Monday, 21 November 2016

Silencing Negative Birth Stories

Silencing negative birth stories only helps to create more, robs women of their voice and treats us like delicate snowflakes who can't be trusted with the truth. Remind me again what century this is?


That seemed to be the message on twitter recently, from a senior midwife to women who've had difficult experiences of childbirth. She wanted more women to share their positive stories so that midwives could learn from them. But warned against sharing anything negative with our daughters or pregnant friends.

I'm not going to go further into names or details because this opinion is hardly unique. It's one I heard a lot when I was a first time pregnant mum myself, now more than seven years ago. I had however hoped it was dying out because it's flat out wrong for a number of reasons.

Firstly - who gets to decide who can share their story?

We live in an age when everyone can choose to share as much or as little of their life as they like. The right to free speach is brandished like a sacred weapon, even when what is said brings offense or incites violence. In that context are the everyday stories of women's lives so very shocking that they must be silenced? Why should a mother who lost her baby be less entitled to a voice than those of us who took our newborns home safely?

To tell your story, be it positive or negative, isn't a judgement on others. It isn't a lesson in how to (or not to) give birth. But all too often that is exactly how these things are interpreted. Tell a "horror story" and you are clearly looking for sympathy, being dramatic and trying to scare other women. Tell a happy tale and you are smug and judgmental.

Women have been told to keep quiet about our lives for millennia, now that we are finding our voices, let's try to listen to each other. Just listen. And accept the value of differing experiences and insights. Without assuming they say anything about us. Where there are lessons to be learned (for midwives or anyone else) they need to come from the good stories and the bad. Flying is (supposedly) the safest way to travel, but it didn't get there by only investigating the planes that landed safely.

Silencing the negative can also cause real, individual harm. I know this from personal experience, and to tell my story involves a confession: I was willfully, arrogantly, naive about childbirth.

I had always known I wanted children and years before I was ever pregnant I knew I wanted to give birth to them as naturally as possible. I wanted to experience that great universal female act. So I sought out information to help me in that aim. I read the books and websites, I did the classes and I embraced their message: You are made to give birth,  you just need to have faith in your body.

I was told to ignore the negative stories. Women die in developing countries because they are too small, young and malnourished to give birth. In the western world problems come when women are ill, fat, old or just get scared, wimp out and let the doctors start on their malicious interventions.

I had just turned 30, was six foot tall and in great health. I went into labour calm and confident and utterly unprepared for a 34 hour labour with a 9lb 10 oz back to back baby who's head size was off the scale.

I'd given no thought to emergency caesareans other than to tell myself it would never happen to me. The thundering clash between expectation and reality left the experience repeating in my head for years afterwards, and woke me sweating and panicked in my bed long after the physical damage had healed. Ironically, avoiding other peoples negative stories only added to the negativity of my own.

I won't lie to my daughter and say she arrived calmly in a birthing pool just as I'd planned, it is her story as much as mine, she deserves the truth. But I may gloss over some of the details, some of the fear. I'll tell her, as I tell pregnant friends, that I just got unlucky, we were both ok in the end and she was worth every minute. I want her and her sister to know that childbirth can be wonderful, joyous and empowering. But sometimes things don't go to plan and when that happens, if you are lucky enough to live in a developed nation, then modern medicine will usually get you through it. That even if the very worst thing happens, the thing you push from your mind as you stroke your growing belly, then you are no less normal, no less deserving of a voice than anyone else.

Which should surely all be obvious? We live in a time where Women are supposed to be treated as intelligent human beings. Where we are supposed to be supported to make informed decisions about our own bodies. So how does this belief that we can not handle the harder truths and should be shielded from them for our own good still persist?

Being told to hide away our stories of difficult births lest they scare other women seems both patronising and, worryingly for a message that comes mostly from other women, patriarchal: mustn't scare the weaker sex, best pretend it's all candles and cute babies or they'll get in such a fluster they won't be able to give birth properly, or  *gasp* they'll start demanding pain relief or C sections!


Most first time pregnant Mums are grown ups. We know that TV dramas aren't real life and that newspapers pick the most sensational stories. We know that just because something happened to the woman at the end of the street, that doesn't mean it will happen to us. We know that life isn't risk free but we still get up in the morning and get on with it.

You don't empower women by treating them like scared children, by telling us that life is all rainbows and unicorns and hiding the monsters under the bed so we will behave in the way you think best. That is true whether the "you" in question in a husband, a government, a whole society or a senior Midwife.

We need facts and then we need the support to turn these into realistic expectations, choices and personal opinions. We need to be prepared for the wonderful births and the difficult, complicated ones. Then the stories will be created. They may not all be happy, but each one will be unique and each one will be worthy of telling.


I want the truth!
You can't handle the truth!
(no idea what the weird eyes are about on here)

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Unreal World Of The Academic Scientist

I'm an academic (more or less). Which is great because it means I don't live in the "real world". No, I was born into a magical land where all I've ever had to do is sit in nice places (mostly Gothic in style), and think. I've definitely never worked in dull, crappy jobs to pay my rent or had to shuffle embarrassed from the supermarket when all my cards were declined. And my ivory tower is free of "real" things like bills and weather, so I've never gone to bed with two coats on to keep warm or lived somewhere where the rain came in through the bathroom wall.

I'm doubly lucky to be not just an academic but an academic Scientist. This means I am untroubled by all those things scientists aren't interested in, like personal appearance, or any kind of art. Even better I never have to bother with those tiresome sounding human relationships. I've never had a broken heart, lost a loved one or tried to juggle all my important thinking with caring for sick children.

Heck no, the real world isn't for me. I just think pointless thoughts, the magic spirits of academia sort out everything else.

Yes, I am being sarcastic.

Yes, this has been known to happen before.

On this occasion it was prompted by Tory MP Glyn Davis:

I'll admit sarcasm isn't a very mature or even a very vehement response. But, like most scientists and academics, I have come across  similar sentiments over and over again. We are seen by some as somehow "other". Different from "normal" people in their "real" world.

Scientists, and academics more broadly, are supposed to be aloof from reality and either baffled by or disinterested in anything or anyone other than our narrow little fields of interest. Ok, I'd be lying if I said there was no one like that. I've certainly worked with a few people who didn't play nicely with others, or consistently turned up in back to front and inside out clothes. But they are memorable because of their rarity.

I have worked with far more scientists who have very full and very "real" lives. My job often involves long periods of time watching experiments with other people. If nothing is going wrong, we chat. Yes about their research, but also about their kids; the problems of picking a school or juggling work and childcare when the cells in your dish won't let you work 9-5, but nursery still shuts at 6. There are fears for elderly relatives living far away or worries about getting another job once the latest fixed term contract is up. These are very ordinary concerns, a PhD certificate doesn't wave them away.

Then there is the related idea that academics have no interest in anything else, that we are lodged firmly and solely in our cold, rational left brains. Well firstly that left brain right brain thing is total nonsense and historically great scientists were often also artists. Science requires creative thinking. Not just looking at something and thinking ooh, that's pretty, but wondering why it is, wrapping your imagination around the question and asking - could it possibly be because of .....?

I've worked with people who have played in chamber orchestras, west end shows and rock bands. People who can draw wickedly accurate (and wickedly funny) cartoons or spend their spare time painstakingly restoring antique clocks. I have colleagues who are fabulous cooks, ultra marathon runners or computer game masters. And lots of people who just like to crash out on the sofa and watch Game Of Thrones, play with their kids or take the dog for a long walk.

Typical academic, turning his back on the real world.

All of my colleagues are extraordinary scientists, some excel in other areas too, but all of them do all the normal stuff. They all have to somehow pay the rent or the mortgage, not an easy task on a post doc salary in central London. They all have to go to the supermarket and take out the bins. None of us were born university graduates. Our institutions don't manage every aspect of our lives for us and unless we are very very unusual our salaries won't run to a PA and team of household staff.

Yet according to Glyn Davies, we aren't "real" and so our opinions, opinions on subjects we have studied and wrestled with for years, can simply be ignored and, sadly, he's not the only one.

A few years ago I was in a minicab and the driver asked me what I did for a living. It's a question that always makes me pause for a moment. Should I tell the truth? "I'm a scientist and I work in Cancer research". It usually goes one of two ways: "ooh that's really...worthy...(silence)" which is understandable, though a little uncomfortable. The other way, the way the minicab driver went, is the accusation that we are all going to hell for denying God (FYI I have plenty of colleagues with strong and varied religious beliefs, we aren't all Dawkins) and that we are hiding the cure for cancer.

The threat of eternal damnation upsets me, the accusation that I'm hiding the cure for cancer makes me furious.

Scientist do live in the real world, a strange little corner of it perhaps, but a corner where some of us get sick with cancer, and some of us die from it. All of us have watched loved ones battle through Chemo and wished there was something better and kinder. All of us have lost people we care about and would have done anything to save. The idea that we would simply let them suffer and die for the sake of some grand conspiracy and our mediocre pay slips would be ridiculous if it weren't so offensive.

We seem to live in a time when politicians sitting in ornate debating chambers and billionaires bellowing at thousands in a stadium, see no need for experts. We are all experts now, just decide what you believe and do a quick Google to find someone who says you're right. Those with power and money can define who and what is real to suit their agenda or prejudices. That scares me.

I want my house to have been built by experts who knew what they were doing. When I buy it I want an expert solicitor who will check every detail and when the boiler goes wrong I want the Corgi registered, highly trained expert to deal with the gas in my home. If my kids are sick I want expert doctors who have spent years and years training and working in that disease and drugs developed by expert scientists who've tested them in every imaginable way.

Because I have no idea how to lay a brick, write a contract or cure a sick a child. I may be an academic scientist, a specialist in my own little field but I don't have time to learn all those other skills, not to the level that people who spend their lives on them do. I'm too busy getting my kids out of the house on time in the morning, ramming myself into the commuter train, trying to meet my deadlines and get through all the laundry before someone runs out of socks.

You know, that stuff people do in the "real world", that place I've never been.