CW: sexual violence
The news and social media have been difficult to look at over the last few weeks. The news that 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment is especially difficult to accept, although not surprising.
This week I was sent a formal response to the complaint I made about the care I received while I was in hospital having my baby. It took me over six months to make my complaint. As we head towards my son’s first birthday, I have become more and more aware that I have feelings of dread surrounding the anniversary of his birth.
Before I got pregnant, I listened to different podcasts which interviewed people about their birth experiences, I read blog posts of birth stories, absorbed all of the information about birth that I could. I took amazing antenatal classes, bought a birth pool and imagined a peaceful and empowering home birth.
After the events at what was my final antenatal appointment, I knew I was going to have to advocate for the birth I wanted. I had written in my notes – which my midwife had read – that I did not want to receive a membrane sweep. At my final appointment I was seen by a student midwife who introduced herself and asked me if I would like a sweep. I declined, and she assured me that it was my decision. At that moment, my regular midwife walked in, tying her plastic apron: “I’m here to do your sweep!”. I’ll always be grateful to the student midwife for stepping in. As I left the appointment, my midwife bid me farewell, saying “I’ll see you next week for your sweep”. Luckily, I didn’t make it to my next appointment.
I woke up at 3am six days later with what I soon realised were contractions. I felt so in tune with my body, so grateful that I had trusted it to go into labour spontaneously and declined an induction (twice). I was finally going to meet my baby.
Home births had been suspended due to Covid-19, so I had chosen to give birth in a midwife-led unit instead of in the labour ward of the hospital, as they promoted all the things I had wanted from my home birth: natural forms of pain relief, movement during labour, using a birth pool and different birthing positions, music, candles, aromatherapy, massage. At around 2:30pm, we took a taxi to the maternity unit and were taken to triage. I was held in triage until 10pm.
In my notes, again, I had written that I would like to avoid vaginal examinations (VE). They aren’t necessary in labour – they’re just “routine” – most people are offered them to assess how far into labour they are, and most people accept them. I declined. Because I declined, I was not permitted to go up to the midwife-led unit. I was told I wasn’t allowed because my baby’s growth had tailed off (it hadn’t), my iron was too low (it wasn’t), and because I wasn’t in labour (I was).
To make a long story short, I refused an internal examination for several hours, during which my midwife kept leaving my partner and I alone to ‘discuss’ our options – which were, apparently, refuse a VE and remain in triage, or accept a VE and be taken to the labour ward. I was coerced, felt bullied and was made to feel as though I was putting my child at risk.
During the course of my 64-hour labour, I was given at least eight VEs, by at least seven different members of staff. I was given a membrane sweep and only told about it as it was being done. I laboured alone in a room on the ward for over 12 hours. My waters were broken. A doctor tried to break them again eight hours later after no one believed that it had worked the first time (it had). I was given Pitocin to speed up my labour. I was given gas and air, codeine, pethidine, morphine. I vomited everything I ate or drank and I didn’t sleep for three days. My husband took a photo of me on the third day of labour; I’m in a bed, exhausted, on my back, a drip in one hand and gas and air in the other hand. My labour ended with an emergency caesarean section.
I didn’t know what to do about my trauma. So I wrote about it. My dissertation, my research projects, my essays, notes, blog posts. My own research has led me to the experiences of other women whose ‘consent’ was based on a lack of information, not being aware of their right to decline intervention, on fear of being perceived as irresponsible or a bad mother, or on coercion of healthcare providers. There are many accounts of women being told that their birth choice, which goes against the staff’s recommendation, will result in the death of their baby. Yet our maternity services champion ‘person-centred’ care and ensuring informed consent.
The response to my complaint about my care states that staff followed correct guidance and that it is my perception and recollection that is at fault. Because a midwife checked a box that says she gathered informed consent, my account of the events was dismissed. Because she checked that box, it is me alone who deals with the consequences of her actions. Reading birth stories now leaves me feeling resentful. Laying on my back gives me flashbacks of being in surgery and of all the examinations I ‘consented’ to. The sound of certain plastics reminds me of hands in surgical gloves. I can remember faces, voices, times, dates, smells, sounds. I have a scar to remind me and a lifetime of birthdays to celebrate the event.
[Jasmine Yancey – she/her]