Assessing Interactions Between Culture & Choice
[Editor's note: This is a guest contribution about the concurrent session at the Normal Labour & Birth International Research Conference titled Assessing Interactions Between Culture and Choice. Priscilla Hall (a second year PhD student at Emory University Woodruff School of Nursing), Esther Shoemaker (a first year PhD student in the Population Health program at the University of Ottawa), and Kathrin Stoll (doctoral fellow at the Centre for Rural Health Research) each presented their research. - AMR]
Thank you Amy and readers for allowing me the great opportunity of contributing my conference analysis to Science & Sensibility.
At no other conference has choosing between concurrent sessions been so difficult. However, from the moment the schedule was posted some weeks ago I knew there was one I had to attend. Assessing Interactions Between Culture & Choice focused on today’s generation of mothers and what shapes their perceptions, experience and consequently choices about birth.
Generation Y women are today’s young mothers and will make up the bulk of midwives’ clients in the approaching years. What shapes their perspectives on pregnancy and birth? And how will their expectations impact the way they choose to give birth?
Demographics and Influences
Generation Y is loosely made up of adults born between the mid 1980s and the mid 1990s In the conference session, we reflected on what influences this generation of women:
1. This generation is extremely comfortable with technology, having craved the “toys that make the noise” including Nintendo/Sega/Xbox game consoles, mini laptops and iPods. The toys of this generation often involve one-on-one interactions with a computer rather than a friend.
2. The “Audit Society” (Power 1997) is the norm for this generation. The 1980s saw an explosion of auditing activity in UK and American society. Teachers chart performance and activities of students, employees audited their own activities for their employers and health workers began recording up to the minute activities of their patients and one another.
3. To this generation “the most desirable women aren’t women at all – they’re girls.” The womanly shape, once held in esteem by the Greeks all the way up to pre-Twiggy models is seen as overweight to this generation. Smaller frames, straight figures and other pre-pubescent qualities are idealized by Generation Y women (or at least the media they consume). Not ironically, Gen Y has also been referred to as the Peter Pan Generation.
The first two in this hardly exhaustive list of predictors can help to explain how medicalized birth is quickly being assumed as the norm by today’s women. (And as Dr. Eugene Declercq of Boston University pointed out over lunch, the majority of U.S. women are satisfied with their maternity care.) In fact, as UBC doctoral candidate Esther Shoemaker points out from her mixed methods research of young women and new mothers, “Natural” birth to them does not equal “Normal” to us. Natural birth, to most of the women in her study, is synonymous with vaginal birth. Even if labor was induced, an epidural administered or forceps used, the women who gave birth vaginally experienced their birth as natural. I have witnessed this in my own Generation Y peer group of young mothers.
Further, the majority of those Shoemaker interviewed desired a vaginal birth in their antepartum interview, but also voiced an ambivalence about whether or not they actually would give birth that way when the time came. “If something happens I of course will have a c-section.” Oddly enough, perception of safety was not mentioned but the women said they would default to whatever their individual practitioner suggested.
In some cases reported, the practitioner suggested procedures to the Shoemaker participants that increased the degree of medicalized beyond what they expected for their birth. When this occurred, each of the participants changed their plans for their second birth. They either embraced the medical model completely or rejected the medical model in favor of a physiologic birth. So while they were ambivalent or passive first time mothers, they actively created their birth plans for subsequent children. The finding has important implications for today’s mothers as this was true for all Shoemakers’ participant’s whose birth experience was more medicalized than her birth expectation.
Intriguing findings in the studies:
1. Birth, to this generation, is, as UBC scholar Kathrin Stoll points out, a normal physiological process (71%), inherently risky and filled with “unavoidable complications” which necessitate technological interventions.
2. Of the women Stoll interviewed, 70% worried about how they and/or their partners would perceive their bodies during and after pregnancy.
3. According to Shoemaker, who studied what happened in subsequent births among women whose first births were more medicalized than expected, one of two extremes were common. The women would either fully embrace the medical model (e.g., plan a c-section with all the bells and whistles) or she planned to birth at home with no interventions.
The findings of this session’s speakers are all interesting and important for us as midwives, childbirth educators, and activists. When shaping our message about normal birth it is important to meet women where they are, use their language and respect their experience of the world and their bodies. How will we “market” normal birth as we are privileged to know it to the coming mothers?
About Katie Fulmer:
Like many of you, I have birth on the brain and care deeply about the health and wellbeing of our mommas. I am currently a student midwife with Illysa Foster, author of Professional Ethics in Midwifery Practice. My academic focus was Medical Anthropology as an undergrad at the University of Texas in Austin and I look forward to continuing my study of maternity and child care at the PhD level.