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Jan 9 / Caro

A Blog Comment is Not Enough to Respond to Kirstie Allsopp

I ventured back on to Twitter for the first time in over a year last week. That very morning happened to be the morning that Kirstie Allsopp vented her spleen at the NCT via Twitter. Since it seems that I follow Kirstie, I happened to catch it. I was a bit indifferent, to be honest. I could see where she was coming from to a degree, but it wasn’t something I felt strongly enough about either way to get involved.

Back on Twitter last night, I followed a link to a blog post which she made as a follow up: 140 is not enough for the NCT. If you haven’t read it, the general gist is that the NCT cause women to feel guilty if they fail to deliver their babies via a natural, drug free labour, or fail to breastfeed, because of their pro-natural stance and their focus on natural birth in their antenatal classes. The NCT is allegedly responsible for a widespread feeling of inadequacy amongst new mums.

And suddenly I was drawn in. To the point that I actually left a comment.

The problem is that my comment, despite being on the first page, is now lost amongst so many others. So I wanted to get this down here as well, because I really believe in what I wrote (and was heartened to see a couple people specifically agree with me).

I still agree with Kirstie, up to a point. She’s absolutely right that in an ideal world, women shouldn’t be left feeling guilty about their birth experiences, or feeding choices. She’s also right that the NCT are potentially in a position to spearhead the sort of changes women in this country need to see.

But she’s fundamentally missing the point about what those changes are and why they are needed. It is bordering on naive to assume that it’s simple to stop women feeling guilty about anything to do with parenthood, when it’s a cornerstone of the experience. And I think she is wrong to place blame so directly at the door of the NCT, apparently crediting them with some sort of power or influence over women that I simply don’t believe they have.

The fact of the matter is that women do feel guilty and disempowered by the experiences they have during labour birth. But this isn’t, cannot be, due solely to what one parenting organisation allegedly teaches in its popular antenatal classes. In fact, I find the assumption that women are incapable of making up our own minds about what sort of birth experience we would prefer, and that we have no expectations at all about birth until we step in to our NCT classes at 30+ weeks of pregnancy ridiculous at best, and patronising at worst.

In reality, women feel guilty when the reality does not meet their expectations. But there are multiple influences on women which shape their expectations. The media, books, friends and family experience, cultural expectations and just plain personal preference. Not what they are told from a single source. Most women have far more intelligence than that. And most women are also their own harshest critics.

I’m a case in point. If you’ve read any of the archives, you’ll know that I desperately did not want a caesarean for lots of complex reasons. But almost as strongly, I simply wanted, still want, to give birth vaginally. I find it difficult to articulate exactly why I feel this way, and this post is not really the place. But from a discussion I started on a popular parenting forum last year, I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

I was destined to feel disappointed in myself if I failed to achieve a vaginal birth. I was well prepared for a caesarean by – you guessed it – my NCT classes. I knew all about the practicalities of the surgery and what would happen before, during and after. But no parenting class could have dealt with complex emotions and prevented the feelings I was left with. Even if the NCT had told me that caesareans were actually the very best thing and we all should be having them, I’d still have felt the same way. I felt as though my body failed me – for not the first time in my life – because it failed to act in the “physiologically normal” way, and the way I wanted it to. At then end of it all, my son was born, but I did not give birth. I didn’t resent the medical intervention per-se, I just hated the fact that it was necessary. I feel sad because my reality was very far removed from my ideal birth experience – an ideal that was formed in my head long before I even fell pregnant, let alone signed up to NCT classes.

I have been fortunate to be able to breast feed Thomas, but given how important that was to me, I’d have been similarly devastated had breast feeding not worked out. But my feelings of failure and fear would have been related to my own concerns about the potential risks of cow’s milk based formula and autoimmunity – bugger all to do with whether an antenatal teacher, midwife or health visitor had simply told me that “breast is best”. I’d have felt awful because my belief was that for us breastfeeding was indeed best. The mismatch between reality and desire would have have been hugely difficult to overcome.

Obviously it is impossible to ignore the very many comments that Kirstie has received from women who claim to have been negatively affected by their NCT experiences. The NCT has a responsibility to provide accurate information in a balanced and non-judgemental way. Clearly there is room for improvement if women are genuinely being excluded from post-natal reunions because they had a caesarean or epidural (for the record, that would have left a post natal reunion of one in our group – and even the one had a ventouse!). However what we cannot know is exactly how those women would have felt had they never been involved with the NCT. I strongly suspect that self-imposed expectations would lead to the majority of these women still feeling exactly the same emotions regardless.

So the question becomes, who is there to pick up the pieces? And the answer, all too often, is no one. It was certainly a battle for me to get follow up and support to deal with my birth experience. Other women I know who had traumatic experiences have still not been able to get any follow up support to help them deal with this. Antenatal classes cannot cover every possible outcome before the event, but tailored, individualised follow up support could, and should, be available.

It may be true that the most important outcome is a healthy mother and a healthy baby, but to tell a traumatised new mum that she should simply “be grateful” for those things is an enormous insult. It implies that she isn’t. But being delighted with your new baby and regretful about what you experienced to get there are two separate things. One doesn’t cancel the other out, and women deserve proper support and help to cope.

This is the issue that Kirstie is missing: The almost universal lack of post natal support for all women. Not just women who attend NCT classes. Not just women who have caesareans. Or those who can’t breastfeed. But every woman who becomes a mother. Every woman who wants it deserves access to proper post-natal support to help them deal with the unique experience they have had and the challenges they are facing in the early weeks.

We are facing an epidemic of women feeling traumatised, guilty and inadequate about many aspects of parenthood. Rather than pointing fingers of blame, rather than attacking the NCT for what they are, or are not, doing in their antenatal classes – which in reality affects only a small minority of new mothers – let’s start looking for proper solutions to benefit ALL women.

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