During a conversation which I had with Nadine Edwards while updating Birthing Your Placenta, I was reminded of something which I talk about in workshops a lot, but which I don’t think I have ever written about, and that is the usefulness of one particular sentence. It is useful for almost anyone who cares about the decision-making autonomy of birthing women – which can include partners, family members or friends, midwives, doctors, student midwives, doulas … anyone, in fact, who might be present during labour or birth.
The main reason this sentence is useful is because of something that happens frequently in birth rooms and often feels difficult. Someone suggests something to the woman which you know contradicts something she has written in her birth plan; you suspect she might not really want it, and/or that might not be in her best interests. You may or not be right, of course, but you’ve got the woman’s interests at heart. But the woman is in the middle of labour or birth … maybe she’s feeling vulnerable, or tired, or in pain, or all of the above. She might not feel as able to express her wishes as well as usual, and she might not have even heard the question, or realised its implications. You want to help, but you don’t want to undermine the person who has asked her, and you want to keep a good atmosphere in the room.
What could you say?
Offering such a scenario in workshops often leads to good discussion, because the reality is that, actually, any of those people in the list above can also be the person who makes the suggestion. A few examples of where this kind of situation has arisen from my own experience:
- A midwife or doctor offers an intervention which the student midwife knows the woman doesn’t want, having read the birth plan in her notes. There’s no emergency going on, but the woman is tired and is more likely to comply. The student wants to make sure this is the right decision for the woman.
- Another woman is becoming really tired in late labour. Her doula and partner are encouraging her to get up and dance to some high-energy music. The woman’s midwife knows that she needs to replenish her energy for the pushing stage and thinks she might be better off if she rested on the bed for a while and tried to nap in between surges. She wants to be able to offer rest as an alternative.
- A woman’s mother interrupts her focus to suggest talking to another family member on the phone. The woman’s midwife knows the woman really wants to concentrate on her breathing and wants to help the woman without creating ill feeling or undermining relationships.
- A woman’s partner becomes stressed through tiredness and, when he sees a doctor in the corridor, begins asking her about having some help. The midwife and the woman’s doula don’t think this is necessary, or what the woman wants, and want to bring the woman into the conversation and also let the doctor know that the woman herself is not behind this request.
Now, we could debate each of those examples all day, because they are not at all clear cut. There’s often no right or wrong, just different approaches and a variety of people who all mean well. But in each of these situations and many more, there is one sentence that the concerned person can say to the woman which will help keep the focus on the birthing woman and, often, change the direction of the conversation.
The sentence is: “Is that what you want to do?”
In some situations, the value of the sentence is to draw the woman’s attention to the fact that something is being offered. In others (like with the phone example), it can be helpful because it can feel less confrontational to some people to say no to a direct question from another person (such as ‘is that what you want’) than to say no ‘out of the blue’ to someone making a request. In a couple of the examples above, person A is making an offer that person B isn’t sure the woman will want. By asking the question, person B is simply opening a conversation in a non-confrontational way which reminds the woman that the decision is hers. This can be especially important in situations that could easily become fraught or difficult, for instance where the person making the ‘offer’ is being directive and ‘telling rather than asking’. The question can be asked softly, with concern. The asker can ask in a relatively innocent way, because they are just checking, and the power is more balanced.
If you’ve not tried this before, then I invite you to add it to your toolkit and try it out. Or if you have other useful sentences, then please feel free to share them on here or my facebook page!