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Encouraging Words, Unintentional Wounds

There is a current trend in online social networking sites that cater to birthing women of broadcasting empowering quotes about birth. Many of these quotes are wonderful reminders of the power and strength of women’s bodies and minds. Many quotes are testimonies to the transformative power of birth. But a few of them are easily misinterpreted, and can— when taken out of context—increase the misunderstanding and confusion that surround traumatic birth.

Some quotes, if misread, serve to place birth as a competitive act, pitting women against each other. Others appear to point the finger at the woman herself as being to blame for a less-than great birth, even though that interpretation is likely unintended by either the author, or those who post the quote online. We are concerned about the impact of these quotes on women recovering from a traumatic birth, and also on women in general, as they perpetuate myths that potentially prevent women from supporting each other in the early mothering phase.

This article focuses on one of these quotes, in an effort to explain our concerns and place the quotes within a context that enables women to better understand their birth experiences without feeling blamed or like a failure.

There Is a Secret in Our Culture

There is a well-known quote about birth that receives a lot of airplay within the birthing community, and is used a great deal on natural birth blogs, websites and in chat forum signatures. The quote, by Laura Stavoe Harm, reads, “There is a secret in our culture and it is not that birth is painful, but that women are strong.”

The intent of this quote might appear as an acknowledgement of women’s power and determination, and a direct counterattack on our culture’s approach to birth. It could be seen as refuting the notion that birth is painful and something to be feared. But this quote actually has the potential to continue the myths that abound about birth, and especially traumatic birth.

Discomfort with the Message

At a baby expo a friend and I worked at a few years ago, we shared a stall with some wonderful local birthing groups. Our own posters on the wall behind us asked, “Scared of Birth?” and “Had a Bad Birth?” Nearby, one of the other groups had placed a laminated version of Laura Stavoe Harm’s quote. We spent the day offering information and support to many women struggling with the aftermath of their births, some shedding quiet tears right there in the convention center. We shared that was okay to “not feel grateful,” and to grieve their birth experiences. We gradually became more and more uncomfortable with that birth quote on the wall behind us. Eventually, we explained to the woman at the stall our concerns with the sign. She listened carefully, then stood up and took it straight down, saying she understood, and she’d never thought about it like that before. Debby and I would like to share with you why we are uncomfortable with this quote’s popularity, and the possible misinterpretations of its meaning…and what this can mean for a woman who has experienced a disappointing, difficult or traumatic birth.

Self-Blame After a Traumatic Birth

If I had read a quote like that in the months after my own traumatic birth, it would have added to the emotional pain and confusion I was already experiencing. I had labored for 30 hours, 22 of which were without anesthesia, and then succumbed to a caesarean that there is a good chance I did not need. It was a long, arduous journey to meeting my son, which left me emotionally shattered, physically fragile, and bereft of the “good stuff” we anticipate that goes along with the arrival of our first child.

I was vulnerable afterward to all the messages that abounded, including, “You should be grateful.” Meanwhile, I felt I’d let my baby down, and as though I had failed miserably by ending up with a caesarean. I doubted my ability to birth, and felt less of a woman because of this.

Laura Stavoe Harm’s quote about how there is a secret that birth is not painful, but women are strong, would have been like a knife in my chest. What it says to me is: “You should have been stronger.”