I can still transport myself to the exact moment, a little over a year ago, when I realised I was about to give birth to my baby alone in my bathroom, without medical assistance.
I get shivers recalling the cocktail of emotions: exhilaration, fear, and a magical sense of something primitive and powerful that was bigger than anything I ever knew could inhabit my body and mind.
I had to push the confines of my rational brain to one side, surrender to my instincts and allow them to override any fear I had.
Less than two minutes later, together with my husband, I pulled our baby out into this world, and safely into our arms.
The midwives were on the way, but I had wanted this. My first child’s birth had been incredibly traumatic and not only did birthing at home seem right, as a Black woman, it felt like the safest option.
Research has found that people of colour – and Black people in particular – are not taken as seriously when they are in pain.
An American study from 2016 showed that Black patients were half as likely to be offered pain medication than white patients.
And another US paper published in the same year revealed that a number of doctors still have misbeliefs about biological differences between Black and white people, such as Black people’s skin being thicker and that they are biologically stronger.
With my first baby, born a year and a half before, I had arrived at the hospital already wanting to push – but I have a tendency to retreat inward when I am in pain, and due to my calm demeanour, the staff questioned whether I was even in established labour. I instantly felt dismissed, scared and out of control.
It wasn’t until I begged midwives to examine me that they realised my baby’s head was almost out, and staff started panicking.
Although he was born safely – just 30 minutes after arriving in hospital – there was a cascade of interventions, where I ended up with an episiotomy (a surgical incision) and my baby was born with the help of a ventouse (a suction device), which a consulting midwife later told me were unnecessary, and all I needed was the right support.
In the days and months that followed the birth, I felt as though I had failed my baby. My child ended up needing physiotherapy on his neck, which may or may not have been a result of the ventouse, and this added to my feelings of guilt. I felt I had not succeeded in keeping him safe.
When I got pregnant for a second time a year later, I was determined to advocate for myself and my unborn baby, and do whatever I could to avoid another hospital birth.
I spent hours trawling through journal articles and studies on medical conditions, complications and maternity rights.
However, the language used by medical staff in charge of my care (like the midwife, who told me: ‘We’ll see if you will be allowed a home birth’) was indicative of wider issues that sought to remove bodily autonomy.
Very quickly, I realised that I was going to have to fight various medical professionals for what I wanted. They claimed I shouldn’t have the baby at home because my blood pressure was high whenever I had antenatal checks.
But I suffer from ‘white coat syndrome’, which means my blood pressure is fine when I take it at home but elevated whenever I talk to medical professionals.
I ended up pleading with a midwife to agree to give me an ‘all-clear’ for my homebirth. She saw that I understood the risks, and agreed that some of her team members had been ‘over the top’ and there was no reason for me not to have my baby at home.
I love telling the story of how my second-born came into this world. I had my baby, took a shower, ordered a pizza, and went to bed with my newborn
Every time I had to prove to medical staff I was making an informed decision, I wondered how many others do not have the time, resources or ability to advocate themselves, and how many have fallen through the net.
Throughout history, women have been ignored, mistreated and abused, but we cannot discount misogynoir – the double whammy of racism and sexism – when discussing birthing rights, and brush it under ‘all women matter’.
And with the move from the historic midwife-led approach, to an ultra-medicalised, obstetrician-led one, it can feel like pregnant and birthing women have very little control over what happens to their bodies.
Black women and people of colour have to contend with overt and covert racism in addition to all this.
It stretches back to 1845, when a white doctor named J. Marion Sims first practised inhumane gynecological procedures on Black female slaves.
In the UK, women from ethnic minority backgrounds also face challenges accessing to perinatal mental health support; a US study found that Black women are the group least likely to initiate treatment for postnatal mental illness, and the least likely to receive follow up treatment.
Following my eldest child’s birth, I harboured a lot of resentment, guilt, sadness and anxiety, and it made me doubt whether medical staff truly had my best interests at heart.
Fearing the people who are supposed to look after you when you are at your most vulnerable is a deeply unsettling experience.
Knowing I am five times more likely than white people to die giving birth, is enough to put the fear in me forever.
Birth rights are human rights. Nobody gives these up when they become pregnant and at the heart of every person’s experience is a need to be heard.
In this regard, words matter; starting with the term ‘delivering’ a baby. Birth is not a passive, no one ‘delivers’ your baby – mothers birth their own children, however much help they need in doing it.
Personally, I do not feel safe in a hospital; my home birth felt like a second chance and it was the most healing and empowering experience I have ever had.
I love telling the story of how my second-born came into this world. I had my baby, took a shower, ordered a pizza, and went to bed with my newborn – and my eldest met his new sibling the next morning.
Despite things not having gone exactly to plan, it felt amazing that I was able to give birth where I wanted. I felt safe and secure, and found my physical recovery infinitely easier the second time around too. I felt validated, and like my fight for what I wanted had been all worth it; and I had been proven right.
I am not anti-doctor, or against medical interventions. It was just not the right route for me, this time around. However, it might be for someone else – and that is the key: we need to do whatever we can to support the needs of birthing people.
We need more listening, more respect, and more trust.
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