“Wow, that sounds like such a scary experience. At least you got a healthy baby out of it, though. That’s really all that matters.”
We’ve all heard that phrase thrown around over and over. It generally follows the news that some women’s labor has unexpectedly ended in an emergency cesarean birth. I want to pause for a minute and explore what people mean when they say that and why it is that that particular phrase irks me (and should irk you) the way it does.
Of course, the end goal of a successful pregnancy is a healthy baby. Is baby’s health the only thing that matters, though? Babies are wonderfully adaptive creatures and are capable of bouncing back from the most difficult of birth experiences. Part of the reason they’re so adept at overcoming birth trauma is that memories of one’s own birth don’t survive infanthood. Thankfully, none of us remember being forced out of the warm, squishy home we existed in for 40 weeks or so.
What of the mothers, though? If you’ve given birth, you can attest to the fact that whether your birth was traumatic or peaceful and beautiful, you were forever transformed by the experience and walked away from your birth(s) a different woman than you were before. As a result of your birth(s), a certain part of your identity evolved in a way that prevented you from remaining the same person.
The problem with making the broad, sweeping statement that all that matters is whether a healthy baby resulted from the experience is just that. Women do remember birth. They remember every detail of their birth experiences. They remember the people who shared the space with them and they remember how each of those people made them feel during that time. The notion that all that matters, at the end of all those experiences, is a healthy baby reduces the sum of women’s birth experiences in a way that has the potential to make postpartum women feel very insignificant. It’s as if we’re telling them that nothing that happened to them during the course of their childbearing matters because another, seperate person exists now…and that person is all that matters. The potential exists for women to be severely psychologically damaged by the implication that they shouldn’t form opinions about or have negative feelings related to their birth experiences. When we tell a woman that all that matters is a healthy baby, we are essentially telling her that she doesn’t matter; that her feelings about and reactions to her birth are invalid. How many of us who have haphazardly tossed that phrase around would express the sentiment if something physically traumatic were to happen to a mother during her birth?Would we say it to her if she lost her reproductive organs making it impossible to ever bear another child? Would we say it to her grieving family if they had just lost her to some horrible, rare complication of labor? Would we tell a mother that all that matters is a healthy baby if she were grossly disfigured or incapacitated by childbirth? If we wouldn’t, then why is it that we are comfortable with making an assault on her mental health in the aftermath of a traumatic birth experience with language that discounts her experience?
Postpartum mental health disorders are often directly linked to traumatic birth and the fact that an experience in the life of a human that has such a significant chance of affecting mental health is often discounted, is atrocious. Postpartum mental health is so neglected in our birth culture, in stark contrast to other cultures, which revere the postpartum experience as a very sacred time in the life of a mother.
Why do we, as a society, tell women that all that matters is a healthy baby? How do we not recognize the amazingly tender and fragile relationship the newly postpartum mother has with the new life she’s nurturing? In so many communities (including our local community), cesarean section rates are exorbitantly high and there’s virtually no support to be found for postpartum mental health disorders, especially those that result from traumatic birth experiences. The risk of postpartum depression and other postpartum mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, is closely linked to instances of traumatic birth and we’re trivializing women’s birth experiences by telling them that those experiences don’t matter. Maybe it’s time to change the conversation?
Amy is mom to 4, ages ranging from 19-6. She’s a homebirthing VBAC mama who is also a WMC Doula, an apprentice midwife, a peer counselor with the Beaumont Breastfeeding Coalition and a local birth rights activist. She and Heather Thomas founded WMC in 2006 and passionately work to improve local birth and parenting options for Southeast Texas families.