Did you know that one in every twenty new mothers is diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress following childbirth?
In her book Birth Crisis, anthropologist and birth activist Sheila Kitzinger argues that many cases of postpartum depression are attributed to “hormonal fluctuations” but that, in fact, a good many women are traumatized by the way they’re treated during labor–and many, if not most, beat themselves up for feeling that way. Other people are often less than helpful, saying things like “you expected too much,” “just be grateful that your baby is okay,” and suchlike.
Last year, I took issue with the Femina bloggers for implying that women with birth plans beyond “being grateful for whatever happens” are selfish. Increasingly, as I read more and gather more stories (keep them coming!) I am convinced that birth matters a lot. Sheila writes:
“a woman who has an intervention will [not necessarily] be distressed after birth. The quality of relationships with her caregivers is what matters most. When that is poor, even an apparently straightforward labour and a normal vaginal delivery can be traumatic.”
In another book, Rediscovering Birth, Sheila points out that in no traditional culture is birth treated as a purely physical/medical event. Instead, it is a time when family and community ties are strengthened, when people come together to support a woman and her baby as she goes through a major life event and transition.
This is not to romanticize birth pre-modern medicine, or birth as it is for perhaps half of the women in Malawi, for example. It’s to say that there are real reasons why women suffer trauma and depression after childbirth that may have nothing to do with hormones. It’s to say that there are serious reasons why women reject all that the most high-tech hospital could offer and choose to birth at home with midwives, reasons that cannot and should not be brushed off. Women remember the births of their children with surprising accuracy even years later. It is an exquisitely tender time in a person’s life. It matters.
It’s unfortunate that Sheila’s book Birth Crisis is published with Routledge; Routledge produces quality books, to be sure, but at $30 it’s a bit more than people want to spend on a paperback. There is a slightly less expensive Kindle edition, and of course, there’s always inter-library loan–for those lucky enough to be part of a good library system.
If you have had a traumatic birth experience, be sure to check out Sheila’s Birth Crisis page. If someone tells you about theirs, be sure not to brush it off.