Pregnancy & Childbirth


Female biology is neither magic nor mysterious. It doesn’t make those in possession of it nurturing, or caring, or motherly. It doesn’t mean we ought to bear children, nor does it mean we can always bear children if we’d like to. Female biology is flawed, inconsistent and, most of all, it is not the sum of us.

It is, however, real. My female reproductive system is as real as my heart or my brain or my lungs. It will exist whether you allow me to name it or not. I am not simply “a female”. I am a person. I am, nevertheless, female. I am neither ashamed nor frightened of this.

Identifying bodies as female is not an oppressive or exclusive act. It is simply a statement of fact, but also one that has political import. If we stop naming female bodies, female bodies will still exist. We will still interpret them and respond to them. We will, without radical changes to our thinking, continue to reject, abuse and punish these bodies just for being what they are. We will not call them female, but we will still call them something: the bodies of breeders, bleeders, post-menopausal non-entities. We will demean their owners by taking away a biological definition and replacing it with a function. We will have decreed “female” far too good a word for that lower class of humans, the fleshy, sinful ones with their blood, discharges and holes. We will have taken a word that articulates the source of their oppression and offered nothing in return.

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Word order can make a huge amount of difference to meaning. I suspect anyone who writes headlines knows this. Having never written headlines myself, I don’t know the precise rules on making a story a bit less true but a lot more interesting. I know, however, that it doesn’t take much to achieve this. Even the subtlest of differences can make a huge impact.

Right now several news outlets are running reports on Kate Middleton’s experience of giving birth. “Kate Middleton told friends: I had a ‘perfect, natural’ labour” reveals the Hollywood Times. “Kate Middleton calls birth ‘natural and perfect’” says the Christian Post. ”Kate Middleton tells friends of her ‘perfect, natural birth’” announces Yahoo. According to the International Business Times not only did Middleton have a “perfect, natural” labour, she even had a “perfect, natural” pregnancy, too (although anyone who knows the slightest thing about hyperemesis gravidarum might dispute the latter). (more…)

One of the perks of being a mother is being able to tell a woman expecting her first baby any old crap you like. After all, what’s she going to do about it? Facing the unknown,  she’s hardly going to contradict you. You’re a mum. You know stuff. As for her? Let’s face it, she hasn’t got a clue.

Of course, this is a mean thing to do and you should, ideally, refrain from it (unless said expectant mother is especially annoying). If you already know how much uncertainty and self-doubt motherhood can bring, it’s just vindictive to set about stoking it up in someone else before she’s even got started. That’s why I can’t see any excuse whatsoever for Virginia Ironside’s current “advice” column in the Independent.

First of all, allow me to present the dilemma:

I’m about to have my first baby, but I’ve just been head-hunted by a firm that wants me to start work as soon as possible. Friends say I should wait and see how I feel before I commit to a new job but my husband has said he’s keen to look after the baby and become a house-husband  – he works freelance and he’s going through a time when he doesn’t have very much work. Can you or any of your readers offer advice on what I should do? I’m at a loss and can’t make  a decision.

What should this woman do? Well, here’s my suggestion: don’t write to Virginia Ironside. She’s not interested in your life. She just wants to use it as a springboard for promoting her vision of Perfect Motherhood. (more…)

Should the royal baby be born with a uterus, I dread to think of the miserable pregnancies that await her. Given how intrusive we’ve been this time around — will Kate breastfeed?, is she too posh to push?, is it out yet, is it, is it? — I’m wondering how much further it can go. Perhaps by the time she marries we’ll be having a monthly day of mourning each time our future Queen has a period. The grim two-week wait known by all couples trying to conceive will be tracked by all major news outlets (graphs from the Daily Mail, complex CSV data files from the Guardian). Newscasters will solemnly inform us that since, by this stage, First Response has a 99% accuracy rate, once again we’re likely to be disappointed. Recourse to IVF would be a source of national shame, surrogacy a catastrophe. Actual infertility, or recurrent miscarriage, or stillbirth – well, let’s not even go there.

Today’s focus on the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge is in labour — but how far? How many centimetres dilated? Tell us, tell us! — has really freaked me out. I’m not a fan of the royal family — neither the principle nor the individuals — but I find the media frenzy *prim voice* rather distasteful. I imagine Kate Middleton (or Windsor or whatever she’s now called) doesn’t give a shit at this point in time. For all I know she’s high on pethidine, demanding Rage Against The Machine as birth music and telling William she only ever married him for the money and fame. Even so, this national focus on one woman giving birth seems to me wrong. It shows, not just how much how pathetically obsequious we commoners remain, but how far we trivialise the whole of pregnancy and labour, presenting it as one set narrative with a happy ending. It’s not.

I don’t know how hard the Windsors found it to conceive. I don’t know whether there were pregnancy losses along the way. I won’t ever know because it’s not part of the official plot. True, it’s not my business to ponder how much fruitless, passionless shagging took place in the quest for our third in line, but neither is it my business to know how long the Duchess has been in labour, or whether she’s having pain relief, or countless other things which are meant to be of national importance. We’re not just being fed royalist propaganda, we’re being fed sanitised pregnancy propaganda too. It sits alongside the whole morality tale that insists that those who don’t drink or smoke, take their folic acid, practice their breathing, don’t lie on their right side, make sure the bath water’s not too hot, have a loving, supportive (and ideally rich) partner etc. etc. will bring forth happy, healthy, bouncing babies. It’s this very narrative that makes the millions of people for whom this doesn’t happen feel so alone, while also feeding into the anti-choice lie that pregnancy and birth are mere stages in the pre-born lives of others, and not violent, bloody and potentially highly risky experiences.

When my partner and I lost a pregnancy we were knocked for six, even though we’d known the statistics and tried hard to prepare ourselves not to think too far ahead. This evening my partner commented that if something went wrong with the royal birth, it would be a tragedy for those most immediately involved, but might at least go some way to changing our rose-tinted, moralistic narrative regarding perfect pregnancies and risk. It’s hardly the way you’d want it to be changed, though. But labour can reduce you to your most raw and it seems to me strange that, at a point where (one suspects) the regal mask is most likely to have slipped, we’re doing our damndest to reinforce not just the myth of royalty, but the myth of birth as mere storybook ending.

Part of me feels amused that the Daily Mail is lauding the Duchess of Cambridge for not being “too posh to posh”. Isn’t the whole purpose of today’s royal family being posh?  Indeed, isn’t she rather letting the side down by opting for a mere vaginal birth, or “natural” birth as the press likes to call it, presumably because a duchess wouldn’t have anything so vulgar as a vagina? I’m not sure what she’s meant to have instead, mind – perhaps a plush velvet gateway, to counteract the sheer commonness of pushing.  

Of course, the Kate Middleton may end up not pushing anyhow. Or pushing and having a caesarean anyhow, which is then classed as not having pushed. Pushing is, after all, not a physical act but a moral identifier. Anyhow I don’t really want to think about it because it’s no business of mine or anyone else’s how she gives birth. (more…)

This evening I read my children a lovely story called The Duchess of Cambridge’s Big Adventure. In it, a beautiful princess called Kate visits her friends Biff, Chip and Kipper, owners of a magic key which takes them on amazing trips to far-off lands and … Only kidding. The Duchess of Cambridge’s Big Adventure is actually the story of a woman in her thirties who looks nice while being pregnant. The end.

Disappointing though it is that Kate Middleton isn’t doing something genuinely adventurous, it’s not entirely surprising. Day after day we’re reminded that she’s “ripping up the royal baby rule book” by planning to stay with her parents once her baby is born. And that she’s whipping Kim Kardashian’s much commented-on arse in the pregnancy fashion stakes. All very exciting, at least for those of us who are excited by staying with parents and wearing clothes. For the rest of the world, it’s just a bit bewildering. You know something’s not quite right, but it’s hard to put your finger on it. Is it the crapness of royal protocol, the shamelessness of royalty itself, the fawning press, the sexism, the infantilisation of pregnant women … or all of these things at once? And is it even worth worrying about it now when it’s only going to get worse? (more…)

According to the headlines, new advice issued to pregnant women by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists could be “confusing”. That’s not a word I’d use. Patronizing, impractical, scare-mongering, guilt-inducing, yes. Confusing, no. Contrary to popular belief, pregnant women are not porridge-brained fools, panicking at the merest mention of “chemicals” and “science”. They’re not confused. They know unhelpful advice when they see it. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t stop them feeling guilty. That’s because, contrary to yet more popular belief, pregnant women are human beings (and, despite what the pictures tell you, they have heads!). 

The latest recommendations from the RCOG state that pregnant women should avoid too many “chemicals”. Not all chemicals, mind – just “some chemicals”. In stuff. Stuff like “food packaging, household products, over-the-counter medicines and cosmetics”. So not things you’d encounter in actual, day-to-day life, apart from all the bloody time. There’s no direct evidence that these chemicals do any harm but it’s best to “play it safe” by being scared witless.
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So the latest thing to avoid when pregnant is iodine. No, wait – I got it the wrong way round! When pregnant it’s best to have loads of the stuff. Loads of iodine, and loads of iron. And maybe all the other elements that start with “I”, just to be on the safe side (I’ve heard iridium’s nice).

As with all these things, you’re not allowed just to have supplements, though. That’d be cheating (oh, and taking iodine supplements “stuns” the thyroid. A likely story). You have to get your iodine through eating a varied diet, the kind of diet it’s impossible to eat because you’re so busy trying to avoid anything unpasteurised /raw /caffeinated /unwashed /with a high mercury content (that’s assuming you can keep food down in the first place). Anyhow, do your best, and just to help you, here’s a handy, meaningless table listing the iodine content in mcg per average serving of various common foodstuffs. Just make sure it adds up to 250mcg every day while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding; it’s easy, providing you ignore the fact that the list contains items such as nuts, shellfish and oily fish which, actually, you’re not really allowed (plus organic milk is now worse for you than normal milk, but only in terms of iodine content. Make of that what you will). But hey, in case it all seems too much of a hassle, the British Dietetic Association have even illustrated their advice with one of those photos of a headless pregnant woman. There’s a man standing behind her, hands resting protectively on her bump. So now you know just how important it is. You’re not a person, you’re a baby-brewing machine, and you run on iodine, folic acid and virtue. (more…)

According to the Daily Mail, my children should never have been born. To be fair, this is true for 99.9% of the human race but it’s always interesting to identify the various and overlapping reasons why this should be so. In this particular instance it’s because they are descended from women who had children in their forties – i.e. old ladies who left it too late.

Both my partner and I have mothers who were born to women over forty. This is because Lancashire in the 1940s was a seething hotbed of middle-class feminist extremism, where women were too busy smashing through glass ceilings to think of reproducing in a timely manner. Or it might be, in my case, because my grandma came from an Irish Catholic background, didn’t believe in practising any form of contraception and had a load of other children before my mother, most of whom survived to adulthood. This is something from which I clearly benefited, having thereby got to exist, but it’s not without its drawbacks. Women such as my grandma clearly didn’t know the risks of late motherhood, such a being pregnant while not being at your maximum blooming potential. The few black and white photos we have don’t show it but let’s be honest, she probably looked well past it by the time she was having my mum – a bit like Kate Garraway in this photo.
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Baby bump: a stomach swollen to beyond its usual size due to the presence of a fetus. Precise size of bump will vary, dependent on age of fetus, genetic heritage of stomach owner and sheer bloody randomness. And, um, that’s about it as far as baby bumps are concerned, only that’s not saying much. So here are some further facts I’ve compiled, mainly out of annoyance at all the inexplicable admiration that the Duchess of Cambridge is getting merely for having a small one:

  • If you are famous, it is not possible merely to go out and about while in possession of a bump. You “debut” said bump, then “flaunt” it. To be fair, you might then go on to do a nude magazine cover with arms “tastefully” covering your tits but at this point why not? Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
  • Small bumps are, generally, good.* For instance, if you’re the Kate Middleton-as-was it’s really classy. Reporters can’t shut up about how petite it is, with the Express claiming that Kate “will be the envy of many pregnant women as she’s still modelling a tiny figure despite being six months gone”. Meanwhile reality TV star Kim Kardashian “blooms”, that is to say she is distastefully large. So too are Jessica Simpson, Lara Stone and “Channing Tatum’s wife Jenna Dewan” – pregnant porkers, one and all. Bet William’s relieved he didn’t pick one of them to produce his heir.
  • It is possible to “dress” a baby bump. For instance, in this picture Kate has dressed her bump in a “gorgeous blue cocktail dress”. Unfortunately she’s ended up having to put the rest of herself in it as well – meaning it doesn’t look any different from just her wearing a dress – but it’s the thought that counts, at least until they develop invasive intra-uterine styling.
  • Alongside housing a fetus, one of the main purposes of a baby bump is for use in advertisements for body lotion and financial services. Or any other advertisement seeking comic effect via the owner of a bump grumpily demanding rubbish food combinations in the early hours of the morning.
  • Once you have a baby bump, you are public property in a way that you weren’t previously. People will smile benevolently, even take the liberty of patting your stomach. It’s annoying, yes, but worth remembering that those who beam at you on the bus one week will be glaring at you the next if you dare to stagger on with a screaming newborn. So you still have to “enjoy” it while you can.
  • Baby bumps can be used for making political statements. You could write “100% pro-choice” on yours. Or “future anarchist leader”. Or you could just put “baby on board”, “under construction” and/or “it started with a kiss”. But know that I will judge you for it.
  • Once a baby is born, a baby bump becomes part of what is known as “baby weight” i.e. that weird, liminal fat that clings to a woman’s post-pregnancy body but isn’t really her. According to Grazia, you can “get rid of your post-baby mum tum with the Gowri Wrap […] an elasticated corset that helps restore your pre-pregnancy stomach” and costs £75. Or you can just not. Personally I’d recommend not.

So those are my baby bump facts. Personally I miss having one but do appreciate the whole “being able to lie on your own stomach” thing. And also the “being able to get drunk” thing. And there’s also the “having the actual children around” thing. So yes. Swings and roundabouts, really.

* Small bumps are sometimes rubbish and a sign that you’re a bad mother who’s not taking care of herself aka her baby (see Kate Moss).

Forced motherhood is a kind of slavery, because motherhood and autonomy can never coexist.

Tanya Gold on abortion, Comment is Free

I am a mother. I’m also pro-choice. Much as I appreciated Tanya Gold’s recent piece on the human cost of anti-choice ideologies, the above statement, which appeared in the final paragraph, has got to me – and stuck in my mind ever since. When Gold writes of motherhood and autonomy never coexisting, does she mean all motherhood or just the forced motherhood of her earlier clause? Is this merely a case of over-editing or an actual belief about every experience of being a mother? If it’s the latter, I’m unsettled (and would advise Gold to steer well clear of anything by Rachel Cusk).

Mothers are not a different class of human beings, or rather, if they are, they shouldn’t be. They are people with a wide range of experiences, beliefs and responsibilities. We shouldn’t have to big up the magnitude of motherhood in order to convince ourselves that reproductive rights matter. If we are able to value women regardless of their reproductive status then that should be enough. (more…)

Until this week, I didn’t realise bump painting – having one’s heavily pregnant belly decorated by a professional face painter – was “a thing”. I knew about those plaster casts some women get made, and that some pregnant women choose to wear “statement” T-shirts (“Under Construction”, “Baby on Board”, “It Started With A Fuck” – I may have tweaked that last one slightly). But I didn’t know that some were actually going in for having their tummies made into temporary works of art. This is annoying; if I had known, I’d probably have had it done myself.
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In Oklahoma, this month, Jamie Lynn Russell, 33, died in agony from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy in jail. Police, who were called to a hospital where Russell sought help for severe abdominal pain, charged her with drug possession after finding two prescription pills that did not belong to her.

Guardian report on ‘criminalisation of pregnancy’ in US institutions

When I turned up in tears at an unfamiliar doctor’s surgery, convinced (correctly, it turned out) that I was experiencing the start of a miscarriage, I have no idea what was in my bag. Probably the usual – money, phone, lipgloss, Prozac, half-eaten tubes of Fruit Pastilles. I leave stuff in there for months. There may even have been the remnants of my pre-pregnant life – Alka Seltzer, the odd cigarette butt, those stupid RU21 pills that were meant to prevent hangovers but never did. I didn’t live a pure life before I conceived, and I sort of muddled through afterwards. I’m relatively organised, on the grand scale of things, but clean-living would be an exaggeration. (more…)

Eight years ago my partner and I became addicted to “gritty hospital drama” Bodies. Set in the obstetrics and gynaecology department of a fictional UK hospital, the series tracks the moral descent of registrar Rob Lake, who becomes aware that his superior is bungling procedures and maiming the women he treats. Two years after watching the series I became pregnant for the first time and tried to forget I’d ever seen it. Of course, I knew that real life wasn’t like that. Your average registrar isn’t as fit as Max Beesley, for starters, plus you’d hope your average consultant wasn’t as incompetent as Patrick Baladi’s Mr Hurley. All the same, things can go wrong, just like on TV, and just like on TV, sometimes all you can do is watch. (more…)

For all I know, Sarah Louise Catt is a heartless human being who felt no shame in breaking the law and ending a pregnancy one week before the due date. I didn’t attend her trial, don’t live in her head and have no idea, in the grand scheme of things, how harshly she deserves to be judged. Why, then, does her eight-year sentence for administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage disturb me so much?

I have been pregnant three times. I have two children. I have never had a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted – I have no idea what that feels like. I know what it feels like to be pregnant, and to lose a pregnancy, and to carry two pregnancies to term. I can’t understand why Catt acted as she did. I can’t imagine ever being in such a place, nor how I’d justify making the choices she made. But these are all idle thoughts – I’ve never been her. (more…)

Calling all mums-to-be! I hope you don’t mind me asking but have you really thought this one through? I know, you’re all excited about the impending birth but do you actually, honestly know what you’re doing? And yes, people might have said this to you before, but you should listen to me. I might not know you, but I’m a doctor.*

Pregnancy and childbirth can seriously damage your health. Trust me – I might turn out to have a PhD in something entirely unrelated to healthcare, but I’ve had children, so I should know. Except I don’t. No one ever went through a list of all the possible negative effects with me (and I went to see the GP loads!). In the interests of writing this post, I’ve just gone and googled a list myself. There are a lot of effects I recognise but hadn’t given much thought to until now, plus there are others about which I knew nothing at all. For instance, I had no idea pregnancy could be linked to a loss of bone calcium. And as for prolapsed uterus – well, I knew it could happen, but I had no idea that it affected as many as 11% of women. 11 sodding percent! And all that’s before you scroll down to the really serious stuff (including, naturally, death). Flippin’ heck! Do these children of mine, currently scrapping over whose turn it is to push down the lever on the toaster, have any idea what I’ve risked for them? Do they heck as like. And to make matters worse, I can’t even change my mind and undo it all. The damage has been done, both to the toaster and to me. (more…)

Mummies! You know how it is – you’ve just had a baby and sure, it’s the miracle of life and all that, but just for one moment (during nap time, once you’ve set the washing machine to ‘delicates’) let’s all take time to consider your tummy – that tummy which, for the past few months, has been glorious and drum-tight – and let’s now focus on how terrible it’s looking. One big mass of shapeless, useless flesh, brimming over the maternity pants you thought you’d never be wearing by now. Urgh. ‘Baby weight’ is far too cutesy a term for something so repulsive, is it not? Look, I’m not asking you to feel ashamed. On the contrary, it’s far better just to be honest. Say it loud, say it proud: “I look shit! And I hate all those women who snap back into shape in five seconds flat! The bitches!” Come on ladies, out with it! It’s the perfect post-feminist rallying call. No longer do we have to rely on men for misogyny. Independent and resourceful, we’ll make our own! (more…)

Ten years ago I had a twenty-a-day Mayfair Light habit. I’d wake up with a pack by the bed and lighting up was the first thing I’d do. To a non-smoker this may sound awful, but I loved my fags. It was the whole “being addicted” thing I couldn’t stand. So I booked in for some NHS group therapy – totally cringe but highly effective, and hence unlikely to be funded these days – and gave up completely. I still miss cigarettes, sometimes, but not how guilty and fearful the act of smoking used to make me feel.

Of course, now I find that, pregnancy-wise at least, I might as well have been at home chain-smoking in front of Deal or No Deal rather than venturing out for some honest toil. According to a study reported in the Guardian (and several other newspapers), “work after eight months of pregnancy can be as harmful as smoking”. Naturally this is a real kick in the teeth for those of us who were still at the photocopier at 36 weeks, swollen ankles be damned. (more…)

When we were kids, my brother and I would spend hours engaged in deep philosophical debates about why we were here. Or rather, why I was here (he was the eldest and for some reason or other, we never got on to discussing him). His line: ‘you were only born so I could have someone to play with’. My line: ‘I was only born because you were such a disappointment’. All very touching, I’m sure you will agree. Of course, we never got on to the real reason for my existence, which I will reveal to you now: I was born, as was my brother, so that our mother could get out of going to work, thereby screwing her employer and wasting an education that could have been given to a man. Forty years later, I imagine she’s still feeling smug about it. (more…)

The Daily Mail is kindly requesting that, next time you review your list of Women We All Should Hate, you add model Miranda Kerr. It is, on the face of it, a perfectly reasonable request. She’s really, really mind-blowingly annoying.

In an interview for Harper’s Bazaar, Kerr claimed she chose not to have an epidural when giving birth to her son because she did not want “a drugged-up baby”:

Miranda explained: ‘I had made a decision I wanted to do it naturally. So I was kind of upset when the doctor said I had to be induced because there wasn’t enough liquid around the baby.

‘She was like, “most people who get induced have the epidural. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t”. And I’m like, “I made a plan. I am determined to do this without pain medication.’

Concerned about the negative implications it might have on her son, whose father is Orlando Bloom, she told the glossy: ‘I wanted to give him the best possible start in life I could.’

If you are reading this and you, regardless of whether or not you were induced, succumbed to the temptations of an epidural, I hope you are feeling suitably crap when comparing yourself to Miranda. It’s not enough that you’re not a gorgeous model. Nor even that the father of your baby is not Orlando Bloom. You are weak. You couldn’t take the pain (not that it would in fact have made any difference to your baby. You wimped out and therefore you suck). (more…)

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