Why are our birth stories so important?

The number 37 bus was stuck in thick traffic as it inched from Richmond to Isleworth on that damp and slightly depressing afternoon. I didn’t care how long it took, it was warm on the bus, if slightly steamy due to the collective body heat but I was sat next to a fragrant older woman who wasn’t listening to offensively loud R&B through leaky headphones, or talking profusely on her phone, or indulging in any other inconvenient bus behaviour. This, plus the fact I had a good book on the go, meant I was winning.

The book in question was Sheila Kitzinger’s Birth Your Way and so it wasn’t surprising that the woman sitting next to me asked ‘do you have long to go?’ “due the 24th January’ I said, unfolding my arms to reveal the mother of all bumps. ‘Make sure you ask for the epidural early because if you try and tough it out and then it gets too bad then it could get too late to have it. And you will need it.’ She announced all at once.

I was happy to listen to this woman’s birth story as the bus crept along. It didn’t scare me to hear the details of her sorrow and pain, although I could see that recalling her story stirred strong feelings in her. But what struck me was how much detail she remembered, she told her story with the clarity of it happening last week not 30 odd years ago. I thought it was strange and touching that it was so important to her that I didn’t make the same ‘mistakes’ that she still felt bad about now, even though her son was a grown man with his own children now.

That was 14 years ago and it wasn’t the last time I was to be the recipient of another woman’s birth story. As a doula and Clinical Hypnotherapist I have heard 1000s of birth stories over the years, some face to face, some in writing, some via case studies that are submitted by students. And of course I have my own birth stories too.

Our birth stories are so important because we use them to identify who we are as mothers, as parents. At the moment of birth we become parents. Our new identity is born. The way in which that happens and the thoughts and feelings we have about how it happens can be lasting. And so of course if it’s a disempowering experience with no humanity shown then this can effect the way a person feels about themselves as they become parents. I wish it didn’t but unfortunately it does. Understandably so.

Our stories are important because they are how we understand ourselves. Jo Griffiths of Human Givens says that our brains are meaning making machines.

So many women I have supported after a traumatic birth were not listened to during their birth and not cared for. The meaning they often glean from this experience is that they are not important, not worthy of hearing, their feelings inconsequential. They might have other stories from their life experience where they found this meaning before too.

The meanings we take from our stories are often unconscious. But making them conscious can be of enormous healing value. Also changing the meaning of a story can bring huge relief too.

Our stories are important but even more important is the meaning we give our stories. It is the meaning we give our stories that sustains our pain and suffering long term. We can’t stop giving our stories meaning, it’s in our human nature after all. But we can choose a more serving meaning, one that brings self compassion, peace and even strength and resilience.

That doesn’t mean that poor maternity care, shoddy systems, institutional inhumanity and the lack of funding that are responsible for so much birth trauma shouldn’t be rooted out and changed. We need to be angry about the poor service that causes so much trauma and we need continue to campaign for better care, better systems and humanity in birth.

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