straight talk with Sheila

From her web site: Sheila
Sheila Kitzinger campaigns for women to have the information they need to make choices about childbirth. She is a strong believer in the benefits of home birth for women who are not at especially high risk. Sheila is also concerned to give a voice to pregnant women and new mothers in prison and has worked to free them from chains during birth, to keep mothers and babies together unless a woman can be shown to be a danger to her baby, and to provide woman-to-woman help to prisoners during birth.

Here’s what been said about her in the press…
Sheila Kitzinger has devoted her working life to making women feel good about themselves. As Britain’s premier earth mother she, more than anyone, has been responsible for a more natural approach to childbirth and an increase in breastfeeding. – You Magazine

High priestess of the childbirth movement, author and social anthropologist. Vigorous campaigner for rights of women in matters of birth and sex. – The Independent

Sheila Kitzinger is a tireless advocate for mothers around the world. She has written close to 30 books on the subjects of childbirth, mothering, and other women’s issues. I was thrilled when she agreed to answer a few questions via email! I hope you enjoy my interview with her.

1. In “Birth over 35” (Sheldon Press) you write, “For the vast majority of women, physical health and a sense of well-being during pregnancy is nothing to do with how often they visit the doctor, but with the social conditions in which they live.”

What social conditions are present today that cause you to be concerned for pregnant women?
What social conditions are most important for mother and child and what can we do as a society to foster them?

Poverty, poor nutrition, living under stress, social discrimination and racism and, above all, warfare, create the social conditions in which pregnant women and their babies are subjected to special risk. Health in pregnancy, for all women everywhere, entails challenging social inequality and working to create a world at peace. It means addressing political issues.*

2. It seems to me that there is a lot of fear, especially in Western cultures, surrounding childbirth. You have traveled around the world and have studied the birthing traditions in many places.
What do you think has brought so much fear into Western society when it comes to childbirth?
What can we learn from other cultures in their approaches and traditions when it comes to childbirth?

In a technocratic birth culture every pregnancy is treated as high risk. Women are constantly under surveillance, and it is difficult to relax and enjoy being pregnant. Pregnancy and birth are managed by professionals and women feel that they have been sucked into a machine over which they have no control, and as if they were artefacts on a conveyor belt. Emotional and spiritual aspects of birth are trivialised or ignored. In traditional cultures beliefs, values and relationships are considered vital elements in bringing new life into the world.

3. I’ve been reading about your latest book, “Birth Crisis” (Taylor and Francis, June 2006) and can’t wait to read it cover to cover. The publisher’s web site description begins: “One new mother in twenty is diagnosed with traumatic stress after childbirth.”
Personally, I think many mothers will nod in agreement when they read that statement…it’s something far too many women feel about their own birthing experiences but are afraid to talk about it.

One of the chapters is titled “Moving Forward” and encourages mothers to write about difficult experiences in childbirth. Can you elaborate on the importance of the simple act of writing down our birthing stories?

Hard as it is to face up to a difficult birth experience, it is important to examine it closely and all the feelings it aroused. So get hold of your records. It is not good enough to be shown the records only to have them whipped away.
How professionals who cared for you saw your labour and birth is likely to be very different from how you remember it.
In my book Birth Crisis I say, “Go through the notes with whoever was your birth
companion and also, if possible, with the midwife. Jot down your observations about any discrepancies and omissions. This will be useful in piecing together your own narrative of the birth. Once you have a framework you can add information about the emotional impact of each event. To really understand any experience it has to be perceived in its entirety and looked at from different angles like a scene being described. The best view of a valley may be from the hills, and of a mountain range from the plane below. An important part of understanding a traumatic birth is creating a narrative that shapes and frames it.”

4. I read an article from the Boston Globe a few weeks ago, where Dr. Darshak Sanghavi examines the choices mothers made regarding pain management in childbirth. (here is the entire article: The Mother Lode of Pain )

Dr. Sanghavi seems to feel as if choosing natural childbirth without medically directed pain relief doesn’t make sense. His article ends with the following quote,
“…choosing to feel pain during childbirth strikes me as odd. Eliminating pain won’t create a sudden existential crisis among mothers, because parenting is too rich an experience. And after all, being born is ultimately the least distinguishing feature of being human; everyone’s done it and, moreover, no one remembers it.”
To me, his final statement flies in the face of everything I’ve come to believe about childbirth. What do you make of his thoughts?

I think Dr Darshak Sanghavi hasn’t a clue. Anyway, the important thing is that the experience of childbirth affects how you are as a parent and your relationship with the baby. Women who have been disempowered, and for whom birth felt like rape, start out on motherhood with little self-confidence, and often feel they must act out the part of being a mother like a robot.

5. What will happen if we don’t begin to heal the current Birth Crisis we are in?
What can we do to bring about the change that’s needed?

Our children inherit our distress even when we try to disguise it. It can shape how they see the world, their place in it, and their relationships as they grow and become adults. The challenge is to reclaim and rehumanise birth and the experiences of all those who share in it.
Ways of achieving this must include creating maternity services based on one woman – one midwife, midwife-run birth centres, and a genuine opportunity of home birth for those women who want it. The language of choice in childbirth is meaningless unless it includes these options.

To find out more about Sheila’s work and books, please visit her website:

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