The power of a birth story

by Carla Sargent

"I do not care what kind of birth you have... a homebirth, scheduled caesarean, epidural hospital birth, or if you birth alone in the woods next to a baby deer. I care that you had options, that you were supported in your choices, and that you were treated with respect." January Harshe 

If every birthing woman was aware of her options, supported in her choices, and treated with kindness, compassion and respect by those attending her, birth trauma numbers would drastically reduce. It's an indictment on our Western birth culture and system of birth care that so many women don't discover these basic rights until after a traumatic birth experience, if ever.

The photo here is of my wise mum and newborn me. Mum had had two uncomplicated births with my older two sisters, but they were far from trauma-free. In 1970s New Zealand, enemas and episiotomies were routine, birthing on your back in the hospital was 'the way it was done', immediate cutting of the baby's umbilical cord was all any of the doctors had ever been taught, and babies were routinely taken to the nursery, only to be brought to their mothers for regimented three-hourly feedings. Not ideal. Far from it. And my brilliant mum wanted better for herself and her baby when she got pregnant with number three - me :)

During her pregnancy she read a tonne of books, including some gorgeous home birth books from the States that I now treasure in my home library. Gaining a newfound appreciation for how gentle, peaceful and welcoming the birth experience could possibly be, Mum was on a mission! She was going to birth me at home with legendary New Zealand home birth midwife, Joan Donley, supporting her. Joan had agreed to make the trip from Auckland to Hamilton to attend my birth, given that there were no Hamilton-based home birth midwives at the time. 

Recounting this profound time in her life, Mum informed me that she arranged a 'home birth' meeting in the humble lounge-space of their home during her pregnancy. Any midwives, doctors, or couples who wanted to participate in a discussion about her home birth plans were invited to attend. How cool is that?! She says she did this as a way of informing birth workers and parents about the benefits of home birth, and as a means of securing support for her planned home birth. One of the attendees was our family GP, Dr Smith. As it turned out, it was quite fortunate that he was at this special meeting.

When Mum's labour with me kicked off, she couldn't reach her midwife. In the mid-70s communications were not as easy as they are today, so with no way of getting hold of Joan, Mum made the call to give birth to me at Waikato Hospital with Dr Smith as the attending doctor. Given Dr Smith had been present at Mum's meeting, quite possibly it came as no surprise to him when Mum asked him to sign his name against a list of 'birth requirements.' This list stated that there was to be no routine enema or episiotomy, my cord was not to be clamped until it had finished pulsating (putting an end to Dr Smith's optimal cord-clamping virginity), and I was not to be taken from my mother's arms unless there was a medical emergency that warranted it. Thanks Mum!!! All went well. Just a handful of minutes after birthing my placenta, Mum and Dad took me home to snuggle me up in bed with them, then showed me off to my big sisters at daybreak. 

That was undoubtedly a healing birth experience for my mum, but it had other far reaching impacts too. The story of my birth, at least in part, inspired me to become a midwife. And later, when I was to became a mother myself, Mum's story, alongside my own midwifery knowledge, guided me to know what it was that I needed to achieve the gentle, undisturbed birth that I desired... I knew my options, I found the support of midwives who spoke the same birth language as me, and I surrounded myself with people who I knew would respect my choices and offer me nothing but the utmost in kindness and compassion. 

Now, with my midwifery and childbearing days behind me, I continue to use my knowledge and experiences to support others in their own birthing journeys. Midwifery and birth support has morphed into birth trauma support, but it has the same underpinnings - namely, a desire to see women realise their full power and potential when it comes to the sacred act of giving birth. There are few things more satisfying than helping a traumatised mum realise that her birth wounds were through no fault of her own, then watching her soar in strength and self-belief as she plans a healing next birth experience. My work is so incredibly humbling, and intensely rewarding. Thank you to my amazing mum, thank you to all the brave mums out there who 'let me in' on their stories of hurt and guilt, and thank you to the incredible birth workers who, despite many flaws in the system, find the drive and resilience to support birthing women the way they need to be supported.

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