The romantic image of a radiant mother, a beautiful baby in her arms, her
golden hair lit by the suns rays, displayed on the jackets of many birth books is
far removed from reality. New mothers are often unhappy. This major life transition is
made incredibly difficult by poverty, poor housing, overcrowding, and social isolation.
But one reason why many women have low self-esteem and cannot enjoy their babies is that
care in childbirth often denies them honest information, the possibility of choice, and
simple human respect.
As research by Green, Coupland and my daughter, Jenny Kitzinger, England,1 and Simkins research in
Seattle2 reveals, women remember
with acute clarity, often many years later, what midwives and doctors did and said. When
they saw them as authoritarian or punitive and they did not offer information and choice,
they feel they were degraded and abused.
I started the Birth Crisis Network3
to offer women who had experienced a traumatic birth, an opportunity to talk on the phone
with someone who validates what they say and helps them find within themselves the power
to cope. As they talk they often describe how they were subjected to what some call
"emotional blackmail". This starts during pregnancy. One woman told me that at
the antenatal clinic, when she asked if it would be possible to have a VBAC, the midwife
in charge said, "If I wanted to leave my children without a mother, and if I
didnt have a repeat Caesarean you try for a natural labour! I came home
in tears because I thought Ive got no choice. Ive got to have a
Caesarean. Otherwise I would kill myself."
They feel they were processed through labour and delivery like factory goods on a conveyor
belt. Debbies account is typical. When she rang me she found it difficult to speak,
and there were long silences. Her baby was born 15 months ago. She went to hospital
immediately when her membranes ruptured and was told she was 2cm dilated.
"After a couple of hours things had hardly changed at all. They told me I should have
a drip to speed things up and recommended an epidural. I asked the midwife What
would you feel about an epidural? She said she would probably have one. They said
It will take away all your pain. They didnt mention any risks. They said
it was fine. I wouldnt feel a thing."
"Afterwards I was much
more interested in the monitor, because that was the only way to know what was going on.
The fetal heart was going down during contractions. I asked what the numbers were for. I
was told the heart should stay between 140 and 120." It dipped to 70 during
contractions, rose at the end of a contraction, but gradually became lower down to
50 during contractions. "The doctor called in and said, Dont worry.
He got another doctor and he put like a tiny fish hook in her head." At 11.30am they
topped up the epidural and the fetal heart dropped further.
"I was getting frightened. I was being rummaged around. My legs were held up by a
nurse and my husband. I felt so embarrassed, humiliated and useless that I couldnt
even do this for myself, with the doctors face almost up inside me. They said the
head was high. Everybody ran into action. People were dashing everywhere. I thought,
Oh my God, whats happening?" She had a Caesarean. "They had to
knock me out. They took my husband away. And there I was. Id had a baby".
Women usually feel numb at first, simply relieved that it is all over. Later the
floodgates open, and gratitude that they and their babies are alive is mixed with a sense
that they have been violated: "I felt butchered, assaulted, raped." "I felt
like an animal being slaughtered." Scenes from the labour and birth are played over
and over again in their minds like a video on a loop that cannot be switched off. They
suffer nightmares and flashbacks to the trauma. People who are trying to help often tell
them, "You expected too much". They have little confidence in their bodies, and
breastfeeding is turned into a struggle. These women suffer from post traumatic stress
which may last months or even years, it may adversely affect their relationship with a
child and with their partner.
Some women do not mention the baby, or do so only in passing. Others refer to the baby as
"it". They often feel that the baby cannot really be theirs. They say that they
"go through the motions of mothering". Or that it is as if they are on
A woman told me "When I saw her she was all clean and nice and in a babygro. I
thought, Have I got the right baby? After a normal birth I know theyre
all gooey, but thats how I wanted her. When I got home I started thinking,
God! I was blaming the baby. It was all her fault that everything had gone
. my stitches and my sore nipples. I never actually hated her. But I went to my
GP and cried and cried. He prescribed tablets. I was neutral towards her, I didnt
give her cuddles. I kept crying the whole time. I felt I was half asleep all the
time". I tried to find out what sources of emotional support she had. She said:
"I live on an Army base. I dont know hardly any people. Theyre constantly
changing. My husband goes to work at 6.30 and he comes home 10 12 hours
These women often feel helpless and confused: "I didnt know what to do with the
baby on my own. My Mum took her home for the weekend. I cant visit anyone. I
cant go out for a meal. My Mum and sisters are natural born mothers. They
instinctively know what to do. I am inadequate. Every time I tried to say how I felt, the
health visitor implied that I had a healthy baby, so whats the problem?".
Of 150 consecutive calls to me by women who were traumatised by their birth experience
sixteen percent made negative comments about their babies. As one woman put it:
"Everyone says, Youve got a lovely, healthy baby. But I feel ripped
off." Others say: "For six months I hated my baby. Ive wanted to throw him
downstairs. It wasnt worth it."; "He just cried and cried inconsolably for
hours and I carried him day and night. This all left me exhausted and even more depressed
about my inability to cope with the whole childbirth and child care experience";
"I hated her afterwards. I looked at her and wished she was dead. I feel guilty for
thinking it." One woman who said of her labour, seven years ago, "I felt totally
powerless. I ended up with a blanket over my face. I wanted nothing to do with it,"
told me, " I had terrible problems bonding. At times I still dont think she is
A woman who wrote a very detailed account said: "My baby was next to me but I
didnt want to touch him or look at him. I was mourning the loss of a child who never
came through me, I was unable to give birth. He was stripped from me. Eight hours after
the operation, the nurse came and asked me if I had touched my son and I said
no. She was worried that he hadnt had any milk and she put him straight
away onto my breast, which I found a bit of a shock. It was like meeting a man for the
first time and even when you do not fancy him people make you kiss him on the lips."
"It was a real battle to breastfeed. I experienced so much frustration and pain at
the same time when they put the baby on top of my tummy which was extremely sore. He was a
hungry baby and was not satisfied with my early drops of milk. I didnt want to give
up because that was the only thing I wanted to do properly. But I failed again." The
word "failure" recurs in many womens accounts. "The feeling of
failure was almost overwhelming. I couldnt give birth to him properly and I
couldnt even feed him. I was totally useless."
Women are often aware that their partners are traumatised too. One response is for a man
to fling himself into his work. A woman described how her husband stood by during a
violent delivery in which she felt emotionally and physically abused: "I feel he
cheated my son." She added: We havent made love after seven months."
Men are often frustrated and irritated when a partner feels the need to discuss the birth
over and over again. A woman who talked compulsively about her distressing birth
experience told me, "My husband says, "Youre not going on about that
again! He completely shuts me out." This couple were on the point of separation.
There are often sexual problems. Episiotomy and suturing that has damaged the perineum may
mean that sex is painful or impossible. "He has been very understanding", they
say. I have come to realise that this means, "He doesnt force me to have
sex." The woman is often terrified of another pregnancy. She also feels alienated
from and hates her body the body that cheated her: "I felt David was
surgically removed from my body and that I hadnt been able to give birth to him. I
felt I had failed as a woman, as a wife, as a mother." "My scar was very
depressing to see. I hated my body and felt sick and an intense dislike when I went into
the bath. My scar looked like a smiling monster laughing about me, all purple, sore and
A birth experience in which a woman feels, "I didnt give birth. I had an
operation", that she was "like meat on a table", or that "it was like
a rape", is not over and done with. It intrudes in a destructive way on the
relationship with a partner, and for some women who talked to me the relationship ended in
This unhappiness after birth is not an emotional miasma that envelops a new mother because
of her hormones, experiences in early childhood, or even because of poverty and social
disadvantage. It is a direct result of the aggressive management of birth typical of the
contemporary hospital, a predominantly mechanistic approach to the human body, and
childbirth that is governed by the clock.
Our medicalised culture of birth is one reason why it is important that there is a home
A womans emotional state after a home birth tends to be very different. She is
positive, self-confident and often exultant. Birth is something she has achieved,
rather than something that has been done to her. She starts labour in her own time, eats
and drinks when she wishes, carries on with activities around the house and perhaps in the
garden, learns to adapt to the gradually mounting strength and length of contractions,
moves freely using familiar furniture to give support as she kneels or squats, and decides
herself what she wants to do and when she wants to do it. She pushes as and when she wants
to, does not feel under pressure to beat the clock, and is unlikely to have an episiotomy.
Afterwards she cuddles the baby in her own bed. A woman who controls the space in which
she gives birth, and who can therefore risk losing her self-control and can surrender to
the overwhelming feelings welling up inside her, is much more likely to look back on birth
as a positive experience. Childbirth is an adventure in which she has discovered her inner
strength, joy in her body, and grown in self-awareness and self confidence. Birth is
Home birth offers a model of how all birth should be, a model on which hospitals should
base practice, and which enables midwives to learn how to keep birth normal. Yet for many
women getting a home birth is an obstacle race. GPs are the gatekeepers, and on the whole
they distrust home birth and do not want to get involved in it, but are not prepared to
refer their patients on to midwives, or to refer them to other GPs who support home birth.
We need to change the system so that women can go straight to midwives and to create the
conditions in which it is simple and straightforward for women to have home births. I
propose a campaign to promote home birth as an unexceptionable, reasonable choice.
For this to happen, on realising she is pregnant, a woman should be able to go direct to a
A healthy woman booked for hospital should be able to switch to home birth, without
hassle, at any stage of pregnancy, even if in labour, and be supported in doing so.
Access to information about home birth must be made easier. One way of doing this would be
to set up on the NHS website a special section on home birth. Designed together with major
birth organisations, it should tell women exactly how to get a home birth, and giving them
the information they need for a smooth path.
A new kind of midwifery education is urgently needed. The UKKC and RCM should work
together to introduce training for midwives so that they know how to create the conditions
for physiological, rather than medical, childbirth.
Every midwife should be capable of assisting at home birth, and all midwifery students
should have experience of home births. This should be a required element in midwifery
training. Yet if this is to happen there must be more home births.
In Wiltshire a midwife can specialise in performing ventouse deliveries.4 We need to acknowledge the skills
of midwives who understand womens bodies and enable women in their care to
experience childbirth without any intervention. At present home birth midwives are
under-valued and marginalised. We should consider creating a new post-registration
qualification: the home birth midwife specialist.
1 Green JM, Coupland VA,
Kitzinger, JV. Expectations, experiences and psychological outcomes of childbirth: A
prospective study of 825 women. Birth 1990;17(1):15-24.
2 Simkin P. Just another day in a
woman's life? Women's long-term perceptions of their first birth experience. Part 1. Birth
3 The Birth Crisis Network
4 Tinsley V.
Rethinking the role of the midwife: midwife ventouse practitioners in community maternity
units. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest 2001;11(3 suppl 2):S6-S9.