I want to acknowledge from the outset that the story I am about to tell you is based on the epitome of a first-world problem, but I’m not telling you because I want to complain about the problem. I want to use the story to illustrate what I think is an important principle.
Earlier today, I went to a certain supermarket near my house which, as a reward for doing my shopping there and letting it record details of what I buy, gives me a free coffee when I visit. Which is a good marketing tool because, as I toddle around the aisles with my soy latte, I feel loved by the supermarket. Or something like that.
The procuring of my coffee wasn’t quite such a straightforward process today, though. The main coffee machine was being mended, so I couldn’t get coffee from the bakery counter. That was not a problem though, because I am a very regular customer of this supermarket. In fact, CB and I usually get there so early on Saturday mornings that the bakery coffee machine hasn’t yet warmed up so we happen to know that the deli counter can also make free soy lattes. (I did make it clear that this was a first-world problem, right?!)
The coffee problem
“Oh”, I said, smiling very nicely. (I’m always nice to people who make me coffee. If what you want deviates from the norm as much as my half-strength-soy-latte-with-syrup-on-special-occasions-in-fact-please-take-a-good-coffee-and-turn-it-into-a-pudding-thanks coffee does, it’s only fair). “Do you mean you can’t make one today, or has something changed?” I asked. “Because I do get them here normally, so I’m a bit confused.”
I was genuinely trying to understand what the problem was, so that I could solve it and perhaps direct myself to a more appropriate counter in future visits.
“Soy lattes are never made at this counter, so you can’t have got one here in the past”, she replied. “You must be mistaken.”
In two sentences, a minor inconvenience had turned into a blog post!
How do you defend experience?
What do you do when someone tells you that your experience is wrong; that you are mistaken in a belief that you hold about your own experience? On this occasion, I walked away, and my immediate thoughts were not of coffee, but of pregnant women. It is frustrating enough to be told that a service one thinks is available is inaccessible, and I am now thinking more of important services like midwifery-led units and pool rooms rather than unimportant things like complimentary coffee, but it is a particular kind of disempowering to have somebody imply that your memories and/or self-knowledge are incorrect and that their belief or knowledge is more valid than yours.
This happens more often than it should in the maternity services, and it’s not OK.
I remember reading studies by sociologists such as Ann Oakley, who showed how medical professionals (probably inadvertently, and without necessarily realising how disempowering it is to the recipient of such behaviours) sometimes deny women’s personal knowledge. One example that has always stayed in my mind is the doctor who argued with a woman about how many weeks pregnant she was because he mistakenly believed that her medical notes said something different. It is easy and perhaps sometimes inevitable that we take short cuts or get used to authoritative knowledge being held in records or our own professional experiences, but the impact of denying the personal experiences of others can be far more profound than we realise.
My own story had a (completely undeserved) happy ending. The nice man on the customer services desk had overheard the conversation and arranged for an equally nice woman in the cafe to make me a soy latte, promising that he would look into the possibility that there might be a ‘training issue’ worthy of consideration on the deli counter. Which I think was a euphemism for his acknowledgement that it’s not cool to tell people that they’re deluded. If only women who had similar experiences in health and maternity care could always be assured of such prompt and good service…