I think it’s fair to say that James Naughtie on Monday’s Today Programme rather missed the point about the life and work of Shelia Kitzinger, the anthropologist and birth activist who died on Saturday. Interrogating her promotion of the ‘birth plan’ he asked his interviewees whether it wasn’t in fact better for women not to write one and to simply accept that birthing is unpredictable? Wasn’t that better he suggested than becoming attached to a plan that might need to change?
In my experience birth planning isn’t really about a rigid formula for what will happen but rather about having enough information to know what choices you can make. And what we should in fact be celebrating about Kitzinger, who according to her husband was drinking champagne and eating chocolates on her death bed (I love that image!), is her commitment to women regaining both choice about and control of their own birthing process. This means women having much better knowledge and information – including of course – them knowing that things won’t always go exactly to plan.
As I’ve reflected on on Kitzingers life and work since her death I realise I’ve felt nervous about being honest about my experience of birthing my Son. It’s not because I had a hard time although I can go through a whole conversation focusing on the things about it that were challenging. For example that it took hours and my back hurt quite a bit because he was born back to back with his head at a slightly funny angle. But what I realise (with some sadness) is that I’ve found it easier to be negative (perhaps because I am the kind of person who never wants to brag) than to admit that giving birth to my Son is something I enjoyed and an experience that I am proud of.
There I’ve said it now, I enjoyed giving birth (even though it hurt and there were definitely moments during labour when I doubted my ability) and I’m proud of my body and in awe of its capacity to create and birth life. I’m also hugely grateful for the expert, sensitive and informative support I received before, during and after the birth from Neighbourhood Midwives and the fact that they made it possible for me to birth in my own home and crawl in to my own bed afterwards cradling my Son in my arms. It is something I’ll always be thankful for. It was beautiful and it felt right in bones for me to birth in this way.
Kitzinger and other women like her have fought for us to have informed birthing experiences and make choices about our care. Personally, I did make choices, some of them, like not having lots of pregnancy scans, a little unusual. I read quite a bit about birth during my pregnancy (see the resources below for some of the stuff that helped me) and resolved to trust my instinct. I’m also, like she was, an anthropologist and as my friend and teacher Pat Caplan puts it in the interview with her in my book, Listening to our Grandmothers: ‘if you are trained as an anthropologist, you have more than your usual share of awareness – this is both liberating and a huge burden, because nothing is ever simple again. And I suppose it was in part, that awareness that led me to want to know more about the birthing choices Kitzinger felt were so important, and ultimately helped me to make the decision not to go to hospital unless the life of either me or my baby was considered to be at risk. Not because I was, either stupid or brave but because I knew a home birth was a better choice for me.
There is of course no totally risk free way to birth. By nature birthing pushes our bodies’ to their limits. It’s a rite of passage that we cannot make 100% safe. But there is good evidence that informed choice and skilled midwifery care can help many women have more positive birth experiences even when there is ultimately a need for medical intervention. So as I celebrate my own personal experience of giving birth I also I want to celebrate the life and work of Shelia Kitzinger. I first heard about home birth when my mum told me that she was having one, but it’s through the work of women like Kitzinger that I could build my own confidence in my body’s capacity to perform the miracle of birth in my living room. I wish more women could be supported to develop their confidence by a midwifery service that had the resources to support them more fully and offer them more personalised care. I think if that existed women would feel better and on the whole more proud of their birthing experiences – however they turn out.
Birthing is one very important area of our experience where by making informed choices that are right for us we can begin to regain our female pride. By nature we have the lion’s share of the work which enables the continuation of our species, our bodies’ have the capacity (with support from men of course) to create the future of humanity. It’s something we should feel comfortable being proud of and about which we shouldn’t feel afraid to take our power back. Shelia Kitzinger put it like this: Whether birth is difficult or easy, painful or pain-free, long-drawn-out or brief, it need not be a medical event. It should never be conducted as if it were no more than a tooth extraction. For childbirth has much deeper significance than the removal of a baby like a decaying molar from a woman’s body. The dawning of consciousness in a human being who is opening eyes for the first time on our world is packed with meaning for the mother and father, and can be also for everyone who shares in this greatest adventure of all. http://www.sheilakitzinger.