In her recent blog post, Gentle is the New Strong: what antenatal preparation has to learn from the slow yoga revolution, my good friend Jodi Garrod aka Doula Paris proposes that women would be ‘stronger’ if they moved away from ‘mentally or physically pumping iron’ in the antenatal period (an approach that sees them striving to be bigger, better, tougher) and cultivated a more 'gentle' approach. She clarifies:
By gentle I mean kind, tender, loving, compassionate, humane, lenient, understanding. I don’t mean meek or docile or delicate, in the flowery, whimpy sense. A gentle approach […] allows you to feel how you actually feel – in all it’s complexity – and not how you should feel or should be instead (if only you were better and a bit more like Deliciously Ella or some other chick on Instagram that looks like she constantly seeps joy out of her tits)...
Thank you, Jodi.
This blog post immediately made me think of a mum I looked after several years back who, on the brink of wanting to push, demanded we transfer her to the obstetric unit for an epidural while pleading to her husband, ‘Tell them I’m tough, I run marathons, I’m tough!’
It was striking that, at the most challenging hour of her labour, this mother’s concern was how her ‘performance’ matched up with her own idea of how tough she was / ought to be, and, moreover, how ‘tough’ she appeared to us - her midwives - in that moment.
Because the reality is that there are so many different ways to be strong in childbirth.
We can all recognise that it takes a certain kind of ‘strong’ to get through a whole birth with just a whiff of lavender and a back rub. But think of the woman who, having spent months looking forward to a water birth, is suddenly confronted with an elective c-section because her baby’s gone and wedged itself sideways. She has to be tough, right?. Or those mums who, for one reason or another, are required to leave their families to spend days or even weeks on the antenatal ward before they give birth. That's nails.
And what is the midwife’s role in all of this?
Well, Doula Paris and I have decided that we’ve gone off the word ‘empowered’, because it implies that we birth professionals are graciously gifting power to women, rather than merely supporting then to splurge their pre-existing power all over the birth scene.
But certainly, as midwives, it is important that we interact with women in a way that makes them feel stronger. The challenge is that not all women will feel strengthened by the same approach.
I will never forget one French mother I looked after when I was a student. She was pretty fierce, and I could sense she didn’t like me all that much. My ego was still grappling with this uncomfortable truth when she snapped at me, ‘Stop being so nice, speak louder, tell me what to do!’ While I’d been busy trying to embody the Patron Saint of Softly-Softly (because I thought that was what midwives were meant to do, and what women were supposed to want), she’d been coveting a midwife who was a cross between Mary Poppins in business mode and Governor Ferguson (Wentworth Prison, Seasons 2 and 3) (watch if you want to experience a whole new world of female strong...).
Fortunately, I was robust enough to take her feedback on the chin, and did my best to adopt a more directive approach. The mother’s relief was palpable, our relationship improved no end, and it wasn’t long before she powered out a 10 pounder the old fashioned way.
This experience got me thinking about the kind of midwife I wanted/needed to be: what kind of ‘midwifely' approach - ‘gentle’ or ‘tough’ - would make the women I looked after feel the strongest?
I took this question to my sister, who had, by this time, had two children. She said that at her first birth, where she started at home but transferred into hospital because she couldn’t stop being sick, she had really needed her midwife to step up and boss her around a bit, because she (my sister) felt totally out of control. By contrast, at her second birth, when my sister used hypnobirthing to great effect, she needed very little input from her midwives - they slipped quietly in and out of the room only to listen to the baby’s heartbeat, and my sister remembers with gratitude how unobtrusive they were.
Another friend of mine described how she picked her doula. Having rejected one because she was too ‘soft’, she ended up going for a doula with more of a ‘personal trainer’ style. This suited my friend perfectly because, in her words, ‘I’m the sort of person who, if someone tells me I’m weak and shouts at me to do thirty push ups, I’ll do 25, puke, then do another 5, just to prove that I can’ (she used to teach spin classes, say no more). Another friend commented, ‘That wouldn’t work for me. If a gym instructor shouts at me, it makes me want to walk out of the room and say, “Screw you, you can’t tell me what to do”’.
The moral of this story? Well, when you’re picking a doula, it’s horses for courses. But we don’t generally get to choose our midwives. So what do we do if the midwife we get on the day doesn’t quite hit the spot?
Childbirth and sex are often compared for their shared reliance on privacy, trust and luuurve to insure optimum, ahem, progress. But it strikes me that in this respect - the occasional need for hard truths if our needs are to be sensitively met - we see another way in which they are alike. When we are caught up in the moment of sex or childbirth, it can be very hard to tell the other party/-ies that they’re not doing it quite right. Because you know that they’re trying really, really hard, and presumably think they’re doing a pretty good job. Plus who wants to risk killing the mood?
There’s no easy solution. But if your midwife’s take on strong is knocking your self confidence, you have a lot to gain by simply letting her know, and relatively little to lose (remember, you’ve already decided she's not quite doing it for you). And when I say ‘simply’ I mean just that: keep it simple, and be honest about what you need in that moment. Such honesty, itself, requires significant strength. But assuming your midwife is a basically decent person, it should only take a small nudge in the right direction to achieve a big change in her approach. This, in turn, has the power to fundamentally alter how you experience your birth.