It was 2002. I'd begun my new position as consultant midwife, and part of my role involved listening to women and families in an attempt to influence and improve our maternity service. I did this through various channels, going out to meet parents in local communities, responding to complaints, and involving willing individuals in many aspects of service delivery (peer support) and improvement. This work fed into our MSLC, and I communicated activities via a newsletter.
I also developed a service where I listened to women who were suffering from fear of childbirth, either as a result of a previous traumatic birth experience, or because of negative stories from others, either friends or family, or in the media.
‘I was really scared when I was pregnant again, it was awful hanging over you, that this might happen again and it might be worse this time’ [Ann] (Thomson & Downe 2010).
This fear was like I’d never known before, and I learnt so much about childbirth in the eight years I spent hearing such detailed accounts of consequential self-loathing, anguish, nightmares and horrific flashbacks, relationship breakdown, poor parent-infant attachement and distress. At this stage I had been a midwife for decades, so why had women not talked about these feelings to me before? In my world, birth trauma wasn’t reported in the same way as it is today. I remember speaking to one of my consultant obstetrician colleagues about how birth was affecting some women, and how I felt this was just the tip of the iceberg. He told me he hadn’t come across it, and maybe the women I was seeing were ‘unstable’ already. I was horrified, and saddened by his lack of understanding and compassion, but then I was reminded of the frustration I felt listening first hand in my small office, to personal accounts of horror. Supporting the women referred to me to overcome their fear and distress was my main focus, but it was going to be a challenge sharing the underpinning messages behind the stories of traumatised individuals and their families with those who worked in our maternity unit, and beyond. There were many reasons why women felt damaged, and my findings reflect those of others. Interestingly, labour ‘pain’ didn’t feature heavily in the overall themes that emerged, as most women who I saw had had epidural anesthesia. Overwhelmingly, women reported feeling powerless, and totally disconnected from the birth of their baby. Some felt violated.
'Don't feel I gave birth and had a baby on that day, I just felt I went into a room and was just assaulted'. [Claire] (Thomson & Downe 2008)
Women frequently described feeling that their baby had been ‘extracted’ not born, and that the process belonged to others, not them. My increasingly apparent dilemma remained, for a time, unanswered - how could we improve the care we gave, to prevent this from recurring over and over again, when there was just me hearing about these experiences?
I worked closely with Professor Soo Downe at the University of Central Lancashire, and she suggested that we asked the women who had accessed my support, how we could improve services to prevent birth trauma. And so that's what we did. We invited those who had given permission for me to contact them, and invited them for coffee…
Seven women attended that first meeting, and after long chats the women present felt the most important thing was to offer authentic feedback to maternity workers, about their experiences. One woman suggested using theatre to help them to do this, with themselves as the actresses! Some of the group felt worried about this – not being thespians – but after a couple more meetings they became totally engaged with the idea. So we asked a midwife lecturer who was also an actress, the wonderful Kirsten Baker, if she would help. At the time Kirsten was the owner of the Progress Theatre Group – a team of midwives, parents and maternity workers who use forum theatre to influence change. Kirsten asked a playwright to transform the mothers' stories into a theatre piece, and 'Speech to Rita' was born.
The women who were keen to be involved needed support and reassurance, to be in a safe place to begin to work through the process of telling their stories. It was a long journey, with many tears shed. Even though most of the group had had a 'redemptive birth' (Thomson & Downe 2008), reliving their personal experiences in front of others was harder than they had expected. We met in my kitchen, so the environment was non-threatening. We ate cake, drank lots of tea, and laughed and cried together. Kirsten did relaxation, breathing and vocal training to help with acting, and I tried to be the nurturer. Once the group felt strong enough, we rehearsed in our local village hall, acting out the 'Speech to Rita' script. The theatre session wasn't about criticising or blaming maternity care workers, but about highlighting the things that potentially cause upset or distress. In the busyness of maternity services, where organisational culture and staff shortages impact on time and emotions, midwives and doctors can become conditioned to just 'getting through' each day. And then there's the fear. Often unaware of the consequences of their actions or words, maternity workers do their best. Listening to feedback can help us to see that simple things like changing the language we use, and connecting compassionately, doesn't take more time but makes a difference.
After years of touring, the group became more pressed for time, due to family and work commitments. Sadly, we needed to disband. But we felt proud that we tried to be the change, to make a difference, and according the this article - we had some impact (Byrom et al 2007).
I made a short film all those years ago, to say thank you to each courageous woman who stood tall, and tried to make a difference. We are still on that journey, trying to maximize potential for ALL women to have a positive birth experience, wherever or however she gives birth. It’s this that keeps me going.
I want to honour the women that taught me so much about childbirth, and my work as a midwife. Kirsten Baker, thank you for believing in and helping me.
For Helen, Sarah, Maria, Debbie, Sue, Jeanette, Sarika, Nicky and Anna, you gave me, and the world of childbirth, more than you’ll ever know.
Things you taught me…
- More about the importance of birth experience than I ever learnt in a classroom, or during my years as a clinical midwife
- That listening means more to you than me speaking
- It’s the little things that matter, the language I use, and the compassion I show
- Do ‘with you’, not ‘to you’
- Pain isn’t necessarily an issue, it’s the feeling of powerlessness and lack of dignity that impacts on you the most
- That antenatal education and preparation is important, but where you give birth, and who cares for you has the greatest influence on outcomes
- Our continuity of care model made a positive difference to the birth you had
- Developing respectful, authentic relationships with obstetricians, midwives and neonatologists is crucial when facilitating your choices, and maximising yours and your baby’s safety
- Birth trauma is self diagnosed, and not dependant on mode of birth
- That my actions hold the potential to influence your and your baby's future...
- That I am so fortunate to have met you all, my wisest of teachers.
Byrom S, Baker K, Broome C, Hall J (2007) A Speech to Rita: giving birth to a voice. The Practising Midwife (10) 1 Pp 19-21 (Accessed here)
Thomson G, Downe S (2008) Widening the trauma discourse: the link between childbirth and experiences of abuse. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology 29(4): 268–273
Thomson G, Downe S (2010) Changing the future to change the past: women's experiences of a positive birth following a traumatic birth experience Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 28 (1): 102 -112