Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few shares of articles about the “language of permission” and its place in childbirth – or rather how it doesn’t belong in childbirth. We are being reminded constantly that our care providers do not get to decide how we will birth our babies. “My body, my birth, my choice” is the rallying cry. And this is good – because it’s true. Doctors don’t get to decide what we do with our own bodies. They aren’t allowed to make decisions, even for “the good of the baby”. So why is it that we still allow other men to make decisions about how we use our bodies in birth?
“I really want to have a homebirth. I’m terrified of the hospital. But my husband isn’t comfortable with homebirth so we decided to compromise and I’m just going to hospital and maybe he’ll let me get a doula”.
I see this sort of statement a LOT. I’ve said similar myself – twice. Most women who say this wouldn’t dream of allowing their husband to make other decisions about how they use their body – in fact they would consider it controlling or abusive if their partner started telling them how they are allowed to dress, who they could talk to, what feminine hygiene products to use, how to cut their hair etc. So why do we suddenly allow this same controlling behaviour when it comes to pregnancy and birth?
“It’s important to respect his wishes because it’s his baby too!!!”
This is generally the response if you suggest that a man should not be allowed to decide how you birth your baby. And, to an extent, I agree. It is important to respect his opinion. Respect is integral to all partnerships. But it goes both ways – he needs to respect your opinion as well. His opinion can be respected without being proclaimed as the more important one. Because I’m pretty sure we have reached a time and space where men’s opinions aren’t actually considered the more important…Maybe?!
What message does this statement send – That it’s okay for my husband to make decisions about my body? That my husband is better able to make decisions about my body? That my husband cares more about my health and wellbeing and that of our baby than I do? Is that the message I want to pass down to my daughter? That it’s okay for daddy to make decisions about our health and wellbeing, without doing any research or taking into account anyone else’s opinion, just because he’s the daddy?
What happens in regards to healthcare decisions of the baby once it’s born? If you disagree about a course of action does your husband simply get the final say? Unless he’s a specialist paediatrician I would think probably not. You both go and talk to your GP or a specialist. You chat to other parents who had similar experiences. Maybe you chat to your own parents and get their opinion. And then you come to a decision together. So why does he get the final say about the care of the baby while it’s in utero? Is he a midwife? No? Then what qualifies him to be making these decisions? I would wager that most men (and people in general) who make these types of comments have never experienced a homebirth, spoken to a homebirth midwife, spoken to a homebirthing family, read one single article about homebirth or researched the risks associated with hospital birth. Most women who want a homebirth have done extensive research on the topic.
So the person who is LEAST educated on the topic is making the decisions. Why is this okay? Because the decision he is making is the most socially acceptable. If you have an argument with your husband about your birthing choices your dad is unlikely to step in and tell him “Son you better smarten up and respect my daughter’s bodily autonomy”; Your mum is unlikely to help you come up with ways to educate your husband and get him onside and your sister / best friend is unlikely to offer to take a hit out on him for upsetting you so much. They are more likely to tell you that “he just loves you and wants you to be safe. And so do we”. Or they will tell you that he is just acting in your best interests. Because we all know that pregnant women are totally unable to act in their own best interests, right? If they are feeling super supportive they might tell you “well if this birth goes really well you can always have a homebirth next time”. Most people don’t realise that the chances of a hospital birth going “really well” are pretty slim.
So, what if we change the story. “I’d feel much safer birthing in hospital. But my partner read a story in a magazine about a woman who was paralysed because of a botched epidural. Then the following week he read a story about a baby that suffered hypoxic brain injury and it’s been linked to the use of syntocinon during labour. Now he’s freaked out and wants me to birth at home because it’s so much safer.” Hands up who’s going to tell me I need to respect my husband’s wishes. Where are the cries of “It’s his baby too – how will you feel if you do birth in hospital and baby suffers a hypoxic brain injury as a result?” or “He just wants what’s best for you and the baby – it would be really selfish to put your feelings of safety above that!” And hands up those who are going to tell me that my husband has lost his marbles and should just go join a hippie commune? Who’s going to suggest that my husband needs to do a little research about hospital birth and the actual stats? Who’s going to suggest that he have a chat to the Ob about his concerns?
It’s also worth remembering that MY health and wellbeing, my life, is on the line with every decision in regards to my birth. My partner’s isn’t. Women die in childbirth every day around the world. My risk (here in Australia) of death is tripled if I have a caesarean and my risk of a caesarean is around 30% if I birth in hospital. Why is it okay for my husband to force me to take on that risk? There are also many interventions that may be recommended to me in hospital which increase the risks to both mine and my baby’s health and wellbeing – induction, AROM, syntocinon, epidural – all these carry risks to both me and the baby. None of these carry any risk to my husband’s health. So he gets the decision making capacity and none of the physical risk from the decisions.
I think that the women who make comments about wanting a homebirth but not being “allowed” fall into a couple of different categories. There’s, of course, those who genuinely want a homebirth but feel they need the support of their partner in order to feel good about the decision. They decide they’d rather birth in hospital with his support than birth at home without it. Then there’s the women who are using their husband as their excuse for not pursuing a homebirth. It’s easier than saying “I don’t want to homebirth” or “I’m scared” or “I’ve already been rejected by a dozen homebirth midwives and I can’t take that anymore”.
And then many women are confusing “active participation in decision making” with “controlling the decision”. Most of us want our partners to take an active role in the pregnancy and the decision making. And I really feel like men should be doing this. After all – it IS their baby too! For both of my births I desperately wanted my partner to be an active decision maker – I did everything I could to encourage that. I gave him articles to read, I brought him to all doula appointments, all hospital appointments and he did the hypnobirthing course with me. Then every time I would ask his opinion on something or try to start a conversation he’d say “I don’t know” or “It’s your choice” or “I’m not interested in reading about that”. Despite that, he felt that he had a right to tell me that I “couldn’t” homebirth. I felt really let down by his lack of active participation in the process. It seems like a lot of men want to make the big decisions without doing any of the work. And women do all the research and then allow their partners to “over rule” them. Because it’s the only time their partner actually takes an interest in the decision making process. And we figure that if it’s important enough for him to take an interest in our birthing journey for a few minutes then this decision must be IMPORTANT to him. So we’ll give him that.
Through my two birthing journeys I realised something very important. While I’d love for my partner to be an active participant in the decision making I don’t actually need him to be. Through his lack of informational involvement last time I now have the confidence to simply get on with it next time. I have already made several decisions about my next birth (and we’re not even ttc yet – yes, I’m a control freak!) and I’ve simply been telling him as I go. He hasn’t put up any argument. Maybe because he realises that doing it his way led to two traumatic births and that it’s time to see what happens when I enter a birthing journey feeling safe, supported and honoured. Maybe he realises that any argument would be futile as I now have the knowledge and the confidence to argue my own point – at length. Or maybe he is just sick of hearing about birth politics and birth choices. Either way – My body, my birth, my choice!!