Guest post by Allison Phayre, Ph.D.
I remember the stunning joy I felt when I found out I was expecting my first baby. I was carrying a new life inside me, and it felt like the most incredible miracle. Oh sure, I experienced all the “joys” of the first trimester too, the breasts that felt like lead balloons, the hormone surges, the extreme tiredness…but I had a new life growing in me, and it was the best feeling in the world. We kept it to ourselves for the first trimester…too many friends had suffered some bitter losses in that delicate time and we felt it was better to just keep it mum and hope all would be well.
What stunned me though as I moved into the second trimester and then the third was the number of total strangers who somehow felt it was their mission in life to comment on my pregnancy, my body, or my baby. I had people guessing the baby’s gender, trying to guess the baby’s name, commenting on their “worst” names, telling me I shouldn’t be eating or drinking whatever I was consuming, or offering all manner of horror stories about labor and birth. What was even more astounding was the number of total strangers who would come up and start rubbing my belly, as if I had transformed into some laughing Buddha to be rubbed for good luck! And it didn’t end at the doctor’s office—in fact sometimes it felt like they were the worst offenders! I was told what to avoid (caffeinated drinks, alcohol) and what vitamins to take to make sure my baby was getting everything she needed. I had to learn to lie on my left side to sleep, to keep baby’s blood flow optimal, and what childbirth classes were “most practical”.
In so many ways, I was taught very effectively that it was all about the baby. My experience, my discomfort, my personal space, my body were all suddenly public property to varying degrees. My doctor could tell me how to sleep, what to eat, even when to have sex with my husband. Total strangers suddenly felt it was their right to comment on all of the above, or even touch my body without my permission! I was told by well meaning older mothers to “get used to it” and to “enjoy the experience”. What I want to know is, why do we think as a society that it’s okay for mothers to suddenly become a sacred vessel only, this container for the all important baby? This attitude permeates our whole culture and is especially entrenched in the obstetrical culture. If I had a dollar for every time I heard my OB tell me, “We just want a healthy baby,” I would be a rich woman. Sometimes she would add, “and mom”, but not every time. What kind of message does that send to Mom? Gee you’re great, but baby matters most.
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. My babies are the most precious things in my life. I have so many friends who have struggled with the heartbreak of pregnancy loss and infertility. I know exactly what miracles they are, and what a miracle pregnancy is. But if I have one wish for Mother’s Day, it is that we remember that the mother sacrifices a lot of herself even before that baby is born. It’s not fair to tell a mother that her wishes for her birth experience don’t matter, as OBs often do by dismissing birth plans or refusing to be guided by them. It’s not fair to tell a mother that risks to her person from cesarean delivery are less important than risks to the baby, as doctors do when they advise moms to avoid VBAC because it’s “safer for the baby”, even though it’s “slightly riskier for mom”. Mom and mom alone understands on a very intimate and basic level how her safety and baby’s safety are intertwined, and the right balance of risks between those two people is going to be different for each mom and baby. Please, let’s take back the birth culture and practices in this country, so every expectant mom is not a vessel to be handled whatever way her care providers prefer, but remains an autonomous PERSON who is in control of her own body, her own pregnancy, her baby, and her birth.