I’d recently given birth to my son via C-section when, as I was trying to change pads, a nurse entered the bathroom. Instinctively, I tried to cover myself up.
“Oh come on,” the nurse said. “We’ve seen it all before.”
She wasn’t wrong. Lots of people had seen me naked that day. I’d lain exposed on a hospital bed while that nurse saw my doctor do a pelvic exam. I’d been wheeled into an operating room and sliced open by my doctor in front of an anesthesiologist, a neonatologist, a nurse, and a medical student. Then, a nurse had helped me learn to breastfeed my newborn — a process that involved being topless and being repeatedly touched.
Yet, in that bathroom on that day, it didn’t matter that she’d seen my body before. I wanted some privacy and I had the right to ask for it.
Looking back at it now, I regret not saying something because let’s be clear: new moms absolutely have the right to expect consent over who gets to see or touch their bodies before, during, and after childbirth.
Of course, speaking up for yourself is hard, especially when you’re surprised, scared, overwhelmed, or in pain. I wish I’d been better prepared so I spoke with Justen Alexander, birth advocate and vice president of the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN), and doulas Jaimie Zaki and Ashley Harrison to get their tips on how to better advocate for ourselves:
Be Prepared Before Going to the Hospital
It’s important that you consider the reality of consent before you go into the hospital. A great way to do that is to get comfortable with the concept of expecting consent from your care provider before you go to the hospital. Initially, I felt kind of silly questioning my doctor’s judgment. After all, she was the one that went to medical school. However, asking questions is a great way to understand what’s happening to you, to make sure you feel comfortable, and to empower you to say no if you want or need to.
“The best thing to do is practice before you get there,” says Justen. “Practice going through the scenarios and even practice in your prenatal visits. The more questions you ask then, the more comfortable you will feel having those discussions in labor.”
It’s important that you prepare ahead of time so that you can feel empowered to question a situation that doesn’t feel right if it does occur while you’re in labor.
Consider a Doula
Doulas can be a great resource, especially if you’re a first-time mom. They can help you get ready for childbirth, answer questions, teach you about laboring positions, and coach you to be a better advocate for yourself and your baby.
Research has suggested that labor support from someone like a doula can help improve labor and delivery outcomes, as well as lower your risk of c-sections or vaginal births with instruments. In addition to a doula, don’t overlook the fact that you can also equip yourself with a birthing team that you can turn to if you have questions at any time. For instance, while you might only be able to have one person in the delivery room with you, that doesn’t mean you can’t have other people on the phone.
Know You Can Always Say “No”
You always have the right to decline any procedure, says Ashley. Obviously you want to do what is best for the baby, but your health matters too. Don’t forget that.
Choose Your Healthcare Team
You have control over who your healthcare team is, and that includes your doctor and the nurses that treat you. Your doctor might not be able to be there during your birth. If that happens and you get a doctor with whom you’re uncomfortable, you can ask for a new one. There’s no guarantee that another is available, but it is your right to ask.
“Many women report seeing red flags during their pregnancy,” Jaimie notes. “But [they] often say, ‘Well, this has been my doctor for 15 years, I can’t switch now.’ Yes, you can.”
“Finding a provider whose practice lines up with your preferences is going to make the biggest difference. Feeling like you’re going into birth on the same team as your provider instead of preparing to fight them can make a world of difference.”
You can also ask to change nurses if a certain nurse makes you uncomfortable.
“Changing nurses is not uncommon,” says Justen. “It might be awkward… but in general, you are not the first person to have told them to leave. What matters is how you’re feeling. It’s your right to switch them out and they have an ethical responsibility to provide respectful care.”
Understand Your Rights After Birth Too
If you’re worried about your rights for any reason, you can talk to a lawyer.
Most offer free consults and the Birth Rights Bar Association can help you one near you that specializes in working with parents. This can be especially helpful if you are worried about hospital policies during the pandemic.
And if you do experience a traumatic birth experience, there are resources that exist to help support you. For instance, counselling or therapy allows you to discuss your birth experience and process what happened. It’s okay to grieve your birth experience and it’s okay to be upset.
There are also support groups, like those offered by ICAN, where you can meet moms with similar experiences.
Finally, if you think your consent was violated, you can file a complaint with your hospital and the hospital has to respond. There are also lawyers that can help you take things to the next step if necessary.
Remember that the biggest priority is that you feel safe, empowered, and respected. If you’re not being made to feel that way, it’s not okay. So while it’s not always easy standing up for yourself in the moment, if you’re prepared, it will be easier.
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