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Women's Voices: How We Must Listen To Women About Birth

23/08/2016 11:11 | Updated 23 August 2016

I'm something of a 'birth junkie'.

Like many others, I admire the photos being shared on social media by the Positive Birth Movement and Birth Without Fear and by doula photographers such as Tree of Life's Hannah Palamara. I admire the images for their beauty. Their rawness. Their honesty. And the swishy babies, of course. After all, there is something about the moment a new human being joins us. There is something about the power of women's bodies and the physical and emotional strength of women in bringing life.

Yet, when I admire the photographs and the narratives, stories and pride behind them, it is not simply the visual element of the images that 'gets me'. It is the woman at the centre: She who delivers. She who roars. She who breathes. She who wails in joy at the moment she holds her child in her arms.

It is the voice.

As a feminist, I used to talk about the abilities and powers of women, our right to education, access to the professions and about equal pay. Of course, all these things still matter to me. But something I had neglected before I became a mother was the birthing room. I was too busy talking about the boardroom.

Although I write about motherhood - our lives, our work, our children - one of the first chapters I wrote in Liberating Motherhood was about birth. On reflection, I would say that chapter was written in my mind soon after the birth of my son. It changed me. I'd come to a realisation about women. And about myself. I felt that:

"... we must see birth as coming from the same place as love, rather than fear. We need to hear positive stories. We need to hear the positive experiences of our sisters and mothers. Birth is a legacy. We owe it to our daughters to instil (from a young age, and in reproductive education) faith in their bodies. We owe it to women to respect the birthing space, the birthing journey and to respect their wishes. Birth can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have to start respecting the prophecy."

Why? With the birth of my son came the conviction that birth is a feminist issue. We must feel able to speak up for our wishes and our needs. With this, comes the absolute requirement that others - from midwives to doctors to those who support us on wards or at home - respect us in our maternity care. We are entitled to nothing less. We should settle for nothing less.

Yet, the reality is that women can often feel silenced in our everyday lives. We may not speak up for fear of ridicule, shame or criticism. We might defer to others instead of pushing for our view or our rights to be heard and respected. To speak is to open ourselves up to vulnerability. And let's face it, we are never more vulnerable, yet strong, than in birth.

So I was overjoyed to see the announcement of an important conference about birth focusing on women's voices: Women's Voices Conference.

To quote the event:

"The day will focus on women's maternity experiences, told in their own words, ensuring that women are kept at the heart of maternity care. We shall be sharing stories in an environment of collaboration, working together to shape maternity services for the better. We will be exploring why it is so vital that women are in the driving seat of their birth, that they are in control and that their choices are respected and how their experience impacts on their identity as a mother, family life and society as a whole.

We will be celebrating the achievements of women and health care professionals working together.

We will hear from those who continually strive to improve women's maternity experience.

Standing with women and speaking on the day: Sheena Byrom (OBE & Honorary Fellow of RCM), Milli Hill (founder of the Positive Birth Movement), Rebecca Schiller (Birthrights), Beverley Beech (chair of AIMS) and @JennyTheM (NHS midwife), Florence Wilcock ( Consultant Obstetrician & Co-founder of #MatExp), Kati Edwards (Birth you Love) and most importantly, service users!

Chairing the day: Catherine Williams (NICE fellow)"

I asked Michelle Quashie, organiser of the conference and writer of Strong Since Birth - a moving account of her experience of a vaginal birth after two c-sections - about the event and she told me that:

"We hear lots of talk about the importance of providing women-centred care, but to provide this type of care we need to hear from women exactly what this means to them. It's not just about bringing a baby into the world safely, because women matter too.

It is vital that women are in the driving seat of their birth, that they are in control and that their choices are respected. Women need good balanced information to make truly informed decisions. All women should receive kind and compassionate care.

A women's birth experience will stay with her for life and impacts on her identity as a mother, family life and society as a whole.

Whilst we are lucky to have a maternity service that meets the physical needs of women and their babies we need to ensure that a women's maternity care meets both her mental and emotional needs too, as both equally as important."

What a refreshing change from a de-sexed, gender-neutral politics which, in places, masquerades as feminism and erases maternal experience.

I'm excited about this event because it is time.

Because ultimately, if we ignore or diminish women's needs in the birthing room in policy, politics, education and funding, we are losing sight of the women at the centre of birth. Feminism and policy must start to see her there and hear her voice.

Congratulations to Women's Voices Conference for hosting this important event. If you can't make it there - it's on 1 October in London - you could drop into the Community and raise your voice there - we are entitled to speak and we are entitled to be heard.

I'll be going. See you there.

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