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30 November 2017

So when is it OK to mention labour to a pregnant woman?

Labour MP Tulip Siddiq’s reminder that labour hurts was not interpreted positively. 

By glosswitch Glosswitch

I think we can all agree it was an extremely strange thing to say. “Thanks for coming Daisy, hope you have a great birth, because child labour is hard!” Um, OK. I’m glad no one said that to me what I was pregnant (and not only because I’m not called Daisy).

Yet this was how Labour MP Tulip Siddiq ended an interview with Chanel 4’s Alex Thomson, turning to pregnant producer Daisy Ayliffe and proffering a cheery reminder that labour hurts.

What was Siddiq trying to do? Was she simply wishing a Ayliffe well? Or was this, as Thomson has since suggested, an “apparently threatening” comment? Certainly Ayliffe interpreted the comment negatively, suggesting that it demonstrated “the perils of being a pregnant journalist: An MP might use it against you”.

Siddiq’s words came at the end of a tense interview, in which Thomson pressured her about her lack of support for Ahmad bin Quasem, a British-trained barrister in prison in Bangladesh. Siddiq, whose aunt is prime minister of Bangladesh, denied she was in a position to intervene. And then went on to say that weird thing about birth, which has become the only thing anyone remembers.

Siddiq has since apologised to Ayliffe, describing her comments as “an off-hand and ill-judged attempt to deal with what I felt was a hostile situation”. I must confess to having a degree of sympathy here.

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Giving birth is an intense, life-changing, often terrifying experience. The desire to use it as a point of contact with those about to go through it – “I’ve been there, too, and I feel for you” – is understandable. It would not surprise me at all if Siddiq had merely been attempting, however messily, to end a heated exchange on a safer, more sisterly note.

That this was not well received does not surprise me, either. It’s not just the strange phrasing, blending “childbirth” and “labour” to make the altogether more unfortunate “child labour”. It’s that generally, there just isn’t a good way of referring to another woman’s impending hours of potential hell, especially if up until that moment you’ve not been on the friendliest of terms.

If you try to be reassuring by saying actually, it wasn’t all that bad for you, you’re going to sound smug. If you go for the more all-in-this-together approach of admitting, as Siddiq did, that giving birth is HARD, it will seem either that you’re trying to scare your listener or that you’re implying they’re an idiot who can’t have thought this whole thing through.

If you offer advice – from “aromatherapy works wonders” to “take all the drugs you can find” – you will appear interfering and patronising. And if you so much as mention pros and cons relating to vaginal births and cesaerean sections, you will be deemed to be judging all women who experienced one and not the other.

So really it’s better not to say anything. For most of us labour is in any case a great unknown. Birth plans are, as most people come to realise, a grown-up version of letters to Santa, although the latter tends to be more reliable than the stork.

An unfortunate effect of this is that one of the most momentous experiences of a woman’s life can end up being a lonely one. Whether your labour was highly traumatic, utterly exhilarating or a combination of both, it can become a thing you keep to yourself.

Conversations at baby groups tend to offer edited versions of what actually happened, since no one wants to be accused of one-upmumship. You don’t want to be the woman who declares her labour to have been better or worse than everyone else’s. Nor do you want to risk prompting distressing memories in others. You can’t tell by looking who might be suffering from tokophobia – fear of pregnancy and birth – or postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder.

And yet whatever your experience, there might be some small – or not so small – part of you that wants to cry out: “I made a person! An actual human being emerged from my body! I am GOD!” Obviously this vies with the part of you that’s saying “get a bloody grip, that’s how every single person on this planet came into being” (although I tend to let the God part win).

At one stage my partner and I did have the birth notes from my middle son pinned up in the kitchen, mainly because the “delivered by” section had a handwritten “Dad in the car park”. We’ve since covered them up, not least because offering a visitor a Rich Tea while they’re absent-mindedly reading about the state of your vagina soon lost its appeal (“ragged membranes, were they? Oh, and that’ll be two sugars for me”).

So what could Tulip Siddiq have said? Personally, I can easily imagine her thinking having gone along the lines of “this is not going well – bollocks – ooh, pregnancy bump! – opportunity to look human – must say pregnancy thing…” But what? (Bearing in mind there’s always the risk that a person is not in fact pregnant, but has an unusually large stomach. Or a pillow up their jumper.)

To be honest, I’d say she should have just left it. Commenting on an individual’s gestational state is not worth the risk. Not only is a pregnant woman much more than her bump, but there may be some things she neither wants nor needs to think about just yet.