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Dignity in Childbirth: A Necessity, Not a Privilege

Last year, I gave birth to a 6-pound, 9-ounce baby girl via Caesarean section. It was one of the happiest days of my life, but it was also one of the worst. My daughter’s accelerated heart rate meant that I would undergo unexpected, emergency surgery. I have long been terrified of needles and surgeries, but I was even more concerned about my little bean’s health.

I chose the C-section because it was the best option for her safety. Still, I felt terror at the thought of being cut open. The news of imminent surgery brought tears to my eyes; the hospital staff kept them there. The doctor on call rushed through her spiel about why I needed to sign the forms now instead of weighing my options for a surgeon who wasn’t at the end of an 11-hour shift.

Wheeling me into the operating room, one of the nurses called me a crybaby. The anesthesiologist crouched in front of my face and told me that I was not in control. God was in control. Didn’t I care about my baby? It wasn’t about me anymore. I should dry my tears because today was the joyful day my baby would be born.

 

Our precious babies will always be important. And their mothers are, too.

Our precious babies will always be important. And their mothers are, too.

And born she was, whole and healthy. For this, I was grateful, in awe of the wondrous little person swaddled in my lap. But I was wrecked emotionally. Anger and helplessness and pain washed over me in waves until it pushed water from the corners of my eyes. I would hide in the bathroom with the door shut. My baby had arrived and I was healing from the abdominal surgery just fine. So why was I crying?

My wounds were invisible, internal. And because I could not physically point to where I was hurting, I denied the pain. I told myself that I had no right to feel this way. It wasn’t about me anymore, as the anesthesiologist had informed me. The baby was all that mattered.

Months after my experience, I have come to understand that no person deserves the treatment I received from the doctors and nurses at the hospital. The verbal barrage aimed at me while I labored assaulted my dignity and self-esteem during an extremely vulnerable time. I am both thankful for my precious daughter and angry at the now-defunct maternity ward.

Inasmuch as we live in a country (the United States) that allows women the freedom to choose a variety of birth experiences for themselves and their children, I am confident in saying that all women want the same thing: safe delivery of their babies. Whether this safe delivery occurs through water birth, in a hospital, on a bed, or on an operating table, our desired result is the long-awaited baby. But this is not the only desired result of childbirth. Women have a medical need to emerge from the delivery room psychologically whole.

Verbal and physical abuse—let’s call it what it is—and violence against women in childbirth have been well documented. Mothers are being attacked by the very individuals who are there to assist them in delivering their babies. This is an outrage.

Speaking out against verbal abuse helps mothers everywhere Photo Credit: Paul Punzo

Speaking out against verbal abuse helps mothers everywhere
Photo Credit: Paul Punzo

After writing an article detailing my ordeal, I was appalled to learn that my negative experience with hospital staff was not unusual. But why had I never heard about the rampant mistreatment of pregnant women prior to my own delivery? So many women responded that they had also received belittling comments, mockery, and even laughter at their distress during labor, all from medical professionals.

Perhaps what is most insidious about this bullying is the culture of shame that it encourages: We are told to silence our pain. We are told we are just confused, or being selfish, or victims of our own hormones. Women are told that as long as they are holding an infant, the hole in their heart should not exist.

Some health care providers may see themselves as coaches delivering a dose of tough love to moms-to-be, but women have the right to expect humane, respectful treatment during this transformative process. Considerate care for a laboring woman is not “mollycoddling”; it’s common sense. Stress and external pressure during labor has the physical effect of disrupting and stalling the bodily process, while emotional trauma puts us at risk for postpartum depression, which has a direct effect on our babies. If the baby is the “most important” individual in the room, then the health of that baby’s mother is of paramount concern for the medical staff in the room.

Asking a woman to carry and bear a child and have no emotional investment in that child’s arrival is like asking her to be a ketchup bottle.

A ketchup bottle is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

If the contents get stuck, you can have your way with a ketchup bottle. Flip it upside down. Shake vigorously. Curse at its dogged refusal to release the goods. Smack it firmly on the bottom a few times because it deserves this.

By and by, a ketchup bottle will reward your tough love with a sweet glob of red sauce. No one worries about its manhandled dignity, because only the ketchup matters; the bottle is just a means to an end.

But we are women, not ketchup bottles.

We are not to be flipped off and shaken up in attempts to loosen our resolve to have the safe and affirming birth we desire. We have no use for abusive, infantilizing language that shames us for our actions, our choices, or our emotions.
Certainly, motherhood calls upon women to assume the mantle of caring for their helpless infant. This does require sacrifice, but martyrdom is an entirely different thing. We do not have to take abuse—pardon my expression—lying down.

Many women do not know of the recourses available to them in the event of an incident. Because of the vulnerable position that new mothers are in, it can be difficult to handle the emotional trauma and also research the steps necessary to lodge a complaint. This is true for me; I never formally documented my experience with the medical staff. I’m relieved to hear that ImprovingBirth.org will release a toolkit that assists mothers in reporting inappropriate behavior against them during labor and delivery.

It seems almost absurd to insist that women in childbirth are not inanimate objects devoid of feeling and feelings. We must take back the narrative of our birth experiences because we deserve happy memories. We deserve dignified treatment. One report, one story at a time can help change the sometimes hostile climate of a labor room for the better. At the very least, I’ve gained strength from speaking my truth and reading those of other women. And the next time I give birth, if anyone as much as snaps at me, I will whip the ketchup bottle out of my bag and hand it to them. Let them beat on that.

Dara Mathis is a freelance writer, editor, and poet who lives in Georgia with her husband and daughter. Her writing examines concepts of femininity, motherhood, and the intersection of race and gender. You can find her on Twitter @dtafakari and at daratmathis.wordpress.com.

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14 Comments

  1. Great column and thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you for speaking up! I think the most important thing that you mentioned is the culture of shame. That’s the worst part and what keeps birth trauma in the dark. Time to shed some light and speak together!

    • I agree, Nicole. I think I may have been less timid about speaking up if I had felt I had the right to do so.

  3. It all begins with education. If nurses and doctors are bullied in their education programs – and they too often are – like growing children they are more apt to become bullies. Remember the old song from “South Pacific”?
    “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, – It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s not just in patient care – it’s everywhere. It is past time for all of us to look inward and outward and and speak up wherever we see it and to establish remedial programs to correct it. Thank you Dara for setting an example.

    • Well said. And if there’s any example to be set, it’s by the super-supportive community of women responding to the article. Thank you!

  4. Thank you! So powerfully and beautifully written!!

  5. Such a powerful post. Your line “If the baby is the “most important” individual in the room, then the health of that baby’s mother is of paramount concern for the medical staff in the room.” is something I have thought so often and contemplated in my own work as the creator of a website on birth (Unexpectant.com). If we can improve birth for women, how much better will their ability to bond and care for their baby be? How much better will their entry into motherhood be? How much more can they focus on baby and breastfeeding? How much less post-partum trauma and depression will they have to work through? You are so right that we must take back the narrative. And, I believe, we must share the narrative so others will be aware and will not allow themselves to be those ketchup bottles in their own experiences. Thank you for sharing your story. As traumatic as it was for you, I know many others are learning from it and good is coming of it!

    • Funny, as I gain more distance from the event, it gets easier to retell. I initially wrote out my story after being prompted by my midwife. I didn’t want to do it. It was difficult. She had me read it aloud and we talked about it and it helped. Without her encouragement, I might still be silent.

  6. Dara, thank you for sharing your powerful story. As a doula, a mother, and a human being, this account both deeply saddens and infuriates me. I’m so sorry you experienced this.

    You are an excellent writer, and I hope you continue to reflect and share your wisdom, as we all work to create a better birthing world.

    • Thank you for your work as a doula; your help is greatly needed. I benefited from a doula during my pregnancy. I appreciate your kind words!

  7. Anna Moore

    So well written! Thank-you!

  8. This is lovely, so well written and completely captures the importance that healthcare provider recognize that in birth, you are working with a dyad. Both require love and support, harming either will harm both in one way or another. Plus as human beings and moms, I think we tend to push the negative down at the time to focus on the goal. Months or years later though we can’t ignore it and we need to grieve or process the fact that while we might have gotten the outcome we wanted, we might also have gone through a whole lot of trauma (emotional and physical) to get there.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Caught on Video: Improving Birth Breaks the Silence on Abuse of Women in Maternity Care | Improving Birth - […] from our volunteers and from women giving birth in almost every state in the U.S.  (Read Dara’s story, Kai’s …
  2. Caught on Video: Improving Birth Breaks the Silence on Abuse of Women in Maternity Care | Improving Birth - […] year-round from our volunteers and from women giving birth in almost every state in the U.S. (Read Dara’s story, …

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