It’s been eleven months and two and a half weeks since I gave birth to my son Oliver. Almost a year now and I am still not able to talk about my birthing experience in any detail. To say I was disappointed with my birthing experience is a gross understatement, and as the months go by and I start to open up about that experience more and more I am coming to realize that I am not the only one.
I have read a lot in the past year about the business of birth; about the rising cesarean rate, about women being refused their right to informed consent, doctors and nurses who do not take a woman’s autonomy seriously, women who have their children taken from them for refusing to allow that autonomy to be ignored. and about women who's birth experiences go far beyond disappointment and trauma. It seems to me that what should be one of the greatest days of a woman’s life is too often a nightmare. I was vaguely aware that stories like these existed before I had Oliver, but I am realizing that I was not really as equipped as I could have been to prevent it happening to me.
I am still not ready to talk about my birthing experience in detail. But nearly a year later I have begun to look back at the months leading up to that experience. Hind sight being 20/20 I have come to realize that there are quite a few signs I missed that my OBGYN and I were not on the same page, or even reading the same book, when it came to my labour and birth. I am sharing these flags in no particular order, and hope that it may help others to accurately gage whether the practitioner they are choosing is right for them.
1) When I stated my intention to breastfeed and informed my practitioner that I would like to forgo an epidural to ensure my child and I were alert and healthy enough to do so immediately following birth I was told by my practitioner that an epidural, or even the type of birth I had would not have any effect on breastfeeding.
Despite all of the reading I had done about breastfeeding from a number of valid sources that said otherwise, I believed what my doctor said to be true. After all, he was a doctor right? What I did not realize at the time was that my practitioner was either ignorant to or lying about the risks and side effects of the epidural and other interventions.
2) At one point, I asked my practitioner what his cesarean rate was in an effort to gage the likelihood that he would intervene unnecessarily in my labour and birth. Looking back I now realize that he never did give me a straight forward answer, but instead told me: “I don’t want you to have a C-Section, because then I wouldn’t get to deliver your next baby.” This answer was comforting to me then, it made me trust him, made me think that he and I were on the same team and that we wanted the same things.
But, as any woman who has ever had or planned to have a VBAC or HBAC knows, this answer was probably the worst one my practitioner could have given me. The fact that my practitioner was either unaware of or did not believe that vaginal birth after cesarean section was an option, despite mounting evidence and changing perceptions in the medical community, should have made it glaringly obvious to me that my practitioner would be making decisions based in myth and tradition and would not be providing me with evidence based care.
3) When I first heard of a Doula I had no idea what a Doula was for, so I asked my practitioner. “You don’t need one” he said “That’s what your husband is for”. I should have laughed in his face, instead what happened was my husband turned to me and said “I’ll be there for you honey, you can trust me to take care of you”.
I really do trust my husband to take care of me, and when it came time he did the absolute best that he knew how. But here’s the thing about relying on your partner to act as a doula: Not only does your partner likely have the exact same amount of knowledge and experience with labour and birth as you do, it’s also incredibly unfair. Chances are the birth of your child will be just as emotional, overwhelming, and life changing for your partner as it will be for you, you cannot expect them to give you calm and rational advise 100% of the time, and you cannot expect them to know how to help you in every situation that could arise, especially if anything goes wrong, they will not be capable of providing a calm, and rational opinion for you.
My practitioner was either relying on those facts to make sure he wasn’t questioned or stood up to in the delivery room, or he really didn’t understand the roll of a doula. Any practitioner who downplays or doesn’t understand the roll of a doula, or worse isn’t willing to work with one, is likely not interested in giving you the birth you want.
4) As my due date drew closer and closer and I started to get more and more nervous about giving birth I wrote myself a birth plan. It was a large print colour coordinated spreadsheet with very clear wording about what I did and did not consent to during my labour and birth. My practitioner never once used the word “birth plan”, he called it a “wish list” and told me to keep an open mind and be flexible just in case something went wrong.
I am sure now that he didn’t even look at let alone the laminated copy we gave him to put in my file. I know this because when the labour and delivery nurses called him to tell him that I was at the hospital and in active labour he told them to offer me an epidural, despite the fact that my birth plan stated in bold red letters on the very front page not to actively offer me pain relief and that I would ask for it if I wanted it.
A birth plan is so very much more than a wish list, and the fact that my practitioner was not interested in what *I* wanted or what *I* would or would not consent to should have been the biggest warning sign of them all. It should have been obvious to me from that moment that this man had no intention of respecting my autonomy when I went into labour.
I am not sure why I didn’t see these signs for what they were when I was pregnant and preparing for birth. It takes a great amount of effort not to blame myself for the way my birthing experience turned out because I didn’t notice these things.
Maybe I went into it a little over confident in my own strength without really appreciating what it would mean to give birth. I truly did believe that it didn’t matter what my doctor wanted, that I could just say ‘no’ to anything I didn’t want, even if I were scared, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Maybe I was unable to see these signs, or somehow chose not to see, or repressed them because of all the stress and anxiety I was already feeling.
At the very least I know now what I need to look for in a practitioner when we decide to have another baby. I will know next time that the practitioner you choose does have a very large part to play in the kind of experience you come away with, and that pure stubbornness isn’t enough to rely on.
I still struggle very much with how the birth of my son played out. I imagine it will take me a very long time to work through the self blame, and the anger, and the sadness and disappointment, but I do look forward to the next time. I feel as though I have learned a great many lessons from that experience. Not only about the kind of practitioners I want to help me the next time, but about the things I want to get out of my birthing experience and my own strengths and vulnerabilities. I cannot change the birth I have already had, but I feel very hopeful about the next one, whenever that may be.