With a resurgence in the popularity of home deliveries and a greater emphasis on the empowerment of laboring women, there's been a renewed interest in what constitutes a "good birth" — and how to provide women with safer, more supportive birthing environments. We're all now justifiably horrified by the mid-century medical treatment of childbirth — women restrained to beds and drugged into a state of near unconsciousness. Judging by popular media, you'd think we'd moved irrevocably past that era, and what a relief. But, a new photo series, Exposing The Silence, reveals that archaic and abusive practices can still happen to women giving birth. The series is created by Lindsay Askins, a doula and photographer, and Cristen Pascucci, who runs the advocacy network Improving Birth.
In an era when women strive to be seen as "good mothers" who experienced "ideal births," there can be a stigma associated with speaking out about negative birth experiences. Yet, while estimates vary widely, it's suggested that about a quarter of women experience some significant post-traumatic stress after giving birth. This photo series gives a voice to these mothers, who would have otherwise remained silent.
"She said if I did not consent, then I did not care if my baby died, and 'legal people' would make me consent," says one woman who was coerced into a C-section by a doctor who didn't want to wait the estimated two hours it would take for her to deliver vaginally. "I was not given a medical reason for the surgery, but my son was healthy. In the OR, she told me I was too 'opinionated.'"
Stories like this are common, as the photo series reveals. "I was hearing women's stories that were so shocking," Pascucci explains. Askins felt the same way after hearing about women's experiences of being drugged without consent, given episiotomies against their will, legally threatened into procedures, and — perhaps most galling — being able to feel themselves being cut during C-sections. "I thought that was rare — 'Oh whoops, we messed up the anesthesia,'" says Askins. But many described feeling the scalpel and being dismissed or ignored when they alerted the medical team.
Both Pascucci and Askins had positive birth experiences themselves, but they realized that there is a vast and largely silent community of women who have experienced obstetric violence or traumatic birth. Via the Improving Birth network, Pascucci and Askins reached out to women, inviting them to share their experiences and be photographed. Through this simple series, this unspoken trauma is being given a voice and a face — many faces.
"A lot of them described the experience as being like in a nightmare where no one can hear you screaming," says Pascucci of the common themes that emerged throughout the interviews. "They said, 'It was like I wasn’t there, like I wasn’t a person. I was talking, and no one was listening, or they refused to acknowledge me.'"
It's that dehumanized perspective that often lies at the root of these stories, whether the women were physically injured by hospital staff, lied to by a doctor, or threatened by a midwife during a home birth. Somewhere in our cultural consciousness still lingers the belief that women in labor are irrational, reduced to a feral state in which everything they say should be ignored. "You know, the hysterical laboring woman," says Pascucci. "This is what's so insidious about that thinking. They were asking questions. They were asking for more information." Or, they were saying "no" and being ignored.
We know that birth is a deeply challenging, life-changing experience, and a woman in labor is indeed vulnerable. Birth itself is a physical trauma, and it should go without saying that no one should add to that pain with violence or threats. Yet in reading these women's accounts, it's clear that violence and threats can still occur. Of course, it's not irrational to feel overwhelmed while giving birth. "But, what's the appropriate response?" asks Pascucci. "It's to talk to them, and comfort them, and support them," she concludes. "Not to tell them, 'shut up or we'll knock you out.'"