A healthy baby is not ALL that matters. Mothers matter too. The past week has been significant for maternal researchers in Australia interested in birth. Just released is the first Australia-wide study to examine outcomes of births according to where women birthed.
I’ve also been diving into the book ‘Give Birth Like a Feminist – your body, your baby, your choices, by the founder of the Positive Birth Movement Milli Hill. She aims to start a conversation about women’s birthing rights and putting birth on the women’s rights agenda.
Saying that mothers matter is not equivalent to saying babies do not
It’s a pretty safe assumption that all mothers care about and have THE most vested interest in the health and wellbeing of their baby. Of course for most of us, the thing of primary importance in our birth is that our baby is healthy and well. I think suggesting anything other than this is borderline insulting.
Saying that YOU also matter and you are interested and/or concerned about YOUR wellbeing and health does not equate with you suddenly not caring about or prioritizing your baby’s wellbeing and health.
The phrase “a healthy baby is all that matters” is often used either to denigrate and ridicule pregnant women. Particularly when they do any research into or preparation for their births. It is also used to silence, dismiss, undermine, or invalidate a woman’s pain and trauma when she talks about her experience post-birth.
There is also the aspect of this that Hill highlights, when she says the unspoken message in the “all that matters is a healthy baby” is the message of “women do not matter.”
The health of a baby is of primary importance. But it’s not ALL that matters. Mothers matter too.
A healthy Mother is linked to a healthy baby
If we are so concerned with highlighting the health and wellbeing of a baby, we would see the mother’s health and wellbeing as critical to that of her baby. The interconnection and importance of the mother-baby dyad means we should be focussing of the wellbeing of both mother and baby, and this means a focus on how she birthed.
I think we’re slowly coming to accept the idea of ‘if mum’s not okay, then baby’s not okay’ as part of the move to shine a light on postnatal depression and anxiety and mental health issues.
But we need to be going one step further. We need to connect the birth process with these mental health issues, and therefore focus on the importance of birth because of this! Not dismiss it or minimalize it because ‘you have to get the baby out one way or another and all that matters is a healthy baby’.
The leading cause of maternal death
Do you know what the leading cause of maternal death is after a woman has a baby?
This is from data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, where if we look at causes of death of women during pregnancy or within 42 days after the end of a pregnancy, suicide is A leading cause along with haemorrhage and heart disease. But if late maternal death is included – so looking at the first 12 months rather than first month – then suicide is THE leading cause.
These have enormous repercussions not just for the individual woman, but for her baby and their relationship, and the debilitating impact of birth trauma and PTSD has also been found to contribute to women leaving their paid work, and contributing to marriage breakdowns.
The way women birth is important
So the way women birth matters. It is an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Witnessing the first breath of your baby is significant. HOW babies are born into this world have psychosocial and physiological impacts – on both mothers and the babies.
Our culture and our medical systems need to stop disregarding and dismissing all of this by distilling the experience of a birth down in meaning only according to whether the baby was healthy or not.
Whether women birth in a bath at home or through an elective c-section, the way they are treated, respected, spoken to, is so important.
The way we FRAME and understand their trauma is critical.
One of the leading researchers on this is Professor Hannah Dahlen. She likens women who suffer PTSD from their birth with the suffering of war veterans. She says when young men come back from war with PTSD we counsel them, support them, and offer psychological support. We certainly don’t send them back to the place that caused their trauma.
Whereas for women who experience this in birth – they’re ushered in and out of the system with little regard.
As Professor Dahlen says “If we don’t get it right for the hand that rocks the cradle (mothers), we as a society are going to see the implications of the repercussions.”
Listen to an discussion of these themes in my podcast episode 8 “A Healthy Baby is Not All That Matters”.