In early 2013, I was invited to speak at International Women’s Day in Darwin – a complete honour. The theme of the day was Empowerment in Birth.
I nearly said no because of my own fear of public speaking.
I had to dive deep to find my own strength, to overcome my own phobias and really think about the question: What does “Empowering in Birth” really mean?
I had considered wearing a superhero costume, Superman, or maybe Wonder Woman (which would have been more appropriate for International Women’s Day). The costume might have given me some super human power to overcome my own phobias, and I think I could have worked that in well with the theme of the day.
But I wasn’t brave enough, and I needed to find my strength from somewhere else….
I am a midwife and a staunch advocate for every woman having access to a known midwife for her pregnancy, birth and early parenting journey.
Internationally, most particularly in the third world this is a very long way away from happening. For millions of young girls around the globe they have a greater chance of dying in childbirth than attending school. Now THAT is a sobering thought.
In contrast – Australian women have the “luxury” of giving birth in one of the safest places in the world. Yet, many are left traumatised, disempowered, shattered by their birth experience and though this leaves many unable to mother and nurture their newborns they are told that they are lucky to have a healthy mother and healthy baby and that’s all thanks to our ‘safe’ birthing services.
So where does, and HOW does Empowering women in Birth fit in? It’s a phrase that is bandied around all over birthing services. “Empowering women to have the birth they want” “Empowering women through choice” “Empowering women to make informed decisions” These would all sound familiar to you if you are hanging out in the birthing world or with pregnant women…or with midwives. What does it mean for you?
I have 3 children, Kate’s 11, Hannah is nearly 9 and Thomas is 7. When Kate was about 4 I had sent her to her room for “Time out” as she had done something terrible – I forget what now – to her sister. I told Kate she needed to stay in her room to think about what she had done and apologise to Hannah. Kate lasted about 30 secs before she asked if she could come out. There was no apology forthcoming so I sent her back with the same instructions. This happened 2 or 3 times until finally she came to me with a confused and sad look on her little face….I was still feeling righteous and determined to hold firm when she said to me…
“But, Mummy, what does apologise mean?”
She knew the word – but not its meaning.
I used to know what it meant to Empower women. I was a midwife…I knew it was my job to Empower women. And if I did my job properly, the women I cared for would feel in control of their birth, their environment and end up with an experience of birth that made them feel EMPOWERED.
I am not sure how I knew I’d empowered them, but I was confident that because I was a midwife who listened, accommodated, sometimes coached and always advocated for my clients that I had done my job. I know I have even claimed this skill on job applications.Stand back – I can Empower women!!!
The more I work with women in birth, or breastfeeding or teaching Childbirth Education – the more I have realised that what women (and their families) are capable of, and the power they have, has little to do with ME.
So, like Kate who knew the word apologise but didn’t know what it meant…as I considered the theme of today…I realised that I didn’t know what it meant to Empower someone, or maybe more accurately, I didn’t believe it was my job anymore.
What does it literally mean?
1. To invest with power
2. To equip or supply with an ability, to enable.
To invest with power? Hang on – does this mean that I am giving them power? Am I giving them my power? And that now it’s my power they have?
No wonder I was so exhausted….if only I was a superhero!
Funnier still…To equip or supply with an ability….my labours and births were pretty ordinary. Women I care for don’t want MY ability!!
Over this last year I have embarked on becoming a “Birthing From Within” Mentor. Birthing from Within is a philosophy of childbirth and parenting preparation that works on the basis that women already know a lot about birthing, babies and their bodies(whether they realise it or not).
Women (and Men for that matter) have a wealth of skills and knowledge that they can tap into to negotiate this journey that birth and parenting presents. In contrast, a lot of other teaching approaches focus on what will happen to her in birth, including explaining hospital procedures and protocols that need to be avoided in order to achieve the birth she wants. But, she must remember to be flexible, because birth is unpredictable. And in actual fact with caesarean rates so high it will be hard for her to accomplish. So, maybe she should lower her expectations. This approach in teaching almost requires women and their support people to become semi-trained birthing professionals.
After all, isn’t information power? Information is only part of the equation – I think.
One of my favourite quotes is:
“There is a secret in our culture and it’s not that birth is painful, but that women are strong”
Ha! Women already have the power. They are already powerful. They don’t need mine, they certainly don’t want my ability to birth!!
As a Mentor I can listen and guide and encourage women to find their own strengths, eyeball their own fears and take a leap into their own journey, their own adventure – whatever that is and wherever that takes them.
Women not only have the power and the resources to birth their babies, but they have the tools needed to negotiate and cope with all the challenges, surprises, victories and losses that birth and parenting present them.
That makes it sound like a battle doesn’t it? It’s a hero’s journey. It’s another way of looking at birth…. There are many, many stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, things that they themselves would not have believed they could do. Our story telling culture is full of them – Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Merida in Brave!
Now, Luke Skywalker didn’t have a midwife he had Yoda, and OB wan. These mentors recognised the ability within Luke a long time before he did – but they enabled and sometimes pushed him to look within himself to refine, hone and practise his existing skills as well as learning to master his fears.
This is not giving over of power, or supplying someone with an ability – this is teaching someone to harness their own power, their own strengths, and enabling them to identify and face their fears so they may be able to embark on their own journey and in their own way utilising their own resources and gathering their own allies to make it to the end and return home.
In preparing for birth we cannot make promises that if women do it “our” way using our knowledge they will have the birth they want. We cannot supply women with a list of things they must gather, learn or achieve to have the birth they want. Because, for every woman it is different. Every support person, relationship and family is different. Every birth attendant, midwife, doctor, hospital room, protocol, policy, culture is different.
Every woman’s birth story is different.
Empowerment in birth is not determined by an outsider or an onlooker. It is easy to fall into the role of judge, even if it is unspoken, and assume that a woman having a drug free birth would be more empowered than someone who had a planned caesarean.
If we look at childbirth as a rite of passage, a journey of self-discovery, a hero’s journey it removes the temptation to rate the experience, or to pin our hopes on a specific birth outcome.
Empowering women in birth is not my job. It is not even the job of one woman to another. It is the task of the woman herself. It is hard work. It can be confronting. But when she has returned home from her hero’s journey and has her babe in arms, she will know that she is powerful and that SHE did it!
And She didn’t even need a Wonder Woman outfit!!