'Orange is the New Black' star documents her complicated birth

I am so freaking glad women are sharing stories about their real lives. Our real messy, dirty, complicated, traumatic, joyful, broken, despairing, and hopeful experiences. The explosion of the #metoo movement, Netflix specials like Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, and Hannah Gadsby’s searing Nanette, it is all refreshingly honest. It is raw, and it is roaring.

Orange Is the New Black's Yael Stone.

Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Stone.

On Monday, Yael Stone from Orange is the New Black shared the story of her daughter’s birth two months ago in two photos on Instagram, one of the home-birth she had hoped for, and the other of the C-section that became her reality. “I want to be honest, to be raw, to be real … about the most vulnerable moment I’ve ever experienced” she writes.

She talks about how she felt like a “failure” when she could no longer labour at home, a feeling that is all too common in motherhood but also praises the life-saving medicalised birth she ended up with. More important than being “raw” and “real” about her physical experience, she is “raw” and “real” about her emotions. And they are emotions we all feel – of disappointment, of loss, and of failure when things don’t go how we had hoped.

Her post got me thinking about why we feel such a sense of failure when we don’t get the birth we had hoped for, or when we can’t or don’t want to breastfeed.

Feelings of guilt and shame and failure simply seem to be part and parcel of motherhood, and of womanhood, but why?

Is part of the problem that, when it all goes to plan, we feel a sense of pride? That when our birth goes well, or we breastfeed our baby, we feel proud?

Because if you take pride in what your body can do, then you will unavoidably feel shame and failure if it doesn’t do what you think it ‘should’. It is so easy to feel like we’re somehow ‘defective’ when we don’t live up to expectations, either our own or everyone else’s.

There are too many variables in birth to simply feel proud when it all goes well. That pride should be mixed with an acknowledgement of luck and with gratitude. And every single person lucky enough to give birth in Australia should feel intense gratitude to the highly trained and educated medical staff available to them, as Stone points out in her post. Because some of us, both mothers and babies, weren’t built to survive natural birth. That’s just evolution.

Stone also makes us pause to consider the reality and experience of women who aren’t as lucky as we are in Australia. She points her followers to the Aminata Maternal Foundation who work to save the lives of mothers and babies in Sierra Leone, where women are 100 times more likely to die in childbirth than in a first-world country.

And this is such an important thing to consider when we are being “raw” and “real” about our experiences. It’s great to share positive stories of your own natural birth, but we need to stop judging women who can’t or don’t want to have one.

We must face the fact that totally unmedicalised birth can be mortally dangerous for women. And that there is no shame in requiring, or wanting, medical intervention to get everyone out safely. In fact, as a society, the only shame we should feel is that we have the medical ability to save mothers and babies and yet they still regularly die all over the world because they cannot afford access to it.

What I worry about is that we seem to be suddenly suspicious of experts and many of us misplace our trust in pseudoscience and the stories other people tell us about their own experiences. Online parenting forums are awash with false prophets and those who scorn and cast aspersions on the medical profession and their involvement in birth.

In hearing each other’s raw and real stories we need to remember that what we should connect to and take from them is the universal emotions they reveal. What we should not do is generalise the individual experiences of others to our own lives. There is a difference between an individual’s experience and expertise. There is a difference between hearing the birth stories of women who choose to share them with you, and scientific research on birthing practices. There is a difference between being informed and being a qualified expert. Both have value, of course, but they have different purposes.

The stories of others should give us emotional strength and a sense of connection. They should buoy us and empower us and make us more accepting of both others and ourselves. They should show us that we are not failures. They should show us we need not be ashamed. But it is the scientific evidence and experts that we should trust to keep us, and our babies, safe.

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