In a recent discussion we have had on our independent childbirth educators email list, the topic turned to one of the basic differences between supporting a woman through labor, and medicating a woman through labor; between listening to a woman’s complaints, and “fixing” a woman’s complaints; between most home births and far too many hospital births.

One woman told of an experience in supporting a woman through her labor.  The mother turned to her doula and husband once and said, “This sucks!” The doula answered, “Yes, I know it hurts, but you can do it.”  The mother responded, “Yes, I know I can do it. I just wanted to let you know it sucks!”

How many nurses, husbands, or other birth-support people would have heard the woman say that, and offered her medication to “fix her problem”? She wasn’t needing anything fixed — she just wanted to communicate. Isn’t there a whole industry in attempting to help men and women communicate, especially in marriage and other personal relationships? Why should we think that doctors (who are typically trained in the all-male tradition of med school for generations) and the medical establishment will know how to communicate in the all-female world of birthing mothers?  Men tend to want to know the answer. Doctors are also trained in how to fix problems, medically. Mothers want to talk about it first.

So many women just want to be listened to. These basic differences will not just disappear because women are in labor. Some people — both men and women, although men tend to fall into this much more easily than do women — just want to know the answer and use it to fix problems, even if the “fix” is something unwanted by the person who is dealing with the situation.

When a woman’s birth-support team moves too quickly from listening and encouraging – and the other basic tenets of female relationships and female support – they may undermine a woman’s innate courage and strength.  This can happen regardless of the sex of those who surround her in birth.

What if, instead of telling her “you can do this,” the doula had responded, “would you like an epidural?”  The mother may have heard, “You’re not strong enough to handle labor without drugs, so just go ahead and get an epidural before it gets any worse.”  For my part, I’m very vulnerable to suggestion during labor.  A question like that — as innocent as it sounds — may have been enough to make me say “okay.”  Because, after all, if the people who are watching me labor think I need an epidural, then maybe I do!

Fortunately, nothing like that happened during either of my labors.  Instead, the midwives asked open-ended questions, like, “What do you want to do?”  Every time they asked a question or made a suggestion (like getting into or out of the labor tub) I obeyed it as much as if it were a command; questioning it no more than if they had asked me if I wanted some cake, or if I should breathe.

Sometimes, women just want acknowledgement of what they’re going through, rather than changing what they’re going through.  At times labor hurts, it’s intense, you just can’t get comfortable and there is no way in hell you would call what you’re doing relaxation.  It can suck.  It’s time to honor that too.  Don’t fix us.  We’re not broken.

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