This Article Was Written After A Campaign Organised in Bath in 2007
BIRTH IS POLITICAL – GET ACTIVE AND JOIN OUR CAMPAIGN!
When newly pregnant with my first child in 1981, I recall the midwife who was running a session on self help techniques in labour. After some discussion in the hospital antenatal group she concluded by saying ‘birth is a political issue, how can it not be?” At the time I didn’t really understand where she was coming from, her passionate and challenging statement did not fit comfortably with
my ‘soft and fluffy hormonal pregnant state’. I wanted to hear more about gentle births, the power of pain, birth positions, skin to skin, massage, support, Michel Odent and Fredrick Leboyer etc. Politics? Where did that fit into birth?
A few months later 1982 I gave birth to my first son in the West London Hospital in Hammersmith and was supported in my choices by a wonderful obstetrician called Faith Haddad who was ‘trialing’ active birth. I had two gentle and caring midwives looking after me. Gwen was experienced and wise, Nicky was a student who was passionate and enthusiastic at being present at a planned active birth. She had never seen a ‘normal’ birth. The lights were dimmed, monitoring was kept to a minimum, my partner and sister in law were actively involved in supporting me by rubbing my back, helping me keep active and mobile and offering loving words of support and encouragement. I remember feeling curious, excited and confident that something truly extraordinary was happening to me and my body. Gwen sat almost with her back to me facing the window and was knitting a jumper. The constant rhythmic click of her knitting needles was a real comfort to me as well as her occasional murmurs of support “your doing really well Noreen” and “beautiful breathing Noreen” There was no rush and no fuss, just an acceptance that birth took its own time. Each time my baby was listened to I was reassured by hearing he was “a very happy baby”. I had a wonderfully empowering birth in a very medical hospital environment with my husband and Gwen on either side of me in my supported squatting position, the light was moved away from my baby’s face as he gently emerged into the world and I was encouraged to lift him up onto my chest for that precious skin to skin. I felt I could have climbed the highest mountain after the experience and I was changed forever. There was no high quite like it! When my son was three days old, I left the hospital for a few hours to join a Birth Rally on Hampstead Heath. Michel Odent, Sheila Kitzinger, Yehudi Gordon and Janet and Arthur Balaskas were all speaking. Throughout my pregnancy I had sat at the feet of these inspiring birth activists and I was determined to join them. It was then that the penny dropped and I was able to understand that birth was indeed a political issue and that I had been extraordinarily privileged to have had the kind of birth I had and the level of support and respect received. I seemed to be in a minority and there was a deep level of dissatisfaction from both midwives and mothers with the increasing interventions and the medicalisation of the birth process.
28 years on, the words of that midwife in my antenatal class ring truer than ever. I was recently privileged to be a birth support/doula at a local homebirth and I was left open mouthed at the form filling those poor midwives had to do both during and after the birth. A far cry from Gwen rhythmically knitting her jumper and making the odd notes charting the progress of my labour whilst whispering me words of encouragement and self belief. The NCT has always been a campaigning group since it began in 1956. Now with over a million members we need to keep campaigning more than ever. In the 1960’s the NCT were lobbying the government, calling for rigorous assessment of new technology and an end to the overuse of “interventionist techniques”. The NCT campaigned for an end to routine enemas and shaving and for fathers to have the choice to be present at the birth of their babies. In 1991 the NCT gave evidence to the Government’s Winterton Committee based on our own research. Our NCT President at the time, Eileen Hutton (who lives in Bath and has always been wonderfully supportive of our campaigns) was invited to join the Expert Maternity Group with Baroness Cumberledge and they examined the maternity care available in the light of what women wanted. The report, Changing Childbirth, was accepted as Government Policy for England and Wales in January 1994. In 1998 the NCT developed its 10 point plan for maternity care to ensure these recommendations were put into practice.
So the NCT have always been involved in change and in trying to improve maternity care provision. Our mission statement is ‘The NCT wants all parents to have an experience of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood that enriches their lives and gives them confidence in being a parent’
Here in Bath we had a Maternity Matters march two years ago, with mothers, fathers, babies, children and grandparents, midwives and politicians all good humouredly marching through the streets of Bath highlighting the national shortage of midwives, the continual government cuts and to demonstrate our support for all those hard working committed midwives. Last November we screened the film ‘The Business of Being Born’ as a warning of how fear and litigation has impacted on the medicalisation of birth in the USA and how normality is a rare thing indeed. At each of those events more people engaged in our Maternity Matters campaign and wanted to get involved. In September this year we organised a Birth Rally in Victoria Park with inspiring speakers and live music supported by local parents and midwives. The current president of the NCT Gail Werkmeister came from London to speak and reminded us of her M and M’s. Mothers and Midwives, who are at the centre of one to one care and the importance this has on how we experience our pregnancy, birth and early parenting. She also reminded us that the M and M’s were also mothers and MSLC’s. Users having their voices heard. Alex Smith is an NCT teacher and tutor and a passionate advocate for the normality of birth. She came to join us from Aberystwyth and given that it was a birth rally, dressed as a campaigning suffragette! Alex reminded us of how powerful women are, how midwives and mothers need to join up and work together in protecting the normality of birth. She campaigned for fewer vaginal examinations so that the mother is left undisturbed, less unnecessary and restrictive monitoring and talked about the unobtrusive instinctive eyes, instinct and wisdom of skilled and caring midwives. She encouraged working with and listening to the woman rather than the trace from a machine. Alex encouraged us to spread the word and share our birth stories and get back to the culture of women talking to women about birth and parenting and holding dear instinct and intuition. Don Foster, our local MP has always been wonderfully supportive of the NCT and our campaigns and spoke of the Government’s continual cuts impacting on our struggling maternity services. How midwives are leaving the profession unable to juggle their commitment to women, the hours and ever increasing paperwork with some kind of family life themselves. It was an inspiring day and the speeches were passionate and thought provoking. We had parents and even passers by signing our petition for an improved birth environment, one to one care and fathers/birth partners being able to stay with the mother at all times and especially for those precious hours after the birth. There is a statement I have on the wall in my office and it says
Most midwives and heads of midwifery want to do their very best for women and help them to have a good experience of childbirth. Whenever you see good and capable people doing their best in the circumstances, and the best is not good enough, then the only answer is to change the circumstances!
And this statement is at the heart of Bath NCT’s campaign. We want the maternity provision to not only improve for the parents but for our hardworking midwives too so that they feel valued and respected and can care for women with an open heart and unhindered by the default position of having to prove that there is an expectation of normality rather than an expectation all is well unless proven otherwise. Our campaigning will continue, we hope to have a Maternity Matters concert next summer and hand in our ever growing Birth Rally petition in the New Year. We would love more of you to join us because we really can make a difference! Birth is indeed a political issue, get active and join our campaign!
Antenatal Facilitator, Tutor, Assessor and Campaigner.
“I have also been involved in successfully campaigning for Partners to stay overnight at the Princess Anne Wing in Bath and with the wonderful support of our local midwives we were the first Maternity Unit in the West Country to offer this important initiative and support the beginning of a family by welcoming partners to stay the first night together. “