Two weeks ago, Milli Hill published an article in the Telegraph about why we shouldn’t focus on pain when we talk to pregnant women about childbirth. Originally published under the clickbaity headline (which Hill didn’t write, and has since been changed), “The myth of the painful birth – and why it’s not nearly so bad as women believe”, the article argued that by emphasising the pain of childbirth when we talk to women, we are “setting them up to fail”.
The article provoked a number of responses challenging Hill’s view, including my own piece in the Independent, a characteristically robust blogpost by “skeptical OB” Dr Amy Tuteur in which she accused Hill of “gaslighting” women and an article by Cath Janes in Standard Issue, which talked about her own experiences of a painful birth that triggered severe PND and PTSD. Cath’s piece was, as is her style, both dark and funny – but Hill didn’t like it and asked Standard Issue to take it down. The magazine initially complied, and then republished it minus one sentence that Hill had particularly objected to, and also gave Hill a right-of-reply. The whole saga also provoked a debate on Mumsnet about who was right, with Tuteur, Janes and Hill all weighing in.
There is probably not much hope at this point of a calm, rational debate about the issue. Hill, I think, was taken by surprise at the impassioned response to her article – she thinks of herself as one of the good guys, whose sole aim is to help women have a better experience of childbirth. So what is it about her piece that made women so angry?
Minimising women’s pain
Judging by comments I’ve seen on Mumsnet, Twitter and Facebook, the answer is that, for many women, their experience is the opposite of what Hill describes. Rather than going into childbirth frightened, they went in feeling positive and upbeat – and were then shocked that the experience was much more painful and unpleasant than they expected. Instead of feeling that the pain of childbirth was overstated, they felt it was minimised. When women have had a particularly traumatic birth, they often find that other people play down their experience and tell them that it can’t have been as bad as they thought, that they must be exaggerating, that the health professionals who let them down during labour had their best interests at heart – and in any case, they have a healthy baby, so what else matters? This is why Hill’s article touched a nerve – if you’re already used to having your experience minimised by others, the idea that you shouldn’t talk about the pain of childbirth feels like yet another attempt to get you to shut up.
People also took issue with Hill’s article argument that going into labour with a more positive attitude can help women have a better experience. In her words: “At the moment, we simply do not know what birth would be like for women if they were given more positive messages and went into labour feeling strong, confident and capable.”
The idea that “positive thinking” can help create a different reality is one of the most pervasive – and pernicious – ideas of our times. Even cancer patients are exhorted to think positively about their illness, as if mere thinking can banish one of the most deadly of diseases. It’s a view that Barbara Ehrenreich has magnificently demolished in Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.
For anyone on the receiving end of this view, it’s worse than exasperating – being told that a positive attitude can reduce pain has an unspoken corollary, which is that if you felt pain anyway, it must have been your fault for not being positive enough. The most inflammatory part of Hill’s piece reads: “…when you talk to women who are prepared to break with convention and say their labour was not painful, words like ‘intense’ and ‘powerful’ come up again and again. It suggests that it’s the way that these women talk and think about these sensations that’s different, rather than the sensations themselves.”
Well, no. What it suggests to me is that women have vastly different experiences of childbirth – some women experience “intense feelings” while others feel extreme pain. Even the book of Genesis, written 3,500 years ago, talks about the pain of childbearing, with no word from God, unfortunately, about focusing on the positive.
No wonder some women, reading Hill’s article, felt that their desire to tell their own story was, once again, being undermined. It’s a wearily familiar pattern: a news report in the Telegraph this week reveals that women reporting gynaecological problems to their GP are often ignored or belittled.
So, here’s my bold suggestion: why not listen to what women actually say about their experiences, rather than telling them how they ought to feel? If we all, health professionals included, do that, there’s a chance, just a chance, that women’s experience of childbirth will improve.