A few weeks back on the Positive Birth Movement instagram I shared a video that illustrated a typical sterile, highly technologised birth room, followed by a nice little montage of some more…well…do we dare call them ‘woman friendly spaces’? You know the kind of thing, dim lights, birth pools, fairy lights, flowers etc.
Birth spaces matter, and it’s not just about ‘trimmings’. To give birth, the woman’s body needs to make the hormone oxytocin - you can’t give birth without it. But to make oxytocin, you have to feel warm, safe, uninterrupted. It helps if the lights are dim. It’s not rocket science - anyone who has ever seen their cat have kittens will know that it’s just about basic mammalian needs and instincts. But in the human birth room, the key ingredients to optimise oxytocin production are often overlooked. In a brightly lit room, surrounded by scary looking medical equipment, interrupted by strangers, labour can often slow down or stop completely.
When this happens, synthetic oxytocin is usually given via a drip. This renders the woman less mobile, and feeling much more like a hospital patient. Contractions can become more intense. Often, pain can intensify, an epidural may be needed, cue more lights and interruptions and hey presto you have a highly medicalised birth or even a caesarean. At this point the woman often feels her body has failed her - there must be something not quite right about human childbirth, she will think to herself, and the medical system who ‘rescued’ her from her ‘faulty’ body may well simultaneously congratulate itself.
It’s a vicious circle of woman-blaming that I’ve written about at length, in particular in my second book, Give Birth like a Feminist.
It really is a feminist issue: just as Caroline Criado Perez highlights in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, the birth room too is a space which has not been built with women’s needs and physiology in mind. Bright lights and stirrups may make things easier for the care provider, but they show little understanding of how the female body works or what it needs to give birth.
And in the past decade, there have been the beginnings of a shift on this. As the video highlights, there are now birth centres and even labour wards where the room design considers what women might need for optimal birth.
But we are still a long, looong way off this. Many women and their partners go into birth without even knowing this vital info about oxytocin and how they can do simple things like turn down the lights and protect the birth space from intrusion, that will actually maximise their bodies chances of labouring without issue.
But can you guess what happened when I tried to highlight this via the instagram post?
I captioned the above video: “What do we want? Birth rooms built with female physiology in mind! When do we want it? NOW! #oxytocin.”
Nothing to object to - you would think.
But within an hour someone had showed up with this comment:
“I agree…but what about ‘birth rooms built with the birthing person’s physiology in mind.’ Just a thought. <wink>”
This person was clearly not a sock account and this comment gained 15 likes - so it’s worth discussing.
It’s a great illustration of how the current demands for ‘gender neutral’ language put us at risk of not being able to talk about our lives, experiences, or needs, as women.
In fact, in this case, it wasn’t even the word ‘woman’ that was being objected to.
It was the word ‘female’.
The commenter wants us to say ‘people’s physiology’. But not all people are female. People with female physiology have specific needs. In the world of birth campaigning, women like me (and I stand on the shoulders of giants like Sheila Kitzinger, Janet Balaskas and Ina May Gaskin) have been asking for more knowledge and awareness of female physiology for decades. It’s been brushed aside as utterly irrelevant in the quest for birth safety, and the numbers of women who have suffered traumatic births as a result are sky high.
And all birthing people have female physiology.
Why are we being asked to stop talking about our specific female needs and experiences? How is this progress?
We literally only just started having conversations about those needs and experiences.
We were not done talking.
How can we draw attention to our specific female needs, without the word female?
And what on earth would motivate anyone to take away the words we need to improve women’s lives?
If you want to read more about birth as a feminist issue, you will enjoy Give Birth like a Feminist. It’s very much for anyone interested in feminism or women's issues - it’s not just for you if you are pregnant!
Enjoyed this post or want to support me? Feel free to