They call it 'birth rape'. Women whose rights are taken away from them during their birthing experiences, whose bodies are violated by unnecessary procedures. The term is also being used by women who are fed up with of the impact of a medical establishment that focuses on the weaknesses of women's bodies, rather than the strengths. Forget the fact that we have been doing this, unaided by machinery and man, since the beginning of time. In labour we must submit to interventions and procedures, because we don't know what's good for us.
I had hoped for a home birth but planned for a hospital one. My baby decided to arrive a few weeks before the estimated date and was therefore labelled 'premature', although we both know that she arrived exactly when she meant to, oblivious to projected due date charts. I was labouring at home and told to go into hospital, to submit to the harsh lights and constant surveillance of well-meaning midwives. Nothing could have prepared me for the endless observations and strange beepings of monitoring machines that I would find there.
When I arrived I was deeply in labour, but initially assured that this could not be the case, since my due date was weeks away. They kept calling it 'false labour'. Then they checked and found that I was dilated and therefore definitely in labour, and immediately hooked me up to a machine to check that my unborn baby wasn't under stress. Never mind putting mum-to-be under stress.
I remember begging, in my weak and vulnerable state, to be allowed to walk around the room continuously, but the interruptions always came in the form of checks and tests. They seemed never-ending. At intervals I was told that I had to be strapped to this machine, lying down, else how will we know if your baby is okay? Of course, there's no way I could have known something so critical about my own body and baby. The responsibility of being a mum only begins after baby has left mum's body.
And this is how it happens. The term 'birth rape', used by women whose bodies are treated like machines when they are most vulnerable to other people's wills. Labouring women whose minds and wishes are not respected or consulted. The power is taken from mum's hands to gloved hands the second you enter the ward, and you cannot take it back.
But even after my experience, I didn't call it birth rape. After all, I wasn't cut open or told that I couldn't give birth without a C-section (although this was implied a few times), which has happened to so many of my friends. I'd heard plenty of horror stories already, of how women had been held down by rough hands, forced open, had their birth plans denied or even torn up and binned in front of them, been injected with drugs against their pleas and wills, or cut open without their consent. Personally I think I managed to avoid all of this by submitting to the medics around me instead of fighting back, but partly it came down to luck. I told myself that I didn't mind the ebb and flow of midwives coming and going, of their scrutinising, unfamiliar faces- a different face every hour - and the constant prodding and poking, the restless obsession with monitoring. In fact, my mind coped well with it all.
But my body felt differently about it. Every time a midwife asked, "does it hurt?", my body gave up. Stopped labouring. What do you say to such a question, when you're clearly in more pain than you've ever experienced before in your life? How can you respond, without being angry, shouty and rude? Without being accused of abusing NHS staff, even? Unnecessary thoughts and worries occupied my mind, while midwives took it in turns to observe me while writing reams of notes. Being observed and monitored is difficult enough to deal with or ignore at the best of times - think OFSTED but with a human being trying to push its way out of your vagina at the same time.
This is no way to give birth.
As time went on I could see them, starting to look strained, glancing at the clock, whispering to each other. I dreaded having a C-section when I knew my body was fully capable of doing this without intervention. So I decided to grin and bear it. The questioning midwife meant well, after all. I couldn't blame her for asking silly questions. She was only doing her best to engage with me within the general busy, stressed, rushed atmosphere of an overstretched hospital ward. This midwife had seen countless birthing mothers and babies arrive over the passing night shift, and she was doing her best. She couldn't empathise with a labouring woman, who needed all her energy to focus on her contractions and labouring body. Instead my mind had to focus on and respond to other people's questions and needs, to assure them that I was okay and to hold false conversations with them, to keep them happy. I'm sure they all meant well.
It took all my willpower to go back into my body, to ignore the beeping machinery, the interruptions and incessant questions, and trust my own instincts, my own power as a birthing mother. Ina May Gaskin became my mantra. Eventually I was pushing, while one midwife told me that I was not ready, then strapped something to my arm and exclaimed that my blood pressure was too high. Another replied that of course it was high; I was about to give birth. Somewhere in the depths of my mind I was thankful for her.
Another midwife told me to make less noise. I hadn't even realised that I'd been shouting. Apparently this stage - the second stage of labour - lasted for over an hour, but I had no concept of time for the last few hours of labour. My mind was focused on my birthing body and my incoming baby, with muffled voices in the background. The fingers kept probing and the machine kept beeping. I had been labouring for over 17 hours now and I just wanted it all over with, so I closed my eyes, lay back and let them do whatever they felt they had to do down there, with their unfamiliar, gloved hands.
My baby was born naturally, all things considered, and healthy. When she was eventually handed to me she was wrapped in several layers of blankets. I was too tired to assert my wish for skin to skin contact; I felt only relief wash over me, that I could finally leave this horrid room with all the medical implements and questioning glances. Suddenly I found myself free from contractions, probing hands and the glances, able to rest and shower and pack up to go home, as if I had only dreamed that these women were pushing implements into my nether regions an hour ago.
So when women tell me their terrible birth stories, I sympathise with them but I don't empathise. Birth rape, they call it, which still feels like a strong term to me, yet it makes more sense that the increasingly popular term 'fraped' that I see posted all over Facebook, often used for minor incidents of profile hacking by friends. Rape is really to do with having your body disrespected, contorted against your wishes, without your consent. The way the medical establishment sees it is, when you're on the hospital bed, you have already given consent. Some men say the same thing about the marital bed, or any bed that you get into with them.
The birthing mother has to lie down, open her legs and shut her moaning mouth. She doesn't have the right to ignore questions, to continue without observation, or to labour without interruption. She is seen to know less about her body than science does. After all, doctors can cut the baby out of her if she stops labouring. No one really considers the fact that the need for such intervention increases dramatically when the labouring women arrives at the hospital. That this could change if we wanted it to.
The birth raped women stay mute about their experiences, unable to speak of a trauma which has yet to be widely recognised by society. Many of them sink helplessly into post natal depression. Others are dismissive of their feelings, sure that they should instead try to focus on how grateful they are that their babies are safe and well, even if their bodies are not. Some whisper about it to counsellors in terrified voices, or leave comments on parenting forums, keen to tell someone- anyone- about what they have been through. Others tell themselves that it doesn't matter now that it's all over, anyway.
It's incredibly difficult for birth raped women to speak out about their experiences, but until they do, things will not change. The time has come for us to stop ignoring what these women have been through, and continue to go through, and to stop arguing about the nuances of whether-this-can-be-considered-to-be-rape versus whether-that-can-be-considered-to-be-rape, and to instead start looking at what we can do to stop birth rape from happening. We need to accept that birth rape is more common than is presently recognised, offer support to the women who have experienced it, and look at changing the way the medical establishment treats birth as a whole. In some countries marital rape is still technically legal and socially acceptable, and there was a time when rape was not recognised as a concept or a crime in the UK. Now it's time that we took another step in the right direction, and stood up for birthing women's bodies - before too much more damage is done.
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