Has labour become a competition?

Sitting at mother’s groups, listening and observing, a general theme emerges when mothers speak of their recent births: competition. Who had the most traumatic birth? Who had the longest labour? And I came to wonder what purpose this competition serves. I wonder if it serves a few purposes.

It reinforces birth as a scary, dangerous, even deadly experience that really must occur in hospital. “Thank god I was in hospital. My baby would have died if I had been at home!”

It validates the experience of the woman who had the most traumatic labour. The woman who wins the most-traumatic-birth-competition feels good, as any winner would do. Why would she want to give up this good feeling? After-all, she’s been traumatised by the birth and it feels good to finally have a group of women say, “wow, that was really bad!” rather than, “at least you have a healthy baby”. This reinforcement relieves the woman of her quest to find out what went wrong, and more importantly why, in attempt to avoid the same situation from occurring next time. Hence, “I’ll just go for a ceasar next time” if often heard and the other mothers agree that yes, since this woman’s birth was the most traumatic of all the births in the group, this woman is certainly justified in “going for a caesar” next time.

Other themes that emerge are an avoidance of self-responsibility, empowerment, ownership and belief in birth as a process that a woman’s body can do, if let to labour as nature intends. The most-traumatic-birth-competition rarely centres on the woman’s individual choices and decisions. It focuses on what was done to her and what was out of her control. Have we lost the ability to have the courage of our convictions, to trust our instincts, to believe in ourselves, that we hand over responsibility for our births to a stranger / professional? Often times, the mother who has had the most traumatic birth will have handed over the most responsibility for her birth. This protects the mother from any guilt: one the one hand, it was her care provider’s fault if things didn’t go to plan, and on the other hand, thank goodness she had her careprovider to sort things out and rescue her and her baby from the birth. Either way, the woman bears no responsibility for the outcome that was less-than-desirable.

The mother who had the most natural birth often doesn’t speak. She’s in the minority after all. No-one wants to hear about her amazing home waterbirth. And indeed, if she dares to speak of her positive, empowering experience, she is met with disapproval for daring to speak while Mrs Jones is re-living her nightmare to the group. The natural birth mother is labeled “odd” for ever pursuing a natural birth, and even odder for actually achieving it. She best not speak or her views will only isolate her from the group, and motherhood can be isolating enough. So now the situation is that the competition exists entirely of traumatised mothers, all seeking to be awarded the prize for having had the biggest tear, longest labour, greatest number of interventions and biggest baby. Each wants to feel that although the circumstances were not ideal, there was nothing they could have done to avert such outcomes, that they were mere victims in the unpredictable process of birth. They went to a top private hospital with the best obstetrician in Sydney (funny that they’re all “the best”) and that’s where their responsibility ends.

It’s hard to do the self-reflection and question decisions you made. Maybe you’ll learn that other decisions would have led to better outcomes and this starts the painful cycle of regret for something that cannot be changed. However, it’s ok to honour that journey and know that at the time, we made the best decisions we could have made, but now that we know differently, we will choose differently.

When this happens, maybe the competition will be on different terms. I live for the day when the competition is for the most satisfying, safe and empowering birth experience with the woman coming away with her dignity intact and feeling respected and cared for throughout her experience. It’s totally possible!

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