Tuesday, Feb 24 2015
Milli Hill hears how directing a new BBC documentary completely changed one woman’s perception of childbirth
Childbirth on TV – it’s most often a drama, right? We know why they do it – a sense of panic, a terrified woman on her back, midwives running down corridors looking worried, and…cut to the ad break – we’re hooked.
But whilst this sort of telly might be entertaining, it unfortunately gives a false impression of birth, and this has the very real and damaging effect of rendering most women completely terrified.
One such woman was Rebecca Arnold, the Producer and Director of Childbirth: All or Nothing, a new documentary to be aired on BBC 1 this week.
“I’m 34 and yet to have children”, she told me. “I wondered if making this documentary actually might end up putting me off for life! Like lots of other people, I imagined birth was painful, messy, and probably pretty grim, just from what I’d heard and read about. I can imagine if I was pregnant then it would have scared me and I would have gone into the whole nine months not looking forward to the end result.”
Childbirth: All or Nothing, follows four women, three of whom give birth at home and one who chooses elective caesarean. Rebecca was inspired to make the film because she was curious about the way women often report feeling a failure if their birth does not go according to plan, and was keen to explore how women’s choices in birth are so often the subject of judgment and opinion:
“I hope this film will mean people become a bit more accepting of the choices women make. Live and let live. Birth should be a totally personal choice and what suits one woman will not necessarily suit another. People might not agree with all the decisions the women in the film make but that’s fine, it’s not their birth!”
When Rebecca began work on the film, she says she would personally have chosen a hospital birth because, “I’d never considered there to be any other way.” But her experiences have changed all that. The words of a midwife she met during filming have stayed with her: “The safest place to give birth is the place where you feel the safest. So, if that’s in a hospital with all the medical staff around you then that will probably suit you best, if you think being at home will keep you calmer, then that’s more for you.”
Like many women, Rebecca was unaware that how birth unfolds is not simply in the hands of fate: it can be influenced, for the better or for the worse, by a number of important factors, including how you feel, and where you are:
“I think I’ve learnt that being scared and being worried that birth is going to be a huge, horrible challenge won’t help your body relax when the time comes for the baby to arrive, however you decide you want to give birth. I hadn’t really considered how the environment you give birth in can have such a huge impact on how you birth.”
But it was one birth in particular that Rebecca describes as a pivotal moment. Having been ‘on call’ for a woman called Kati, Rebecca dropped everything to travel three hours by train for her home water birth. Having never seen anyone give birth before, Rebecca was surprised to arrive and find Kati, ‘calm, smiley, chatty and totally in control.”
“As the contractions ramped up she got into the pool and was so focused I sensed she was totally in her own world. When the time came for the baby to arrive, she literally breathed it out. There was no screaming, no desperate need for any sort of drugs, just total focus. I’ll carry that memory with me forever and I feel lucky to have that very strong image in my mind because it’d be the thing I’d want to recall if I was going through it.”
Having started out, like so many women, with a very negative expectation of childbirth, Rebecca feels that, thorough filming, she has learnt that, whilst birth can be unpredictable, “…you can increase your chances of a ‘better’ birth if you prepare, keep active, learn breathing techniques, write a birth plan.”
Talking to Rebecca and knowing that her film will be shown on prime time UK television this week, I can’t help but feel excited, not just that her personal views of childbirth have experienced such a shift, but that this seems to represent a wider cultural shift that is happening.
By coincidence, Childbirth: All or Nothing is aired in the same week that a new book is published: “The Roar Behind the Silence: Why kindness, compassion and respect matter in maternity care”.
This little book will make a big impact – it calls for an end to the culture of fear that is driving up rates of intervention and creating labour wards that are governed by risk management and paperwork, to the detriment of the human experience of both women and maternity workers.
Change is happening. “Women are beginning to question things a bit more”, says Rebecca. “I’d like women to feel confident enough to trust in their bodies. It’s a very natural process, we are designed to give birth. Some women do experience complications and they will need medical support, but if women could start off trusting in themselves then that can only be a good thing.”
However, there is a way to go yet – as Rebecca puts it, “I think you have a be a particularly strong woman to do what you want and have your baby how you want. There is so much advice given to a pregnant woman that I think it’s incredibly difficult to weed out what is relevant and helpful to you and what’s not. There is freedom of choice, but whether you stick to your guns and go ahead with your plans slightly depends on who’s supporting you, in terms of both friends and family, and medical professionals.”
In the meantime, having begun making Childbirth: All or Nothing, believing a hospital birth would be for her, what would Rebecca choose now?
“I would have a home water birth with an Independent Midwife”, she replies confidently. “I really don’t think there could be a happier, more relaxed and empowering way to be.”
Childbirth: All or Nothing will be aired tonight on BBC1 at 10:45pm. (BBC N.Ireland and Wales 11:10pm and BBC Scotland Wednesday 25th February 10:40pm)
The Roar Behind the Silence is published on Friday 27th February and available from Amazon.
BestDaily columnist Milli Hill is the founder of The Positive Birth Movement. Her latest book is available on Amazon.