“What would you do?”; “What’s your experience?” These 2 questions are very commonly asked in the birth groups that I frequent. Women are hungry for knowledge and are finding that stories from other women is filling the gap. But how useful is this as a way of getting information? Can these stories all simply be taken at face value? What should the analytical reader be looking for? What questions should we ask? Birth is such an intimate, transformational, vulnerable time and feelings are completely subjective. But women who are reading birth stories as a part of their preparation for birth need to read widely and read critically.
Storytelling has been used as a way of sharing information since the beginning of time. From Aesop to the world of internet blogs; Plato to the Woman’s Day. Stories are an easy way to share information with those who may be less interested or less able to read a scientific journal and they can seem more “real” than an academic paper full of technical language and scary sounding statistics.
Aesop's Fables - teaching through the art of storytelling. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
But putting your questions out there in a facebook group with thousands of members can be a recipe for disaster. If you really want to seek advice in this manner it pays to put a little thought into it.
It is exceptionally important to clarify what you want to get from asking your question. Do you genuinely want advice, experiences and stories from people? Or do you simply want everyone to validate a decision you’ve already made? Are you after some empathy and virtual hugs? Or some concrete strategies and potential solutions? I see so many women ask a question or post a comment to later ask that everyone “just respect my decision please” or “if you don’t anything positive to say please don’t comment”. Knowing what you hope to get from your information seeking exercise and clarifying that will help to ensure that you get the stories that you are truly after.
Once you start getting stories and experiences to read it is important to critically analyse them. This doesn’t mean that you need to be critical of them – but that you need to take them all with a grain of salt.
Asking questions in Facebook groups can be a great way to learn personal stories and experiences - just remember to keep thinking as you read them! Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Is the writer obviously pro or anti something? For example someone who is pro-vaccine is less likely to give you a full run down of the risks associated with vaccinating or to share a negative experience. Someone who is anti-natural childbirth may be more likely to gloss over the risks associated with childbirth interventions and less likely to share negative stories about caesareans. Most people hold some sort of bias about most issues. It doesn’t make their stories less valid, but it is important to realise that you are unlikely to get the full story from just them.
If someone has suffered from birth trauma this may colour their entire birth experience and how they share their story. My first birth was very traumatic. I was treated poorly by staff, bullied, lied to and I felt helpless, scared and isolated. I’m very much aware of how these emotions and experiences colour how I tell my story. I was induced, had a failed epidural and then a caesarean. Because my feelings at the time were so incredibly strong and so negative this has left me with a very negative bias against the physical interventions that were happening at the time. During my second birth I was manipulated into accepting a stretch and sweep, during which my waters broke. At the time I felt trapped and violated and this strong, negative feeling colours how I talk about stretch and sweeps when asked to share my experience. Someone who felt respected, empowered, nurtured, informed and strong would likely share their experience in a very different manner – even if it had a negative outcome.
As an aside – As a doula I am exceptionally conscious of my biases and never discuss my personal birthing journey with clients. It is not okay for a doula to bring their personal biases into the professional relationship.
What other evidence is there? Just as stats don’t tell the full story of a situation neither do personal experiences and stories. It’s always important to ensure that you have reasonable knowledge of the topic at hand before asking for personal stories. This way you have a frame of reference and can better tell if someone’s story is likely a very rare occurrence. One person’s experience is just that: their experience. Just as I had profoundly negative experiences with induction and epidurals I am aware that many women have positive experiences with these. However, if you only get one response to your request for experiences you need to be able to tell if this is a relatively common occurrence. If you ask about uterine rupture and only one person responds saying that they experienced it you could be left thinking that this is a common thing to happen. If you have researched a bit beforehand and know that it only has a 0.5% chance of occurring then you can put that one person’s experience into a different perspective.
A major trap that women fall into when reading birth stories is reading ONLY positive stories. Stories which have the outcome you are after are a great way to remain positive and upbeat. If you are planning an induction of labour then reading stories where inductions led to beautiful positive vaginal births can help keep you in a great frame of mind a feeling good. However, reading stories where the induction didn’t go to plan can ensure that you learn more deeply. Those stories can help you to be aware of potential complications and potential feelings that could arise. Negative stories can give ideas of coping strategies if things don’t go to plan. They can also inspire you to ask different questions of your care provider and support people and to do further research.
In preparation for my first birth I read only natural birth stories. I read some incredibly beautiful and powerful stories of homebirths; freebirths; waterbirths and felt so inspired and positive. Then everything went pear shaped. As I faced induction I was terrified. My friends all tried to keep me in good spirits by sharing their positive induction experiences and ensuring that I knew that it would be “no big deal”. So when my induction turned out to be a bloody huge deal I had no idea how to cope or what strategies I could use. I was also left feeling like a failure - because if inductions are "no big deal" for everyone else, what was wrong with me and my body that made it an issue for me? Had a read more widely and had greater knowledge I would have known that I was by no means alone in my experience.
Read widely! Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So if you are looking to get advice from birth stories and personal experiences it is incredibly important to clarify your expectations; be aware of bias; be aware of trauma; make sure you have a basic understanding of the issue at hand and read widely. Remember that we are all individuals and we all need to make our choices within our own individual context. Stories can be a wonderful research tool – just use them wisely and make sure you supplement them with other research methods and tools.