all them is the same, ‘Thank you – I felt so silenced – you have given me back my voice – you have validated how disregarded and cast aside I have been feeling postnatally’. How wonderful – and yet how terrible – that a woman had to read an online opinion piece in order to be reminded that she was more than just a container, that her feelings and experience were of huge importance, and that she was not selfish to think so.
And in the same way, how wonderful – and yet how terrible – that I’m now writing this post-script, 6 years on, and knowing that the message within the piece is still ‘current’. In a weird way, one of my life goals is to become obsolete! For my books and articles to become historical documents and for people to say, can you imagine how they used to treat women in labour in the early 21st century? Why did hardly anyone notice this feminist outrage that was hiding in plain sight?!
But for now, I guess we just have to keep repeating the message until one day, it finally sticks: A healthy baby is not ALL that matters. Women matter too.