Empowered Birth is Not In the Eyes of the Beholder

It can be really tempting to make assumptions that certain sets of birth choices are more empowering than others. A common image of ’empowered birth’ often features a birthing woman who, supremely fit and healthy, labours like brave, primal warrior whilst being attended by her ‘sisters’ and a patient, strong partner. This is, indeed, a picture of empowerment which resonates with many of us and it is something to which we aspire. Images of women dressed in hospital gowns, attended by doctors and placed under the bright lights of a typical hospital room are far less appealing to the heart strings.

But, what if empowered birth can actually happen in a hospital gown? What if it’s possible that a birth among ‘sisters’ might feel disempowering? Are we doing women a disservice when we present one version of empowered birth as the only version of empowered birth?

The thing is, no single image will ever universally capture what it is to be empowered in birth because personal empowerment comes from within.

Personal empowerment can definitely be influenced (for better or worse) by a range of external factors. A doula can be a good ‘empowerment coach’, a traditional midwife can facilitate empowerment by simply holding the space, a partner can support empowerment by advocating for you when you cannot do it for yourself…

But, much like birth, the act of becoming empowered, whilst aided by all of these external factors, is essentially a task one must complete alone. This might sound a little scary, and it certainly takes some practice (like any new skill), but don’t let this put you off – learning the art of self-sufficient empowerment gives you the gift of portable power. Once you know what personal empowerment feels like, you can pack it into your birth bag and take it anywhere, regardless of your destination.

For women, this concept of portable power is an important one to understand. You need to know that your birth choices do not automatically empower you. A woman-centred doctor or midwife cannot empower you, a nice, ‘homely’ hospital room cannot empower you and making what is considered by others to be ‘empowered decisions’ does not empower you. And, why not? Because you empower yourself.

For those attending birthing women, we need to remind ourselves of the internal nature of empowerment and the goal of portable power which lies at woman-centred care – just because a woman has made the set of choices which an empowered woman generally makes, this does not mean she is herself empowered. Judging external factors as evidence of a woman’s personal empowerment (or disempowerment) ironically robs the birthing woman of the opportunity to find and define her own power (and thereby become empowered). Why? Because only she alone can empower herself.

Now, in the interests of maintaining my portable power metaphor above, I invite you to pack your bags and take a short trip with me into The Grey Zone.